Director: Mani Ratnam
Writers: Mani Ratnam, Jayamohan, Kumaravel
Cast: Vikram, Karthi, Jayam Ravi, Trisha, Aishwarya Rai, Aishwarya Lekshmi, Sobhita Dhulipala, Jayaram
Based on: Kalki Krishnamurthy's novel
One might’ve imagined Ponniyin Selvan 2 to open with the seas of Lanka, which is thought to have swallowed Chola prince Arulmozhi Varman (Jayam Ravi) and Vanthiyathevan (Karthi) at the end of the first part. But Mani Ratnam isn’t interested in picking up where he left off. The film opens with a water body, but it’s not the vast blue sea that we last saw erupt. A young Nandini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) emerges from the river, and locks eyes with Aditya Karikalan (Vikram).
Mani Ratnam knocks us off balance, opening the sequel to a decorated and buoyant period piece like PS-1 with moving vignettes of raw, unrestrained passion and grief. The scene, which is one of the most spectacularly designed and performed sequences I’ve seen on the big screen, sets the tone for the sequel in just under ten minutes — that it’s grittier, deeper and murkier than you ever imagined.
The residents of Kalki Krishnamoorthy’s universe is densely populated with characters that are so unique that each of them can often be looked at as a hero in their own right — Mani Ratnam tried to follow suit to an extent in Part 1, where we got glimpses that celebrated Vanthiyathevan’s chivalry, Kundavai’s (Trisha) extraordinary wits and Arulmozhi’s humility. But in PS-2, the director is more interested in telling a story of tragedy nestled in the complicated fabric of Nandini and Aditya Karikalan’s dizzying romance. And we can see why because without Nandini, Karikalan and the Veerapandiya-shaped hole in their romance, there is no Ponniyin Selvan. Vikram and Aishwarya Rai make it very difficult for us to look away, making their pain felt with every glance, stolen and piercingly apparent.
But this doesn’t mean that other Chola favourites are forgotten. Kundavai and Vanthiyathevan share a gorgeous moment in the middle of the sea, with the scene written with just the right amount of sauciness to pull us in. Arulmozhi is troubled with images of Oomai Rani when we first see him. His metamorphosis from a permissive young prince to a man who is forced to wield rage to take down enemies is reflected brilliantly in the differences between how Arulmozhi handles a Pandya attacker disguised as a mahout in the first half, and how he handles the Pandyas when a well-wisher is killed later on in the film. Jayam Ravi is brilliant when vulnerable.
If the first film was a vibrant assortment of Chola pride and conflict, the sequel is its darker, grainier cousin. Since Mani introduced much of the film’s characters and their stories in the first part itself, the sequel gives him the time to really ground and humanise his wounded, larger-than-life characters. But since much of our attention stays close with Karikalan and Nandini’s obsession for each other, it makes one wonder if we are really given the chance to look at the other cogs in the wheel. Some of the characters like Vaanathi make their presence felt even with a small flick of an eye of their face. But a few beloved characters such as Poonguzhali and Alwarkadiyan Nambi don’t manage to create the same impact that they did in the first part, but we understand why because PS-2 is the fraught yet fragile Karikalan’s story.
Ravi Varman’s visuals are breathtaking in the film, and Ratnam uses his camera in a characteristic fashion to make us feel depths in our hearts without uttering so much as a word. So, when a bloodied Vanthiyathevan is woken up by water soaked in turmeric, his face is smeared with colours of red and yellow, beautifully signifying the colours of the flags that war against each other in the end. Or when a wide angle shot of a man and a woman placed on opposite ends is skilfully cut with a similar shot, but this time the couple is seen riding on a horse together in smiles.
Since PS-1 established most of the cliffhangers, Mani offers answers to all our questions in PS-2 (sometimes questions that even book lovers didn’t have a proper answer to). The director approaches the ambiguities of the book head-on, making it obvious that this is Mani Ratnam’s take on Kalki’s nuanced world. Book lovers could perhaps be torn over a few creative choices, which might have been born out of a need to simplify narratives.
A lot of effort has been put into making sure the characters stay true to their own selves, something that often gets overlooked in sequels. Jeyamohan and Kumaravel leave no stone unturned with their writing. If there were clever one-liners in the last film, the writers manage the same magic with lines that are underscored with layers of pain and poignancy in the sequel.
Every small detail of a character’s trajectory in the first part returns to haunt us as they get their own forms of closures in a way. A cloud of mist, which was a symbol of valour in the first part, returns ingeniously to signify a person’s ultimate undoing. A beautiful pickup line returns to signify the blossoming of an attraction into love. And a roughly cut montage returns as the last piece of a puzzle that holds up much of Ponniyin Selvan 2.
Finally, the unforgettable world of Ponniyin Selvan 2 is as much Mani Ratnam’s as it is AR Rahman’s. The composer’s generous and intuitive use of songs in the score to drive the story forward is a move that makes the viewing experience a moving multidimensional affair. The incredible use of ‘Veera Raja Veera’ and ‘Chinnanjiru Nilave’ in bits and pieces throughout the film hit us like daggers and is undoubtedly the pinnacle of Ratnam and Rahman’s 30-year collaboration.