This is Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan. Kalki Krishnamurthy’s story is intact within it, although the sheer quantity of its twists and turns sometimes threatens to dull the bright, shimmering glow of the film by weighing it down with exposition. Whether you go to the theater for Kalki or Mani Ratnam, it is the Mani magic you wish lingers on screen for a little bit more. Because it is the most visually sumptuous, formally captivating rendition of an epic since Thalapathi in 1991.
If you are unfamiliar with the novel, what you need to know is that Ponniyin Selvan is more of a political thriller than it is a historical epic. Its fundamental appeal, despite the wonderful historical detail contained within it, is that of political intrigue. What keeps you gripped, unlike with say Baahubali or Game of Thrones, is not the question of what will happen next, but why these enigmatic characters choose to act as they do. The premise is typical of the question-of-succession tale.
The grand Chozha monarch, Sundara Chozha is ill, his eldest son and heir-apparent, Aditya Karikaaludu (Vikram) is embroiled in a series of sieges to expand the northern frontier of the kingdom, while his youngest son Arunmozhi, the eponymous Ponniyin Selvan (Which means Son of Cauvery) wages war in the South on the island of Lanka. Defeated Pandiyan royalty, along with some who are masquerading as loyalists have their own ideas about who should take the throne.
Yet, unbeknownst to most, it is the women in Ponniyin Selvan who are running the game — the monarch’s politically astute daughter Kundavai (Trisha) and the mysterious new wife of the King’s dubious loyalist, Periya Pazhuvettraraiyar, Nandhini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan). Reading the novel in anticipation of the film, I was surprised by how central its women are for a novel written in the Fifties — more so than in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. The men in the story are knights, bishops, rooks, and pawns. But Kundavai and Nandhini are the players.
The most immediate influence in its opening battle scene, one will realise, is not Rajamouli or Peter Jackson, but Kurosawa. For Kurosawa, war was awesome, but in the old sense of the word — not a joyous thing, but one that struck you by how terrible and tragic it can be while being beautiful. In the Kurosawean epic, there was a poetry in the motion of the horse-mounted cavalry, and yet, the brutality of the violence inflicted when sword struck flesh, when horses trampled helpless men, was always tragic. Think of the writhing, fallen horses at the end of Kagemusha (1980). Or the lamenting old man who wanders a battlefield littered with corpses in 1985 film Ran ( In Rajamouli’s films, this tragic dimension is missing. They are, in his mythological vision—inevitable, dharmic sacrifices after all, their blood-soaked corpses hardly matter once the war ends.)
In a central scene before the intermission, Ratnam pays a direct visual homage to Kurosawa’s masterpiece Ran—in a streak of blood spilled on a white cloth. Here, Aditya Karikaaludu is not a hero for waging war—rather war is an addiction, something he wants to lose himself in. In this character from the novel, Mani Ratnam finds a vessel for the tragic existentialism of Kurosawa’s men, and reveals his heart to us in a way that is strikingly similar to the way Tamizhselvan’s was at the end of Iruvar (Ratnam's 1997 film).
Like Kurosawa, Mani Ratnam does most things in-camera and on set, with very little, apparent VFX (The old Japanese maestro did not have the luxury, of course). This means his frames are richer than most recent Indian historical and fantasy films. Sometimes they are richer because they are grimier. The palaces and chambers where its royal characters reside are marvels of texture and translucence brought alive by shafts of light. And yet, what makes the Mani Ratnam signature stand out is the intimacy of the scenes—how the art direction, production design, and cinematography (Ravi Varman) are in service of a directorial vision that is alchemising them to reveal something about characters' relationships to one another, to emphasise the way these women have the men trapped by their beauty, charm, and intelligence, and yet are themselves literally trapped in gilded cages by the patriarchal monarchical system.
After a long time, the Mani Ratnam-Rahman song is precisely that—not a Rahman song that has been picturised somewhat adequately (and sometimes not even that) by a former high priest of art. 'Raatchasa Maavaya' is a wonderful substitute for the scene in which Vandhiyathevan (Karthi) meets Kundavai (Trisha) in the novel. The changes in the adaptation reveal a filmmaker that knows the differences between the two mediums—that a great scene in the book will not necessarily translate to a great scene on film. Instead, there is an audacious theatricality reminiscent of Kurosawa’s evocation of Noh theater that permeates the visuals.
This textural quality permeates the film—from its retention of the Shaivaite-Vaishnavite conflict that forms the background of the novel, to its depiction of Buddhism and Sinhala royalty. To the depiction of Kalki’s evocation of the period, there is the sort of attention that Peter Jackson showered upon the Tolkien books. And yet, there is also the Mani-Ratnam spark in the way its characters flirt with and court each other.
The cast, despite any doubts that might have risen after the announcement, is perfect. Trisha Krishnan, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Chiyaan Vikram, Jayam Ravi, Prakash Raj and Jayaram (whose Nambi is wonderfully voiced by Thanikella Bharani in the Telugu version) are all great, but it is Karthi as Vallavaraiyan Vandhiyathevan, the functional protagonist of this story through whom we discover its world, that gives the standout performance—his whimsical tomfoolery reminiscent of NTR in Paathala Bhairavi (1951).
This isn’t a perfect film—its third act suffers from convolutions that it inherits from adapting a novel full of twists and turns—but it is the most thrilling reminder of Mani Ratnam’s fundamental powers—his unmatched ability to arrange a match between the arthouse and the commercial (much like the frontiersmen of 70’s “New Hollywood”) The Telugu dub is done with care and attention, but audiences unfamiliar with the novel will be confused with the long names and the number of characters. (Maybe quickly reading some of this abridged version by GC Mouli online will help) Importantly, this isn’t a Rajamouli film—we’ve already had the pleasure of one this year—this is a different beast from another filmmaker we’ve loved for a long time. It gives me great pleasure to bring to you the scroll that reveals that Fort Madras Talkies is still unassailable.