Ponniyin Selvan: II is the most time-efficient 164-minute film you’re likely to see. Apart from a few necessary backward glances, nothing distracts from the serene forward march of narrative. The constant purr of the engine is something to behold (the editor is A. Sreekar Prasad), as is the committment to pristine image-making, but I wished at times Mani Ratnam would pause and take in the 10th century air. The first film leavened its court intrigue with glimpses of everyday life in the Chola empire. But in the sequel, everything is primed to drive plot, even the musical sequences. A Ratnam-Rahman film with not one song for song’s sake: is this the future we asked for?
The Cholas are coming—in a bit. The first film ended with prince Arunmozhi (Jayam Ravi) drowning somewhere off the Lankan coast along with merry warrior Vallavaraiyan (Karthi). Crown prince Aditha Karikalan (Vikram) is on his way to the homestead to confront Nandini (Aishwarya Rai), his former flame who’s secretly plotting with the Pandyas. King Sundara (Prakash Raj) and princess Kundavai (Trisha) are distraught to hear Arunmozhi has perished, unaware that he was saved in the nick of time by a mysterious gray-haired woman who looks exactly like Nandini. The chieftains have banded behind Madhurantakan (Rahman), the royal siblings’ cousin who was passed over for the throne. The Pallava and Rashtrakuta kingdoms want in too. Did I mention the angry Shaivites?
Keeping all this straight is a task, and the breathless pace doesn't help (the film offers a quick recap, though you should probably brush up on your Vaanathis and Poonguzhalis). As with the first film, Vallavaraiyan is the thread that binds the stories, turning up at just the right time to fight, sweet-talk or be dense—sometimes all three. Karthi was a highlight of the first film, visibly enjoying himself in a display of charm and lightness in a genre that’s tended towards gruff manliness in recent times. But PS:I allowed him room to roam and to clown about with his horse and comical Vishnu devotee Nambi (Jayaram). Though his smile and his swagger are intact, Vallavaraiyan’s on a tight schedule in PS:II.
The burgeoning romance between Kundavai and Vallavaraiyan is boiled down to a solitary scene. Blindfolded and hands tied, he stands on an islet as she playfully interrogates him. She frees his bonds but keeps his blindfold on as she points his sword at him. He grips the blade at the tip, then a little further up, and further until he’s made his way up her arm. The camera creeps closer too, until we’re right up against the couple. A.R. Rahman’s score is bouncy, playful. It’s a perfect little love scene.
A very different kind of love story is smouldering between Nandini and Karikalan, who ended PS-I by declaring that he’d either kill her or be killed by her. It’s a potent match: Rai unflappably regal, Vikram brusque and agitated. Whenever Vikram has a big scene, the camera starts circling him in (deliberately) ungainly fashion. This works for scenes like the one where Karikalan, atop a restless horse, delivers a mocking speech to a coalition of rebels. But in a pivotal scene with him and Rai, the constantly moving frame is more a distraction than a mirror of either character’s mental state.
Few directors shoot green fields and forests and water like Ratnam (working here with Ravi Varman). PS:II is exquisite to look at, a different sort of visual grandeur to the muscular Baahubali films and the inch-perfect designs of the Bhansali historicals. Nature even finds a way indoors; one of my favourite scenes is Arunmozhi fighting off a group of assassins against a backdrop of looming flora. The other fights are serviceable—Ratnam isn’t, never has been, a great director of combat. The comparison to make is not with Rajamouli but another master of the period epic, Zhang Yimou. Both he and Ratnam have a taste for tragic romance and achingly beautiful frames, but Ratnam’s action scenes have none of the painterly ambition of Hero or House of Flying Daggers.
I wasn’t thrilled with the way the film ends—even the extras look confused when the new ruler is announced. Of course, there’s actual history to reckon with, and Kalki’s source novel. Still, it reminded me of Bran being crowned at the end of Game of Thrones—after all that struggle, this guy? If Ponniyin Selvan: II doesn’t stick the landing, it does build on PS:I’s strengths: actor-driven, genuinely curious about history, with a softer touch and less strident politics than most period epics. And in the 25th year of Dil Se, who can resist Ratnam casually recreating one of its most famous shots?