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Ponniyin Selvan Part 1 review: Mani Ratnam fixes and nails the adaptation

This film is directorial kineticism at its finest—with Mani Ratnam marrying visuals, song, dance, costumes and colours to form a spectacle

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in ‘Ponniyin Selvan’
Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in ‘Ponniyin Selvan’

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In Mani Ratnam’s Raavanan (2010), there is a scene with Veera (Vikram) on a coracle that is spinning away in the middle of a stream as he looks at Ragini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), his captive. The scene is kinetic, save for a goddess like Aishwarya Rai Bachchan motionless on land, and gives an inkling of Veera’s shifting attitude towards her. A mind spinning like the very coracle he is on. Mani Ratnam brings that energy, that fidelity to movement and dials it up in his adaptation of Kalki R. Krishnamurthi’s epic Tamil novel Ponniyin Selvan

In the first part of the adaptation—PS-1—we get the same Vikram as Aditha Karikalan, the crown prince of the Chola dynasty, in similar trauma. The cause is his love and heartbreak, first and last, weighed down by an incident with colossal implications for the ruling dynasty. In PS-1, Karikalan narrates this monologue in a moment of fury and fragility. But Ravi Varman, the cinematographer, films it with a camera that simply refuses to settle down. It jumps around like a child on a trampoline, it shoots up and goes sideways, drops down to a low angle and zooms in just a little before backing up as if terrified of Karikalan’s outburst. Vikram too delivers it like a soliloquy, dense in his enunciation but stifled in his heart with A.R Rahman providing a pulsating score. Vikram emerges from the fog in his introduction. Just as the kingdom and its future is enveloped in fog largely due to his one act.

The first half of PS-1 brings this aggressive, lively energy to every frame. The conspiratorial nature of the events in Kadamboor place is punctuated by Devaralan Aattam, a show that has the tones and chants reminiscent of a whisper network presaging future events. Mani’s interpretation of our hero Vallavaraiyan Vanthiyathevan’s (Karthi) journey through the Chola kingdom (a territory unfamiliar to him) is to impart a breathlessness to the narrative. The camera rarely remains static in the film, it is either making swift moves or gradual changes in perspective from one character to another. A parkour chase takes us through the breadth and depth of the Thanjavur fort. 

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This is also Mani Ratnam’s most colourful film in a long time. Nandini is drenched in an array of colours and so is her hall in the palace. A blood-soaked red, orange, and black dominate Devaralan Aattam and a spectral riot informs the first encounter between Vanthiyathevan, Kundavai (Trisha) and Vaanathi (Sobhita Dhulipala)—Ratchasa Maamaney is a temple drama staged like a street play with Vaanathi as Krishna. This is directorial kineticism at its finest—marrying visuals, song, dance, costumes, and colours to form a spectacle. Vaanathi and Vanthiyathevan remain suspended in air and work like trapeze artists to elevate the tension within the characters. 

And surely, what Karthi is wearing is an inspired version of the war attire in Kagemusha’s dream sequence? There is substantial influence of both Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985) throughout PS 1. Part 1 is a highlight reel of Vanthiyathevan’s passage bookended by music, lyrics and his flirtatious humour, a recipe that works for this film. It establishes the stakes and there is no doubt it is epic in scale with the palace intrigue within earshot. But the film is also grounded in a non-fantastical space that is exactly right for a historical fiction. PS-1 keeps the mass moments to a minimum, only the introductions of three main leads contain war and fight sequences; this stylistic approach keeps us curious till the end.

It is no surprise that this director loves his actors’ faces and he is always trying his tricks with them. We see Rai’s Nandini for the first time when Vanthiyathevan accosts her palanquin. She opens the curtain just enough for Vanthiyathevan and us to get a look at one half of her face. That is enough for both the hero and the audience to fall in thrall. Even the reverse shot gives us only the other half. In addition to establishing Nandini’s influence over people around her, it also gives us a peek into the larger secret about her character. Naturally, the film uses mirrors and often wide-angle close ups or medium shots in her presence. She just towers over every frame. And when she and Vanthiyathevan are in a scene, she glows under a halo—a limelight moth—specially placed for her. 

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In contrast, things are foggy around Aditha Karikalan. Ravi Varman offers no light over the crown prince, going for dark clouds in the background or in complete darkness with sharp chiaroscuro. A scene between Kundavai and Karikalan has a long shot where Kundavai appears taller than him in darkness and when we move to a better lit closeup, he towers over her. 

Putting Kalki’s novel on screen has been a dream for many filmmakers—from M.G. Ramachandran to Kamal Haasan and Mani Ratnam. After more than fifty years of remounting and shelving, it is finally here in the form of a great adapted screenplay by Mani Ratnam, Elango Kumaravel and Jeyamohan. The novel has its weaknesses—it is flat for large stretches, too many coincidences and convenient accidental encounters between characters. The writers here not only condense the novel but also sharpen the rough edges, fix the plotting, and dramatise the meetings in a neat linear structure. 

The energy from the cinematography, background score and sound as well as Karthi and Vikram’s standout performances make it one of the best Tamil films of the year so far. People from Tamil Nadu know the novel inside out and therefore spoiler is a non-entity. And yet, the first part ends with a slight change to the events in the novel. A change that is at the heart of the incident that gives the novel and by extension the film its title—Ponniyin Selvan. One inspired take in a film brimming with a hundred.

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