Where Does Ponniyin Selvan-2 Rank Among Mani Ratnam’s Films?

Does the director’s adaptation of Kalki Krishnamurthy’s five-part novel count among his weakest films? The Ponniyin Selva films satisfy neither Kalki’s fans nor those looking for the disruptive filmmaking for which Mani Ratnam is known
Where Does Ponniyin Selvan-2 Rank Among Mani Ratnam’s Films?

It might help to begin thinking about Mani Ratnam’s two Ponniyin Selvan films keeping in mind Raavanan (2008), which adapted the mythological epic Ramayana to a contemporary context, greying what seems black and white, fraying what was taut and clear. Like the source text itself, Ratnam set the bulking action of that film — the chase, the journey — in dense forests, a space that author and Ramayana translator Arshia Sattar calls “liminal”, where moral codes of the city do not apply. 

Ratnam’s first act of audacity was to fling the original material aside, and tell a story that made most sense to his moral imagination, his narrative curiosity and capacity. Raagini, the Sita-figure, is played by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. Prithviraj plays her husband, Dev, a police officer who is in blinkered pursuit of a Robin Hood-esque rebel Veera, played by Vikram. Veera is the Ravana-incarnate who kidnaps Raagini. (The film was also simultaneously shot in Hindi, as Raavan, with Rai Bachchan playing Sita, Vikram flipping over and playing the Rama-like police officer, and Abhishek Bachchan as the rebel anti-hero.)

For millennia the Ramayana has produced exegesis and interpretations, rewrites and reformulations, so it does not seem too courageous an act to end the film as Ratnam did, invoking a villainous ambivalence in Rama and lending a soft-hearted edge to Ravana, tapping into what critic Baradwaj Rangan called the “nallavana-kettavana complex” (Is he good? Is he bad?). In Conversations with Mani Ratnam, Ratnam tells Rangan, “In the epic, we gloss over the harsh side of Rama as we are looking at the story from his point of view.” He wanted to readjust the focus, not flip the moral compass; question its solidity, poke what he considered a stone block, hoping to pierce into jelly. 

What interested Ratnam was the relationship between Veera and Raagini. In the first draft of the film, a more linear telling, the “kidnapping” (or “sita-haran”) took place in the interval patch. Ratnam rewrote the script, twisting linear time into a cyclical warp that can be reached through flashbacks, confident that if the Veera-Raagini relationship is what he is after, why delay their meeting for the latter half of the film? Bring it forward. Flash it with magnesium. Let the audience know — this is the story he wants to tell.

This is a lesson he learned from Roja (1992) and Bombay (1995). In both films he reached what he was truly interested in only in the second half — the husband getting kidnapped in snow-capped Kashmir in the former and a child finding himself lost in the flux of a riot in the latter. Efficiency was something Ratnam began to prioritise in his cinematic arsenal — how to get to the heart of the film as quickly as possible. “After all these years, you think you can jump directly to where you want to go,” he tells Rangan. Is it the impatience of ageing? The frustration with building a story before smashing it? With his later films — Kadal (2013), OK Kanmani (2015), Kaatru Veliyidai (2017), and Chekka Chivantha Vaanam (2018) — within the first 20 minutes, you have a sense of diving (as opposed to sinking) into a story, knowing vaguely the contours of the film, with its central crux, its juicy conflict turning itself towards the light.

A still from Bombay (1991)
A still from Bombay (1991)

From Sacred Text to Cinematic Flair  

Raavanan was not the first time Mani Ratnam had taken something sacred and desacralized it with his cinema, which is characterised by his atheism, his stylised vision of motion pictures, his discomfort with tradition, and his appreciation for its aesthetics. For example, in Thalapathi (1991), he took the familiar frame of the Mahabharata, another epic text that casts a shadow over a civilization, and wove it into a contemporary story, blurring out what he considered bluster, dusting the epic till he arrived at what he considered its core, the complicated character of Karna.  

With this history of narrative swaggering, the question of Ponniyin Selvan becomes all the more curious. Ratnam seems too beholden to the source material of Kalki Krishnamurthy’s serialised historical fiction written in the 1950s. On paper, Ratnam seemed like the perfect candidate to deviate from the prescribed, to dim the purists’ frothing, to pare the excesses of historical fiction and stick to the heart of the story — of what struck him as the heart of the story. His film adaptation, unfolding in two dense and breathless parts, however, falters unexpectedly. 

Ponniyin Selvan charts two broad narrative arcs. One is the overarching palace intrigue that keeps the 10th century Chola empire on its feet, with chancellors plotting to topple the sitting emperor and the rival Pandyas conspiring to avenge themselves by burning the Chola dynasty to the ground. On the throne is an ageing Sundara Chola (Prakash Raj), who has appointed as heir his eldest son, the mercurial and heartsick Aditha Karikalan (Vikram). While Aditha Karikalan stays away from the centre of power, choosing instead to expand the empire by fighting wars further north, his younger brother, the serene and regal Arunmozhi Varman (Jayam Ravi) is sent to Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, their sister Kundavai (Trisha) remains with their father in the capital city of Pazhayarai. 

A still from Ponniyin Selvan of Kundavai (left) and Aditha (right)
A still from Ponniyin Selvan of Kundavai (left) and Aditha (right)

That is the larger political story unfolding. Within this, however, there is something more intimate bubbling. Aditha Karikalan’s refusal to come to the Chola capital is rooted in this secondary story that runs parallel to the palace intrigue. As a young man, he fell in love with an orphan, Nandini (Sara Arjun when young, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan when older). He suspects his family is behind her vanishing from his life — she has, in fact, been secretly banished, for how can an orphan be queen of an empire? — and as years pass (fewer in Kalki’s retelling), distance turns heartbreak into resentment. At the height of a bloody war with the Pandyas, Aditha Karikalan storms into a hut that he’s been told houses the Pandyan king, Veerapandian, only to find Nandini cradling a dying Veerapandian. She begs for his life and Aditha Karikalan, fired by bloodlust and rage, beheads the Pandya king in front of Nandini. When Nandini reappears in Aditha Karikalan’s life, she is now effectively his senior, having married one of the Chola elders, Pazhuvettarayar (whom Aditha Karikalan taunts by calling him thatha, or grandfather). Nandini is now a “poisonous snake” and Aditha, the Chola tiger, refuses to be in the same palace as her even when he learns she may be secretly plotting with the Pandyas, because he doesn’t know how he can face her. 

Flitting smoothly between personal and political, as well as the various cities and subplots in Ponniyin Selvan is Vallavaraiyan Vandiyadevan (Karthi). A friend of Aditha Karikalan, Vandiyadevan is tasked with finding out and stalling the brewing conspiracies against the Chola dynasty. This odyssey — one through which his selfless service to the throne is steady, unmoved by propositions for greater power and bribes — gives the first part of Ratnam’s adaptation of Ponniyin Selvan its propulsive force. 

Aishwarya Rai in Ponniyin Selvan 2
Aishwarya Rai in Ponniyin Selvan 2

For the Love of a Love Story

Nandini and Aditha Karikalan have just one scene together in Ponniyin Selvan 1, where he slashes the Pandya king’s head off while a horrified Nandini falls to her knees. Aditha refuses to even utter her name, often using “aval” (she) or invectives like “snake”. Under this acid, you also feel passion bubble over every time Aditha Karikalan or Nandini hears the other person’s name, even if it is peripherally in a conversation. 

Ponniyin Selvan 2 begins with a soaring reminiscing of their childhood romance, beginning with how they met and then were forced to part ways. Here, the film possesses something of a searing heart, where Ratnam’s artistry and his story prop each other up delicately, gorgeously. To begin a film with a mournful cry — how the Ramayana, too, begins — is something Mani Ratnam has mastered, from Nayakan (1987) to Kadal (2013). Films that throw you into an emotional tailspin, setting up the context as a rushed gush of pathos. Rahman’s score lubricates the hopping speed with which Ponniyin Selvan 2 gallops as it begins. 

Ponniyin Selvan 1 began without any such anchoring core. That film was unwilling, and perhaps unable, to sift through the density of characters, contexts and plotlines, so lost in its world that it forgets what it wants to say. Is there any film in living memory where the titular protagonist is only seen more than halfway into it? The pleasures of singular scenes, their stylized intellect, their sparkling charm, were dimmed by the sheer lack of tension holding the scenes together. That tension was the love of Nandini and Aditha Karikalan, and their doomed destiny, which only emerges to the cluttered surface of the film around the interval. 

It is only in the second film that we truly feel the complicated love that girds this animosity. When they speak of each other, there is this yearning. In the end, when Nandini kills Aditha Karikalan — or perhaps he kills himself so that he can die in her arms — Nandini reacts with theatrical despair, knowing fully well that her heart is tugging at her to stop. Aditha dies. Nandini weeps and is swept away by her Pandya collaborators.

Raavanan ends in a similar screech of pain, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s character enabling the death of Vikram’s character. When this death occurs, her eyes flare with both guilt and horror. It is an identical expression, transposed from one film to another, from 10th Century Chozha-nadu to a present-day forested hillscape. 

The Fine Art of Violence

For those whose excitement for these films derived entirely from having read the original books, the dominance of the Nandini-Aditha Karikalan arc is a frustrating narrative call on Ratnam’s part, as though he is reducing a complicated world into a complicated relationship. The novel is crowded with other characters, other intentions, other arcs, which the movie merely hints at, winking towards the knowing audience without really fleshing it into cinema. 

The film leans so insistently on the book, while also leaning so insistently on Mani Ratnam’s disruptive filmography, it is bound to satisfy neither. It throws so many details around, so many characters float to never be used, so many events go unexplained or are explained with such a feeble hand — these are things that would be unforgivable in a film that is not holding onto a source material as a crutch. Similarly, both films have scenes of such stunning flair, such audacious stabs from the Mani Ratnam stable, but scenes which never cohere into a film — another unforgivable trait that holds onto Ratnam’s filmography as a crutch to even be called a film. This much is clear: Both parts of Ponniyin Selvan cannot stand on their own. 

There is always a story to tell after a death — how the characters move on from it, for example, and the larger structural implications of this death. In Raavanan, Ratnam was uninterested in exploring this. The film ends with Rai Bachchan’s half-scream as Veera falls into a valley, hundreds of bullets piercing the air, some hitting his flesh. 

With Ponniyin Selvan, Ratnam had more to say. By picking up Ponniyin Selvan, he picked up a seminal piece of Tamil culture, and it seems that felt the need to round up the drama and seal it by invoking Tamil pride, expressing a cultural chauvinism, even if this is without an intention to indulge it. So we get a trial about who killed Aditha Karikalan, a hasty war, a subverted coronation, and a soaring end-note about Arunmozhi’s conquests abroad. This felt like weightless drama that hangs heavily over the film, which, for me, ended with the death of Aditha Karikalan. There is nothing more to say, except mourn. 

The film that Ratnam makes by continuing to follow the Chola story after Aditha Karikalan’s death is not a film that the director knows how to tell. This is not just because Ponniyin Selvan is the first time Ratnam has waded into history. While it is his first attempt at going beyond the 19th century, Ratnam’s filmography cuts across genres, languages, and time periods; always confidently stylized, always tied to some strain of realism. 

If there’s one thing that comes across as a unifying thread it is his inability to make physical violence sing or sting in the way emotional violence does in the stories he tells. The fights — either hand-to-hand, with spears, swords, or guns — are dull patches to wade through. He will try to shock them with style, like a cinematic CPR. 

In Agni Natchathiram (1988) these sweating moments were, with strobe-light effects, made to froth. (While showing the film at trials, he was told that this strobe-light-like lighting would give the audience a headache; that it would be advisable to axe it or re-shoot.) Even the slow-motion flinging of glass bottles which shatter against windshields as it rains on the beach in Chekka Chivantha Vaanam (2018), the 360-degree camera turn in Raavanan, these all are ways to distract from the violence, because the violence itself is dull. The chase sequence in Kaatru Veliyidai (2017) is shot without any grip, any tension. Cinematographer Ravi Varman’s camera peers at the beauty, and trembles rowdily to express chaos. To create tension through cinema — the camera, the sound, the acting coming together to fester time with existential possibilities — is an art form that Ratnam has not considered worthy of his filmography.

With Ponniyin Selvan he is, naturally, unable to do anything with the violence except show it. These scenes — in water bodies, on land — itch at the film, like an inconvenience. To tell a story of empire, you must also tell a story of the various violences that make empire possible, and so, Ratnam is narratively arm-twisted into populating the landscape with action sequences that hang like the proverbial albatross. Rahman attempts to resuscitate these stretches, scoring patches of it with a rousing war-cry that leaves you quaking in your seat. But when the music retreats, so does the vitality.

Varman epileptically shakes the camera to dizzy us, hoping we would not crave the difference between being struck by awe and being struck by a seizure. Physical violence, too, requires choreography that, like depictions of emotional violence, needs patience, beauty, and an imagination. S.S. Rajamouli, Rohit Shetty, Sukumar, and Prashant Neel have displayed the possibilities of violence. Their filmmaking shows a penchant for making violence cinematic, singular and memorable. Here, violence blurs through the film. Could Ponniyin Selvan rank among Mani Ratnam’s weakest films, one where he renounced what I would consider a directorial imperative — to make the film, as a whole, soar? 

Vikram, Jayam Ravi and Trisha in Ponniyin Selvan
Vikram, Jayam Ravi and Trisha in Ponniyin Selvan

In the End, There is Beauty

This is not to take away from the film the hallmarks of Ratnam’s brilliance which pepper the Ponniyin Selvan films. The faces lit with Varman’s trademarked butter lighting; the eddying of turmeric water with blood oozing from a bludgeoned Vandiyadevan; the conversations framed and blocked distinctly — in motion or seated, using curtains to display interest or disinterest; the collision of boats being shown from under water; a character waiting on the edge of a piece of land jutting into the waters; Kundavai confronting her father about his affair, framing it from above to resemble a chessboard in disarray. There are traces of Ratnam’s other films — from Raavanan to Kannathil Muthamittal (2002) to Kaatru Veliyidai — visible in many of Ponniyin Selvan’s memorable moments. 

Ratnam has a way of sculpting space in a way that reveals characters to the viewer, without feeling staged. For example when Nandini converses with Vandiyadevan, there is a curtain that she plays with while listening to him. Every time he says something of interest the curtain draws wider; every time her interest flags, the curtain seems to close. The next time they speak, she is walking, first towards him, then ahead of him. Her control over the direction of the conversation is simultaneously so present and yet so subtle. It is this kind of attention to being, to space, that lets us know we are in a Ratnam universe. 

Ratnam flexes his confidence by ending pivotal scenes with silence and the visual mic drop of Nandini looking men up and down — Vandiyadevan and the Pallava king — to see the effect she has had over them. There’s also the last shot we have of Kundavai and Vandiyadevan, where she steps forward, looks at him, him looking at her, sealing their affection as sanctified love. To have a director who believes words cannot convey everything and that the posture of a conversation, a flick of an eyebrow, a sigh, are brimming with feeling, is to have a director who revels in the visual possibilities of the cinematic medium. If filmmakers like Robert Bresson and film scholars like Amrit Gangar make a case for cinema as an auditory medium, Ratnam, like Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Achal Mishra, make a case for cinema as a visual medium. And in that sense, Ponniyin Selvan is another assured arrow in his quiver. But that is also my grumble. Ponniyin Selvan is merely another assured arrow in his quiver.  

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