How do you tell a story of a grand succession, a complicated web of conspiracies, warring kingdoms, deep-seated revenge, and damning secrets? It’s a template we have seen often, and in Ponniyin Selvan 2 — now streaming on Amazon Prime Video — all of these elements come together to conclude Mani Ratnam’s duology. And while the grandness of PS-2 is built by its intricate plot, elaborate sets and costumes, and complex characters, it is elevated by its intimate moments, brought to life by Ravi Varman’s brilliant cinematography.
The camera angles, lighting, and staging of scenes and characters in PS-2 tell a story of their own. And while there are some stunning shots of the final battle — the swarm of Shivan Adiyars witnessing Madurantakan’s self-coronation, the interval break fight scene, and the climactic coronation — the most powerful scenes and shots are often the most intimate. They are conversations and confrontations between characters, solitary musings, and wordless exchanges, captured with breathtaking grandiosity.
A beautiful example is the scene where the three siblings - Aditha Karikalan (Vikram), Kundavai (Trisha Krishnan), and Arulmozhi Varman (Jayam Ravi) reunite. The love and affection between these three have been evident since the last movie, that we almost forget that until then, we have never seen them all in one place (Kundavai and Karikalan meet once in PS-1). When Aditha Karikalan embraces his younger siblings, there’s relief, love, and also a certain sadness in his eyes, the knowledge that he has inadvertently been the cause of all their troubles. There’s so much said in actions and glances, the love between them palpable as the siblings have a moment of peace away from the political turmoil. It’s also a statement of sorts, that establishes the siblings as a team, without having to spell out their regard for each other. The three main characters are framed in a way that the camera focuses on all of them at once, their differing temperaments established and captured in one wonderful shot. It acts as almost the thesis of the film, which ultimately explores personal relationships and decisions, set against the backdrop of a game of politics and power.
Throughout the film, close-ups play a huge role in setting up this grand intimacy. Characters look the camera in the eye, the viewer is privy to every subtle emotion on their face. Their eyes speak of their pain, vulnerability, anger, and grace - a direct dialogue that almost breaks the fourth wall. One of my favourite shots in the movie is of Arulmozhi Varman getting ready to step out of his safe haven in the monastery, armed with the knowledge that Pandya rebels have infiltrated the community. His eyes are bright, confident in his plan, and a half-smile curls on his lips, as he looks at the viewer as if to say “I got this.” It’s the same way he looks at Vanthiyadevan (Karthi) in the next scene after defeating the Pandya assassin with his elephant, with the nonverbal exchange between the men offering a satisfying end to an exhilarating scene.
Closeups are also utilised in baring characters’ vulnerability to us. In the scene where Vanthiyadevan is brought in front of the King (Prakash Raj), with the accusation of having murdered Aditha Karikalan, his eyes are lifeless, his face pale. In contrast, whenever we look at Nandini (Aishwarya Rai) that closely, there’s a myriad of emotions on her face, attributed to her surroundings and circumstances. When we see her at the beginning of the movie, as she manipulates Parthibendran Pallavan (Vikram Prabhu) in a dance of seduction and wit, she is often obstructed by the curtains, a beauty within reach yet unattainable. But when we get to see her, in a beautiful closeup, there is a smugness on her face, having succeeded in her mission.
In a scene with the Pandya rebels, she faces the camera, her back to her companions, as she proclaims with the same smugness that Karikalan will visit Kadambur because she is the one who invited him. But her face, only visible to the viewer, says something different. There's determination, but there’s also resignation, her red eyes showcase an anger mixed with the painful knowledge of the consequences of her actions.
Nandini is often framed this way, facing away from those around her. Even the young Nandini, in the bittersweet sequence that opens the film, is involved in a playful game of love with the young Aditha Karikalan, her smile coy, indulgent, and knowing as she waits for her lover. It sets up and establishes their relationship so well that when they meet again, we look for tell-tale signs of the young love, that has now turned destructive.
In the scene where the lovers meet for the last time, they engage in a very different game — this time with a sword decorated with the Pandyan symbol. We see Nandini through Karikalan’s eyes, as he gazes at her through the carvings of the wall, his eyes following her movements, his eyes carrying an anticipation that he shouldn’t feel. In a scene that is almost a mockery of the shyness of the first love, their hands almost touch as they reach for the sword, the camera lingering on the hesitation, and the slight tremors.
It is not only the most intimately shot scene in the film — the reunion of former lovers, crackling with sexual tension, hatred, and pain - but is also its grandest. It draws the viewer into an exchange that feels almost private to witness, the voyeuristic closeness of the camera making us forget that like us, there are other characters watching this all go down. Both characters stand face to face, inches apart, and the camera stays with them, uncaring of its surroundings just like the lovers.
The room is lit by oil lamps, an ironic romantic light enveloping the duo. But Karikalan snuffs them away as he decides his fate, and urges Nandini to kill him. Suddenly they are clothed in darkness, and we only see glimpses of their faces; the urgent hands, the anguish in Nandini’s face, and Aditha’s surrender, all gone in a flash of lightning.
Similar to the above scene, lighting is utilised well throughout the movie to create a sense of intimacy in scenes that are vital to the plot. The palaces, although grand, are often ill-lit. We spend a lot of time in the tunnels, as rebels and conspirators frequent the dark crevices and turn it into hideouts. The secret meetings that eventually decide the succession of the Chola empire happen in darkness, and when Karikalan invades it, he is surrounded by conspirators in an almost claustrophobic circle. Characters are singled out in corridors, like the scene where Kundavai and the Queen meet Arulmozhi and Vanathi (Sobhita Dulipala), a soft light crowning them in what seems like a simple domestic moment, instead of a meeting between royals.
Some of the intimate moments also feel languid, a breath of fresh air from the otherwise plot-heavy movie. A scene that immediately comes to mind is the one that Vanthiyadevan and Kundavai share. The location of the little island is perfect — the scene feels a little isolated, yet not unnecessary or dull. There’s a playfulness in this romance, which is highlighted by the softness of the lighting. The camera follows the lovers closely, until it lets them breathe, and zooms out, the moment allowed to remain private. In a way, this scene is a juxtaposition to the Karikalan and Nandhini one, even down to the swordplay, which now has a completely different outcome.
In a lot of ways, PS-2 is a very “personal” epic, even more than its predecessor. While not compromising on the intricate plot or the promise of a beloved literary classic, the movie is able to reimagine the familiar grandeur that we have come to expect in historical epics. By visualising intimate moments and scenes with the grandness of an opera, and by breathing intimacy into crucial scenes, Ravi Varman’s cinematography and Mani Ratnam’s vision walk the fine line between the personal and the public.