Ponniyin Selvan: I opens with Aditha Karikalan (Vikram) winning a battle at Rashtrakuta. He captures the king, circles around him, and then spares his life (a loser's life is worse than a glorious death). A few scenes later, Vallavaraiyan Vanthiyathevan (Karthi) wins another type of battle involving an argument between two people. Like in that previous scene at Rashtrakuta, Vallavaraiyan rides his horse in a circular path around the main action before emerging as a winner. This Mani Ratnam movie is packed with such visually exciting and symmetrical moments that even if you are lost in its intricacies of power, you can immerse yourself in the images.
Since this is the first of two parts, the movie takes its time to establish the main action, characters, and locations and it uses Vallavaraiyan for this task. He moves from one place to another, and through him, we learn about this world. Besides functioning as a traveler/guide/fighter, Vallavaraiyan gets to flirt with the gorgeous women of PS: I. Best. Job. Ever.
One look at the female characters is enough to understand why Vallavaraiyan is smitten with everyone. There is Nandini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), who uses her beauty as a manipulative weapon. When she first meets Vallavaraiyan, her face is slightly covered by her palanquin's curtain. This tells us that she is hiding something dark beneath her shiny exterior. In another scene with Vallavaraiyan, the light falls on Nandini's face in such a way that it seems to emanate from her face itself. Then there is Kundavai (Trisha), whose face exudes so much goodness and warmth that she looks like a paragon of virtue and pureness. And how can one forget Poonguzhali (Aishwarya Lekshmi)? As she emerges from the water, she reminds one of a mermaid with terrible, seductive powers.
Mani Ratnam has an eye for creating cinematic shots and images, which is what makes his PS: I so breathtaking to look at. He dives deep into a scene and brings to the foreground its very essence. If the characters are plotting something, the frame is shrouded in wickedness (the meeting between the ministers is infused with dim, dark lights and colors as if they are giving birth to corruption). If the characters are flirting, a sense of liveliness emanates from the scene. The dialogues elevate this quality. Consider when Nandini says, "Do not let the treasures there tempt you." To which Vallavaraiyan replies, "I stand before a shining diamond." PS: I consists of magnificent fight sequences. Your eyes always know where to look and are able to follow the action. These scenes have a highly charged atmosphere, and the director brings out the primal rage of men fighting these battles. The women, too, cross swords, but they do so with their tongues. Notice the scene between Nandini and Kundavai when the two initially come face-to-face at Thanjavur. They use words to attack and defend themselves. I have rarely seen a fight as vicious and graceful as this one.
The film isn't without its flaws. The song and dance scenes in PS: I feel repetitious. There is one when Vallavaraiyan goes to a fortress and another when he meets Kundavai. Even Aditha drowns in and copes with his past through song and dance. These sequences are well-choreographed, but having one for each occasion makes them appear like a formula. You can't help but feel that Mani Ratnam filmed these portions because he merely wanted to do grand song sequences. There is nothing wrong with his intentions, but it all reeks of extravagance. This impulse of adding more beauty to an already beautiful creation can sometimes result in an overkill. The perfect illustration of this can be found in the climax. Vallavaraiyan mentions that water will become his grave. And so it's not enough that the final fight scene takes place on the water. The movie inserts black clouds, rain, and fire to drive in the sense of danger. The action becomes hard to follow, making it the weakest scene in the film.
With that said, it's hard to write off PS: I as a whole. For all its flaws, the film is visually engaging and moves with a poetic rhythm.