Ponniyin Selvan review: Palace intrigue and the power struggle

Kalki’s book gets Mani Ratnam’s royal cinematic touch but lacks powerful storytelling

Ponniyin selvan Ponniyin Selvan movie poster via Facebook

Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan has finally hit the screens with much fanfare. Mani Ratnam’s dream film PS 1 has given a royal treatment encapsulating every emotion — friendship, love, romance, valour, conspiracy and treachery— that brought down the Chola dynasty.  

Sundara Chozhan’s health is failing thus necessitating the need for a new king to the throne. He decides to crown his elder son Aditha Karikalan, while his daughter Kundavai feels her younger brother and Sundara Chozhan’s second son Arunmozhi Varman will be the best to be the king. But Sundara Chozhan’s nephew, Mathuranthaka Chozhan (played by Rahman) comes in the race backed by the empire’s finance minister Pazhuvettarayar. What happens and who wins the throne is the story.  

The movie opens with a comet appearing in the sky and Kamal Hassan’s stern voice says it’s a bringer of bad omen and demands the blood of a king. The film then moves to Aditha Karikalan, played by Vikram and Valavarayan Vanthiyathevan, played by Karthi, waging a war near the banks of the Veeranarayanapuram lake. As they emerge victorious Karikalan sends Vanthiyathevan as a messenger to find out what happens at Kadambur Sambuvarayar palace, based on a tip-off. He also asks Vanthiyathevan, his friend to meet his father Sundara Chozha (played by Prakash Raj) in Thanjavur and also his younger sister Kundavai Devi (played by Trisha Krishnan) at Pazhaiyarai near Thanjavur. On the way, he meets senior Pazhuvettarayar (played by Sarathkumar), his wife the most beautiful Nandhini (played by Aishwarya Rai), his brother, junior Pazhuvettarayar (played by Parthiban) and later Ponniyin Selvan (played by Jayam Ravi).  

Mani Ratnam has taken up a huge responsibility on his shoulders— a story which MGR, Shivaji Ganesan, Rajinikanth and Kamal Hassan and many others wanted to bring on screen. No wonder, he got in a wonderful casting who have given their best. The ace director has adapted the novel completely. Like Kalki, Mani Ratnam too had told the story through Vanthiyathevan, the places he visits, the people he meets and unravels the plot slowly capturing the first three parts of the book in PS 1.   

While Kalki would have taken most of the chapters explaining the characters and their looks, it came easy for the director. VFX stands out and Mani Ratnam doesn’t make it an usual period film like SS Rajamouli’s Baahubali. Ravi Varman’s cinematography caught the palace intrigues and politics etched with high sea climax, perfectly. The director hasn't delivered as expected and the emotions in Kalki’s book are lost. In scenes like the face-off between Kundavai and Nandhini, there are neither fiery dialogues nor power emotions running through the eyes. In one sequence when Vikram sparks a noisy brawl about betrayal, treachery and his love for Nandhini, the scenes remind the audience of the director’s own film Ravanan. Of course in PS1, it reminisces of the past and his love for Nandhini. Vikram, more than the warrior prince-in-waiting could only be seen as a man filled with anger and mistrust.  

The interest in watching gets lost in scenes without Karthi. In the book too, Vanthiyathevan would move the story forward and Kalki would have narrated the story with his travel. Karthi like in the book keeps the film lively with his performance, while Jayam Ravi and Vikram could have put in more effort to deliver. And Aishwarya Rai is a revelation, while Trisha is awesome with her Tamil pronunciations. But again several other characters like the boat rider Poongizhali, played by Aishwarya Lekshmi and Azhwarkkadiyan (played by Jayaram) might not get into the minds of the audience who haven’t read the book. It feels like too many characters are cramped into just 170 minutes and it struggles to introduce each character, for lack of time. For instance, the introduction of Junior Pazhuvettarayar and the killing of Veerapandiyan by Aditha Karikalan gets lost

While the film travels to Sri Lanka, then Eelam, brings in the Buddhist monks, King Mahinda and a bit of Sinhala, the Tiger flag of the Cholas doesn’t fly high. Dialogues of the Meenkodi or the flags of the Pandya kings are heard, but not even a single word about the Tiger flag. Again, the dialogues don’t sound well as it gets lost between classical Tamil and colloquial Tamil.

PS 1, for those who haven’t read Kalki’s book, will be classy and engrossing. But for the book lovers, of course, Mani Ratnam is no Kalki and the film runs just for 170 minutes.

Stars: 2.5/5

Cast and crew: Karthi, Vikram, Jayam Ravi, Vikram, Sarathkumar, Trisha Krishnan, Aishwarya Rai and others

Director: Mani Ratnam

Cinematographer: Ravi Varman

Music: AR Rahman

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