Ponniyin Selvan: I

For those of you who are absolutely alien to Ponniyin Selvan, let me tell you two things. The language of the movie is pretty hard, and the character pool is huge. I am saying this because I was unfortunate to see this movie with an audience who came for the film as if to watch a Vikram starrer, Baahubali. Coming to the cinema, Ponniyin Selvan from Mani Ratnam is unique as it approaches the period drama template in a considerably fresh way. It is a two-part movie with a cliffhanger ending, and the purpose of the first part is to familiarize the world to the audience. In that aspect, Ponniyin Selvan: I succeeded in delivering what it promised.

The plot revolves around the Chola dynasty. Sundara Cholan is the current king, and his sons Aditha Karikalan and Arulmozhi Varman are warriors. Both of them are fighting wars and expanding the kingdom. While all this is happening, there is unrest within the empire over power, and conspiracies are happening to grab power after Sundara Cholan’s rule. The conspiracy, the counteraction against it, and the real reason behind all that is what we see in Ponniyin Selvan: I.

I have not tried to read Kalki Krishnamurthy’s Ponniyin Selvan as I wanted to explore the story through the film. In Part 1 itself, one can sense the presence of so many intricate character equations. Mani Ratnam knows that the drama holds the key here rather than the grandeur. Thus, there is rarely a scene that is there to showcase the production design of the film. The film opens with a war sequence, and Ravi Varman is practically in the middle of the battlefield, capturing the action. Even in showing the conversational dynamic between characters, Mani Ratnam opts for a rather practical way of showing moments. There is a scene in which Sarathkumar’s Pazhuvettaraiyar screams in anger, and the servant character, played by Vinodhini Vaidyanathan, moves away out of fear. It may not be a big deal, but usually, filmmakers won’t even include that servant character in the frame. The anger looked a lot more natural with that character in the frame, and there are many more areas in the movie where Mani Ratnam tried to tweak the existing mold in a similar way.

In terms of screen time and scope to perform, it was Karthi who got the significant chunk of the scenes, and I must say that his portrayal of this cocky character helped the movie a lot in being entertaining. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan plays the crucial role of Nandini in this epic, and her arresting screen presence makes her the perfect choice for a story like this, where her character’s vengeance plays a key role. Jayam Ravi as the title protagonist, aka Arulmozhi Varman, has that grace in his performance that I have not seen in any of his other performances. Vikram, as Aditha Karikalan, has relatively lesser space in the film, but his portrayal had the intensity to make us root for his feelings for Nandini. Trisha, as Kundavai, also has that elegance in her performance. Kundavai is an intelligent character who takes care of her brothers in their absence, and Trisha’s confidence adds believability to that character.

As the comic relief, Jayaram was really memorable, and his chemistry with Karthi on screen was terrific. Aishwarya Lekshmi plays the role of Poonguzhali convincingly. R Parthiban and R Sarathkumar are there as a conspiracy duo. Shobita Dhulipala, Prakash Raj, Prabhu, Vikram Prabhu, and several others are there in the elaborate star cast.

As I already said, there is an intent to question the current way of depicting period epics in Mani Ratnam’s filmmaking style. It’s a movie with a budget of 500 crores, and yet there is perhaps only one aerial shot of a battlefield, that too with dead bodies. If you prefer craft over grandeur, I think Ponniyin Selvan: I will really impress the cinephile in you. The only negative I felt about the movie was the way it established the characters in the film. This is one content that could have easily been a grand series, where we will get that breathing space to know the family tree. But since it is a movie format, you will lose track of many things if you dare to attend a call or reply to a message while watching this film. With that twist, which you get to see at the tail end of the movie, the revenge that drives the plot brings an exciting dimension.

Ravi Varman has stayed away from his usual picture-perfect approach toward frames. The camera is mainly in that hand-held position, and the movie reserves those beauty-shots for the key moments of the film that demands your absolute attention. Sreekar Prasad had done a terrific job in making the movie absorbing for its runtime of 167 minutes. The only area that felt a bit tiring was the climax fight, but somewhere you get a feeling that a tiresomeness was required to give that set piece some significance. More than the songs, the background score from AR Rahman elevated the drama in the scenes. Since there is no obsession with being a spectacle, the visual effects never really stood out. The only major set piece is the ship fight, and there wasn’t any moment where it felt cartoonish. Thota Tharani’s production design also tries to be authentic rather than picturesque.

When you backtrack Ponniyin Selvan: I, it manages to make you connect the dots and understand characters in a better way. And the whole power politics you see in the film somewhere stays with you. The attempt to break away from the usualness of period dramas needs to be lauded here.

Tip: If you are planning to watch this epic, going through character posters and trailers will be a good prep method.

Final Thoughts

When you backtrack Ponniyin Selvan: I, it manages to make you connect the dots and understand characters in a better way. And the whole power politics you see in the film somewhere stays with you.


Green: Recommended Content

Orange: The In-Between Ones

Red: Not Recommended


By Aswin Bharadwaj

Founder and editor of Lensmen Reviews.