All the women in Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan - 1 (PS-1) are finely textured, complicated characters, much more so than the men who tend to operate in the usual noble-swashbuckling–ambitious spectrum. Imperious, magnificent and bedecked with silk and jewels, the women are the real stars of the film. Unlike the men who betray few signs of an inner life, the aristocratic Nandini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) and Princess Kundavai (Trisha) are as complex as the jewellery they wear. However, the woman I found most interesting is the boatwoman Poonguzhali (Aishwarya Lekshmi), a working class woman who stands out amid the princesses and aristocrats. A character who wears almost no precious metal or stone on her, and does not get billing in the trailer (despite playing a supporting but noteworthy role in the original, bestselling books by Kalki).
When the kingly messenger Vanthiyathevan (played delightfully by Karthi) flirts with Poonguzhali in the middle of the ocean, she swats him away by brandishing her large fish-cutting knife at him, but with a trace of a smile. We see her expertly dock her sizeable boat, pulling it over sand and securing it with rope. We register how smitten she is by the younger Chola prince Arulmozhi Varman (Jayam Ravi) when he asks her to give him safe passage for an important journey. Here is a professionally competent woman who frequently receives male attention — a combination that is usually a recipe for comical haughtiness if seen in women in mainstream Hindi films.
“Khud ko kya samajhti hain, itna akadti hai? (What does she think of herself? She’s so arrogant),” Akshay Kumar sang in his first blockbuster. This is, in fact, the default tone for all leading women who say no to a man in a Hindi film. But Poonguzhali is comfortable acknowledging her weakness for a man who may well be above her station; that too in the presence of Vanthiyathevan whom she rejected. It takes a certain confidence doing this, doesn’t it?
All the women in PS-1 are working women, but Poonguzhali is the one we see labouring. The aristocrats are hard-nosed political strategists. They also have terrific sexual confidence and self-assurance, yet they still feel human. Take the enigmatic, sexual Nandini, married to a much older man who is a celebrated general in the Chola army. When Vanthiyathevan flirts with her, she flirts back imperiously, like a superstar being nice to a fan. When she wants to offer a piece of advice to her husband, who is repeated cautioned against her promiscuity and told not to trust her, she asks him to unclasp her necklace and open her jewellery--a intimate gesture of undressing, using her sexual allure to soften him up. Then there is a brief wordless scene where we see her look hungrily at the throne, used twice in the film to great effect. Although the throne-gazing is in line with her Lady Macbeth-like persona, it is also a moment of weakness. She should have been the rightful queen to that throne, her gaze says, evoking the hurt that has gathered over the years. I have not read Kalki’s novel and I do not know if such a moment occurs in the book, but it is perfect for cinema — a wordless, brief, glimpse into the interior of a character.
There’s princess Kundavai, played by Trisha. We see she’s a smooth operator in politics where she walks confidently into a clandestine meeting of high-ranking courtiers and breaks it up by distracting them with a different kind of power play. Her two brothers, princes of and heirs to the Chola empire, are unmarried, she says, before asking after the daughters of the men who have gathered to install a new king. But we also see a shadow fall on her face when she meets the same powerful men in her father’s court, promising to do his bidding. Sharp as she is, she is worried that her move may not pay off after all. There’s also a lovely scene with Vanthiyathevan, who flirts with her as he does with every woman he encounters on his travels. Kundavai first verifies his references, then issues instructions for an assignment; but all through, she can’t help suppress a smile at his relentless charm. She is attracted to this flamboyant young man and doesn’t mind showing it, even if she is a powerful princess.
Vanathi, played by Sobhita Dhulipala. is a small player in PS-1, but she’s established as a friend and assistant of Kundavai, and the daughter of a powerful general in the Chola army. We first encounter her, performing a raucous theatrical dance where she encounters Vanthiyathevan unexpectedly, but doesn’t miss a step on stage. Later, we see her asking him to take a letter to her lover, the younger heir to the Chola throne, clearly taking the initiative although it is a man’s role to do so. Another competent, confident woman. Another woman of status and marvellous jewels.
We do come across similar imposing women in most period dramas set in kingdoms in pre-modern India, in Hindi and in the Telugu language blockbuster Baahubali films. Think of Manikarnika (2019), Bajirao Mastani (2015), Padmaavat (2018), Jodhaa Akbar (2008), Razia Sultan (1983), Mughal-E-Azam (1960). Of Deepika Padukone as Mastani and Padmavati, Kangana Ranaut as Manikarnika, Priyanka Chopra as Kashibai, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as Jodhaa, Hema Malini as Razia. Like the women in PS-1, these women tend to stride rather than walk, keep their chins raised, their backs straight, their jaws tightened—that queenly body language and confidence that actors summon up for period pieces. They too are also political and assertive, in a way that heroines in films set in contemporary period are often not (and this is especially true of popular Hindi cinema). They also wear terrific jewellery, but sometimes they do not, like the widowed mother of the ruler in Bajirao Mastani, played by Tanvi Azmi. Most of these women are in fact queens or princesses. Tamannah Bhatia’s Avantika in Baahubali is the exception—a commoner, a young woman subject training to be a revolutionary—but her fiery character dissipates after the romance with the prince in waiting, Shivuddu.
But a non-leading female character, who is given the depth and panache that a working class character like Poonghuzhali? Compare her to Jhalkari Bai, the character played by Ankita Lokhande in Manikarnika, who belongs to what looks like an agrarian-pastoral community and becomes beholden to Rani of Jhansi when she rescues a calf stolen from their community. Thereafter, she becomes something akin to a loyal servant of the queen. Jhalkari Bai is said to have been a terrific warrior who helped give cover to the Rani of Jhansi. How much of her do you remember? Or the maid who accompanies Padukone’s Mastani when she follows Ranveer Singh’s Bajirao to his kingdom. Do we see her after a couple of scenes? There is a homo-erotic song in Razia Sultan that has come back into circulation in recent years with the LGBTQIA movement gaining momentum. A ballad performed with great charm by the late Parveen Babi, who plays a maid to the queen Razia Sultan, singing to her in bed. Despite this promise, if you watch the film (it’s on Youtube), all that there is to Khakun is her undying loyalty to the queen.
You may suggest Madhubala in Mughal-E-Azam, that dancer who dared to declare her love to the emperor in-waiting before a gathered court. And you would be right. Madhubala’s Anarkali is a courtesan, a working class woman, the sort of woman with whom emperors are forbidden to take as their queens. There is still one difference with Poonguzhali though—Madhubala’s Anarkali is the leading woman in Mughal-E-Azam. Aishwarya Lekshmi’s Poonguzhali is, at least in PS-1, at best a supporting role.
In an earlier essay, I have written about how women in recent Hindi films rarely have work identities or indeed any identity outside of their romantic interests. A blue-collar working woman like Poonguzhali is almost non-existent in today’s Hindi film, unless the film is set in a working class background—say, Chandni Bar (2001) or Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022). The working class is overwhelmingly viewed as the maid or servant class in the Hindi film (I wrote about this in another essay). Remember Laxmikant Berde as Salman Khan’s shadow in more than one Sooraj Barjatya film? More recently, think of Thappad (2020)—a film that makes space for the “maid” played by Geetika Vidya Ohlyan, though the portrayal of the domestic violence in her home is given an off-putting, comic treatment. There are exceptions, but they are exceptions.
Minor changes were made after this column was initially published, in order to remove inaccuracies from the descriptions of scenes from PS-1.