Ponniyan Selvan-1: As Ambitious As It Can Be

I abandoned the search of the English version of Kalki’s blockbuster 5-part book series ‘Ponniyan Selvan’ when I heard that the movie is being made by Maniratnam. What more can I ask for when my favourite director is at the helm of making it. The trailer released, and I was impressed by it. It seemed to pack many characters and complex political drama surrounding it. I was also glad that it was not presented as a visual wonder that is often set as a standard for period films.

However, when I first pitched the idea of going to this movie, titled as PS-1, I didn’t receive a favourable response from my Telugu family and friends. This is often not the case, as there is normally some sense of interest to go to the movies, especially those with their favourite leading cast – Vikram, Karthi, Trisha, and Aishwarya Rai. For me the name Maniratnam alone is enough, and the cast and crew are a bonus. Later I gather that the title played spoilsport for this apathy. The title doesn’t give the context for Telugu speaking audience, especially when they have never heard of Kalki’s novel or the characters in it. Maniratnam’s Telugu dubbed versions normally get a relevant Telugu name, but not in this case perhaps for rightful reasons to stay true to the novel. The only enthusiastic response came from my son, who somehow found an analogy of the movie title with his PlayStation PS-4. I booked for Telugu version of the movie.

A friend sent me a cheat sheet with the family tree of the movie characters along with their actors photos. I resisted looking at it, for I was afraid that it might reveal some story that could spoil my movie watching experience.

The first ten minutes of the movie sets the context well, as was given away by the online reviews and critics. Aditya karikalan (Vikram), the Chola prince sends his comrade/friend Vanthiyathevan (Karthi) to find out the conspiracy brewing within his own Chola clan and meet his sister Kundavai (Trisha) to give her an update. Vanthiyathevan embarks on this journey. We get introduced to the character Nambi (Jayaram) who seemed a proud vaishnavite beating a shaivite with a stick, followed by Vanthiyathevan’ s rebuke that both the gods are equal. What was the reason to show this sectarian conflict of that period? Was that a subterfuge from Maniratnam’ s liberal mindset to say all Gods are the same, I wonder, especially when this scene has no bearings on further proceedings through the movie.
This is followed by a beautifully composed and choreographed devaralam attam (God’s dance) song. Post this scene, many characters come too fast, especially during the main reveal of the conspiracy that Vanthiyathevan embarked to find out. I realise at this point this movie deserves much more attention – I keep my popcorn aside as it’s crunching intervenes my concentration. Too many characters is one thing, and some names they bear (along with the aliases) are hard to register especially to the non-Tamil speaking audience. There was a mention of the name ‘Aditya’ by a character. My wife pokes me on my shoulder and whispers ‘who is Aditya’?. I say it is Karikalan, the elder son of Sundara Chola. At another instance, my son pokes on my other shoulder and whispers “who is Ponniyan Selvan?” I tell him that it is Arulmozhi Varman (Jayam Ravi), the younger son of Sundara Chola. He opens his mouth again, but I shh him anticipating his next question for which I don’t have an answer.
The introduction of leading ladies Kundavai (Trisha) and Nandini (Aishwarya Rai) are certainly high points. Kundavai is a woman of wit and her every word seem measured and delivered. In one instance, she dismisses the plans of formidable Pedda Pazhuvettaraiyar (Sarath Kumar) and Chinna Pazhuvettaraiyar (Parthipan) with quick repartee. The theatre applauds, and I say keep coming. Nandini, wife of an old man Pazhuvettaraiyar has a conniving presence, and seem to have multiple histories easily making up 3-4 subplots.
I also see characters of Vaanathi (Shobhita) and Poonguzhil (Aishwarya Lekshmi), and wonder who they are, and why are they not introduced properly.
Arulmozhi’ s character wins a war and shows humility and respect deserving the movie title. There is also a mystique element to the story – an old character ‘mooga rani’ saves Arulmozhi from an ambush. Her face isn’t shown at this point, but my wife exclaims she sees Aishwarya Rai (how did I miss that dual-role?). The movie ends on a decent cliff hanger, not the kind where we speculate ‘why did Kattappa kill Bahubali?’

Ponniyan Selvan is a great political thriller, my favourite genre, and engaged us completely. Every character seemed to have a backstory and motivation, and knowing that would have brought in a sense of empathy towards those characters. It could also be challenging to understand the movie for anyone going with a clean slate, thereby begs a little preparation to understand the world of Cholas. Even after watching the movie I still don’t know who some of those characters are, and I wonder if this story is better suited for a web series than a two part movie. I have to take the same approach as that of Christopher Nolan’s movies and watch the movie once again to understand the subtext and the breadth of the characters.
Karthi as Vanthiyathevan is the real hero with devilish charm. Vikram, though has limited screen time, excelled in a banter with Trisha reflecting on his love interest.

The technical aspects are great – who am I to pass a verdict about the technicalities when the master storyteller himself is supported by such a formidable crew and actors. The locations, costumes, and the visual appeal was great and stay true to its setting. AR Rahman’s background score and songs, as beautiful they are, appealed little more modern than the story’s set up. The screenplay is highly abridged from the novel, and could have given a little more space for audience to grasp the proceedings. The direction itself, as ambitious as it can be, mounts this movie at the right scale. I am now all prepared to fully experience the second part (cheat sheet, here I come).