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
It’s the intimacy of Ponniyin Selvan 2 that is likely to be remembered for longer than its many stretches of spectacle or grandeur. Right from the start, which opens with a detailed flashback that takes us to young Nandini and Adhita Karikalan, we’re reminded that the stakes may be high with the fate of an entire kingdom left hanging, but the priority is always to address deeply personal matters of the heart. The cliffhanger at the end of the first film might not have been a shocking endpoint but the new film takes its own time to get back there because it wants to be rooted in the individual politics of its characters before it reaches the larger politics of the State.
If the first film only had so much room to go into the specifics of these relationships, given how we first needed to be introduced to these characters, PS2 thrives on the collective affection/resentment we now feel for them. This gives rise to a series of parallels in the new film which eclipse similar moments from the first. This could be something light and playful like the many times Vandhiyathevan (Karthi) runs into Alwarkkadiyan (a hilarious Jayaram) in the weirdest of places or the absolute joy of romance when Vandhiyathevan meets Kundavai (delightful Trisha) again, this time in a tiny heart-shaped islet (their first meeting was on water too and Vandhiyathevan’s face is covered on both occasions).
Yet this feeling of familiarity does not fully prepare you for the impact these characters leave you with at the end of the film. The full extent of this is only felt when you analyse the whirlwind of emotions as we go through the many stages of Nandini’s (Aishwarya Rai) complex relationship with Adhita Karikalan (Vikram). At first, we may not have understood their respective heartbreaks and the madness it has led them to, yet the novel’s two most fascinating characters get their full arc and the sort of closure befitting two lovers constantly separated by fate. In fact, the soul of PS2 is dependant so much on this relationship that we feel a void whenever we switch to another chapter or when the focus shifts to other people.
What makes PS2 a special film is how we’re always accepting of these characters for who they are as regular people, devoid of the stature their positions come with. Instead of constantly placing them at a pedestal as royalty or as warriors with their lives at stake, the film is capable of showing us a side to them that other films of this scale rarely get to. This is perhaps why the best scene in the film has nothing to do with the kingdom, a throne or an army. It is simply the most private of moments inside a small room within a monastery in which three siblings simply hug (the choreography of this intimate moment is exquisite). It is when this moment hits you that you realise how we’ve invested close to two full films before these siblings finally get to meet and Rahman’s music in this stretch, with a hint of melancholy, also suggests how there may not be another moment such as this.
This is also what makes it exciting to observe how the first film was so different in spirit from PS2. If the highlight of the first film included brilliant scenes such as the one in which Kundavai dismantles an entire conspiracy with one clever tactic, the second film dwells on the vulnerabilities of the same individuals, none of whom are at their tactical best. Kundavai fails as a tactician, the same way in which Vandhiyathevan fails as a protector; Nandini fails in her mission much like how Karikalan remains a slave to his past.
All of these complexities lead us to a terrific character study rather than just remain a visual spectacle (Ravi Varman’s cinematography is expectedly unforgettable) meant to display splendour. When these larger-than-life moments click into place, like a thrilling action block that involves Karthi stumbling down a tall bamboo structure, there is a lot of fun to be had. But for the most part, it is these action set pieces that remain underwhelming later on when the complex conflicts need to be set aside for the resolutions. This is felt strongest in a long stretch that follows a major scene involving Karikalan and Nandini. Without a moment to pause, and with so many major events that happen one after another, this major battle rushes us into a space that is not just emotionally draining but also flat as an action sequence.
The smooth flow of events in the first half and the complexity of an entire machinery working against the three siblings get diluted as the film rushes past major events later on in the film. A shocking revelation involving Sundara Chola (Prakash Raj) and another significant character does not leave you with a moment to reflect. If you’ve read the novels and have lived with these characters for days, you feel you deserve a second to fully absorb the gravity of this information. And if you’re discovering this detail afresh, the film’s pace is such that it remains a mere twist without giving us the space to place it in context and the impact it has on other characters.
But with long stretches of intense interpersonal drama before that, the second film takes us into deeper spaces that remain constantly engaging and consistently rewarding. And even if we find the film moving towards a need to impress with its brute force, it has already given us moments of sensitivity that will remain with us long after the battles. Who else but Mani Ratnam to redefine the term ‘epic’ to mean the hugeness of one’s emotions than the hugeness of budget.