Director: Mani Ratnam
Writers: Mani Ratnam, Jeyamohan, Kumaravel (Screenplay)
Based On: Kalki Krishnamoorthy's novel
As someone who grew up detesting the blessed souls who claimed “the book was better”, it’s unfortunate to have realised that there will come a day when you have to use the same line, albeit to your own heartbroken self. In hindsight, it appears that reading Kalki’s epic five-part novel running up to the release was a misjudgement given how fresh the images have remained and how big the characters had become. But this was never an eventuality I had not considered. I knew the risks of going into a film knowing almost everything that’s going to happen. I also knew the risk of expecting the film to stick to the structure the book followed, forcing you to wait for the big moments that were rousing, hoping for the film to do the same.
But this was a Mani Ratnam film after all. “Story” is hardly the focus of one’s expectations and it was not like knowing the Mahabharata or the Satyavan Savitri myth lessened the blow Thalapathi (1991) or Roja (1992) left you with. I mean, he’s the dude who made a leaky-roofed loft in Kasimedu look like a boho-chic hipster cafe in Aaytha Ezhuthu (2004). Imagine what he could do with lion-faced ships, 10th century palaces, some of the most beautiful actors in the world and a shipload of money.
Beyond one’s imagination is the least one expects from filmmakers like him and it’s perhaps this weight that has pressed down on a few scenes that did not do more than just efficiently translate text to screen. In a sense, you find yourself going back to an adjective you never imagined using while writing about a Mani Ratnam film. “Straightforward” is the word and you don’t quite understand why the brilliance of the reimagined sequences didn’t extend to the rest of the film.
One such was the ingenious use of AR Rahman’s ‘Chola Chola’, a song that’s easy to picture as a standard-issue victory anthem. Having won a battle that further extends his hold over his kingdom’s norther frontier, prince Aditha Karikalan (Vikram) is dancing with his soldiers, floating in and out of an endless supply of “somras”. Yet the moment is hardly the mirthful celebration of strength and masculinity. In essence, the effect is quite the opposite as the song segues into the maddening eyes of a warrior who’s trying to wash away his bloodstained hands with even more blood. The song behaves like a counterpoint, cheering on the Chola clan even as its crowned prince bleeds under his crown of thorns. His face wears these battle-scars, none as obvious as the one left behind by a broken heart and what follows is a superbly-staged and edited sequence that ends with the defeat of a rival king, but the mood is anything but triumphant. It is brutal, vivid and inescapable like a recurring nightmare that has become much larger as a result of years of regret. Through Vikram’s brilliant monologue, we witness a tragic figure being punished by the same ‘dharma’ he hoped to uphold.
Ravi Varman chooses to shoot this sequence too with the same restless, handheld energy he maintains through most of the first half. Expect when he needs to, either to establish the majesty of these kingdoms or the landscape these people are fighting for, there’s hardly an overuse of wider shots. So when we follow Vandhiyathevan (Karthi) through the crammed streets of Thanjavur or when secret conversations are framed within the palace’s corridors, the camera is constantly shaking as though it’s taking quick breaths along with its subjects. This may at first feel odd given how similar period films love to keep frames static and wide to seduce you with scale. But in Ponniyin Selvan, despite its scale, the idea seems to have been to shoot it with the rough edges of a Latin American film.
Not that Ravi Varman doesn’t get his moments to flex. A gorgeous top angle shot from inside Nandini’s (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) private chamber is impossible to take your eyes away from and so are the many, many shots in the second half set in Ilankai, where’s it as much hell for the characters as it is heaven for us viewers. Yet these feel like b-roll outtakes when we compare them to the scenes featuring the two astonishingly good-looking ladies, Nandini and Kundhavai (Trisha). We discover them through the eyes of Vandhiyathevan, but you need to observe these gorgeous scenes to understand just how much more the film does to elevate the reams of text Kalki writes to describe their beauty. It feels like a matter of fact that entire kingdoms and civilisations would risk everything after being fully seduced by their beauty.
This is a strange feeling because a lot of what you know about these characters isn’t quite earned by the film itself. Except for characters like Aditha Karikalan and Azhwarkadiyan (a delightful Jayaram), it’s the myth of these characters (and hype) that make them larger in our heads than they are in the movie. If one felt the meeting between Nandini and Kundhavai would be the film’s biggest highlight, chances are that you’re going to feel disappointed. Which means that to fully enjoy Ponniyin Selvan is to also fully succumb to this one particular vision of one particular director. This process might take a little long, but once you submit, it gets a lot easier to immerse yourself into its own world rather than the pre-fabricated one you entered the hall with.
On one hand, this might make you feel a tad underwhelmed when it chooses to introduce Ponniyin Selvan (Jayam Ravi, perfectly cast) in full, furious glory rather than the surprisingly understated entry (as a mahout) he gets in the book. But in other instances, these switches result in exhilarating moments like when Kundhavai single-handedly changes the course of history, with one powerful dialogue electrified with legit 10th century swag.
Featuring great performances from everyone, including those who get just a scene or two, Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan 1, builds the world, introduces us to its residents and then leaves us with a clear separation between book and movie. It also helps that there’s little room for traditional mass moments or extensive action scenes just for the sake of it. More than a movie, it leaves you with the feeling that you’ve been on an adventure. It might take a little getting used to but who said travelling back a millennium would be easy?