For All its Beauty and Dense Plotting, Ponniyin Selvan 1 Feels Incomplete

Mani Ratnam’s magnum opus stars Vikram, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Jayam Ravi, Karthi, Trisha
For All its Beauty and Dense Plotting, Ponniyin Selvan 1 Feels Incomplete

In a 1994 interview with Filmfare, Mani Ratnam said that adapting the freedom fighter and writer Kalki Krishnamurthy’s five-part, epic historical fiction Ponniyin Selvan, was his “dream project”. He had worked on a draft with the actor Kamal Haasan in mind. But he soon recognised he couldn’t muster up the budget, and it would be impossible to recover the costs given the scale of the narrative. When the interviewer asked him why not make it for a national audience by making it in Hindi, Ratnam immediately rejected that idea. If Ponniyin Selvan must be made, it must be in Tamizh.

It is 2022 and, after a failed attempt at reviving the film in the early 2010s, the first part is finally here. Which is to say, the myth of Ponniyin Selvan 1 (PS-1) — the grand rooting of Tamizh culture in a historical moment — is finally here. I wish a film just as compelling as the myth, too, had come.

We are in 10th-century Chozha Nadu. The Chozha siblings — Vikram as the brooding Aditha Karikalan, Jayam Ravi playing a pensive Arulmozhi Varman, and Trisha as the strategic Kundavai — need to come together to protect the throne which is in danger. To be intense, to be intelligent, to be idyllic — the ideal traits of a ruler have been slashed and given to three separate figures. The problem with this is that each character is just that: A receptacle for a personality trait, rather than a rounded personality.

Both the men are on their own journeys of territorial expansion. Aditha Karikalan is vanquishing Pandyas and Arulmozhi Varman in Sri Lanka. Kundavai is trying to get all of them back with her dignity, her tact, so they can stand together to protect the throne. She sends a messenger to Sri Lanka.

The messenger is Vandhiyathevan (Karthi), a close friend of Aditha Karikalan, who is both the thread that connects the diverse strands in the film and, along with a pot-bellied spy, played by Jayaram, the comic reprieve in this largely solemn story. We see Vandhiyathevan travel through Chozha lands, A.R. Rahman’s burst of energy, “Ponni Nadhi”, playing. Cinematographer Ravi Varman, who makes daylight look like molten butter, provokes us with beauty. There are lush shots of the Cauvery river — or at least I hope that is the Cauvery — swelling with Rahman’s music; one of the most poignant moments of the film.

PS-1 is certainly an interesting historical film, in that it treats history as though it was contemporary. Unlike the historical films we have seen, there is no burden to have a message, to draw cultural capital from that past moment, to solidify any present bias. This world unfolds casually with Thotta Tharani’s production design. The walls of monuments look aged and cracked. Onions, turmeric pods, buttermilk, and bangles are sold in markets. It is as though the 10th century is our contemporary.

But a cinematic world is not just a backdrop, it is a minefield of character progression where a character is allowed to change or challenge their beliefs. Ratnam has shown us this in so many of his previous films. In Mouna Ragam (1986), Divya (Revathi) falls in love with her Tamil husband in the foreign city of Delhi with its wide streets and sharp corners, after jilting him. Raavanan (2010) locates Ragini’s (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) change of heart in the lush verdant forests. In Kaatru Veliyidai (2017), VC (Karthi) is allowed to confront his violent personality and reform himself through a wandering loneliness. Mumbai’s public culture allows the lovers of OK Kanmani (2015) to come into their own and express love. With his last film, Chekka Chivantha Vaanam (2018), Ratnam experimented with an inert background against which a thrilling chase takes place, with characters like cardboard pin-ups. It worked because the events snowballed in tension, in momentum, in threats, in stakes. These are all worlds that creep into the lives of the characters. But in PS 1, Ratnam seems disinterested in showing any change of heart and it is not for the want of time because the narrative unravels languidly over two hours and 50 minutes.

Let me just put this out there. The problem with reviewing PS-1 is twofold. You feel like you are reviewing one-half of a film. The climax is not an end as much as a promise, and how do you review a promise? The other problem is that it is extremely difficult to not be clouded by the cultural context of the film. It is blinding.

A story like Ponniyin Selvan is so mythical, its emotive reach so deeply cultural that you are seduced by its world, its implications, and your imagination. But a world, bursting with action, is not the same as a world bursting with emotions. It is important to separate the mythical greatness of the story, the noise around it, from the story itself and see it for what it is. PS 1 plays out as though burdened by its myth. People watching it are watching it play out parallel to their images from the book, its descriptions.

For someone, like me, who hasn’t read the novels, the events of the film feel suspended, without any of the propulsive energy that carried over from the novels. With Thalapathi (1991) and Raavanan, Mani Ratnam was having fun with the epics, confident in his reinterpretation. With Guru (2007) and Iruvar (1997), his twisting of Tamizh Nadu politics or charting of the odd, meteoric spike of fortune (that marked unmistakable similarities with Dhirubhai Ambani’s story) was burnished and bloodied. However, when Ratnam holds Kalki’s text with so much reverence, something resembling a limitation emerges.

Adapted by Ratnam, Elango Kumaravel and B. Jeyamohan, PS-1 is crowded with a density of events, perspectives, conspiracies, and counter-conspiracies. Every frame is overflowing with possibilities. There is so much going on and an impatience to move on — every scene has within it embedded the next scene. No character is allowed the latitude to develop feelings and a personality. They seem cast in stone. These regal, hurt, tranquil people just are, they never become. So, for example we see Aditha Karikalan is changed by love, made bitter by its loss. But we don’t get to see the change, we only see him rage loudly over it. Is that enough to feel?

This heaving, forward-looking motion can get exhausting, because as much as a scene must lead to the next, it must also stand on its own. Even the music is filmed with this rushed energy, which was why, perhaps, the music videos were not released to promote the film. Because there was none of that awe and stillness that we have come to associate with Ratnam’s musical gaze.

That calm instead, is located in the beauty of Nandini, played by Aiswharya Rai Bachchan, the chief antagonist of this film, a former lover of Aditha Karikalan, whose love soured into vengefulness. She is filmed with such lush lighting, such soft music, even the gold borders on her saris seem as though lit from within, their jewelry bursting sheets of gold light at us, at their faces. Every time she appears on screen, the film, as though allowing you to breathe, paused for beauty. This is the Ratnam that I grew to love, a director whose cinema showed that beauty, that style, that silhouettes, if shot with a compelling and innovative eye, if staged with inventiveness, can be enough. It is why films like Raavanan, Kaatru Veliyidai, and Kadal (2013) have the following they do despite being commercial failures at the time of their release.

The problem is that Nandini seems to be the only one inflected with complexity, and the film allows her eyes to express this complexity. Even after a scene is over, the dialogues delivered, the camera lingers on her face. She twitches her eyebrows, she widens her eyes, she looks you up and down. You are never inside her mind, but are grateful for hints of it. The emotional tumult of her story is hinted at here, but again. How do you review a hint?

It also makes it impossible to think of her the way we could about a Ratnam heroine. So much of her cinematic reach is shrouded in mystery, so much of her gaze is vacant and multi-hued, there is only this perfumed ether that we can latch onto. For a director who has spent time trying to explain the intention of his protagonists, why they do what they do, why they feel what they feel (Divya in Mouna Ragam and Tara in OK Kanmani being against marriage, for example) this two-part format dulls the appetite.

Like Kadal, Ponniyin Selvan 1 too, ends on the rough seas. It is a thing Ratnam does. He isn’t the most articulate director when it comes to action, and so he tries to concoct the adrenaline of a pummel by shaking things around the action. In Mouna Ragam, for example, he had people run and rush right in front of the camera so it felt like rapid cuts. In Agni Natchathiram (1988), it was the silhouettes of the boxers cutting the backlight. In Chekka Chivantha Vanam, it was the slow-motion rain, the flinging of bottles that reflected and refracted light. The action itself is unremarkable. It is the staging of it where the adrenaline is located. So, here, with cinematographer Ravi Varman’s rapid cuts, Sreekar Prasad’s bullet-like edit, the rough CGI seas, or the sooty battlefields where clouds of dust look like mist, Ratnam is able to concoct something resembling awe, resembling adrenaline. But there is only so much a quaking camera, a frenetic edit can do.

After the third, the fourth, the fifth bloodbath, I only yearned for something more tender to pull all of this together. All I got, instead, was the promise of a sequel.

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