Film Review: Ponniyin Selvan: Part One

Filmmaker Mani Ratnam has taken on the epic task of adapting Tamil bestseller “Ponniyin Selvan” into two parts, the first of which released to excellent box office in India and overseas on Sept. 29.

The film, with screenplay by Ratnam, Jayamohan and Kumaravel, is mostly faithful to Kalki Krishnamurthy’s five novels, the trio has streamlined the historical fiction first serialized in the 1950s in the Tamil magazine Kalki before being translated into multiple other languages, including English. They were based on the great ruler Raja Raja Chola (Chola, king of kings), who expanded his empire from modern-day Tamilnadu all the way north to the Ganges.

The end result is epic with great battles on land and sea, accompanied by the music of Oscar winner A.R. Rahman (“Slumdog Millionaire”). The spy vs. spy nature of the story frequently resembles a 12th century Bourne tale, but interspersed with song and dance.

In the 11th and 12th centuries, Southern India was ruled by the Cheras, Cholas, Pandyas, Pallavas, Hoysalas and other dynasties. The film opens on the Chola crown prince Aditha Karikalan (Vikram) and his army being victorious on the field. Aditha sends his faithful aide Vallavaraiyan Vandiyadevan (Karthi) to see what is happening in his father’s palace where Chola chieftains are gathering for a secret meeting. Vandiyadevan soon falls in with a religious man Azhwarkadiyan Nambi (Jayaram), who while providing some comic relief is another spy. They discover a plot to take the crown from the ailing king Sundara Chola and give it to his nephew, who had been passed over. Among those trying to use Vandiyadevan is the beautiful Nandini (Aishwariya Rai Bachchan), who uses her looks to get her husband, commander Chinna Pazhuvettariyar (R. Parthiban).

While the cast and plot get more involved, Ratnam keeps the different strands moving at a fast pace so that you don’t notice the nearly three-hour running time. The titular Ponniyan Selvan doesn’t even really make an appearance until almost the intermission.

When he does show up, the younger Chola prince, Arunmozhi Varman (Jayam Ravi) known as Ponniyin Selvan because he was saved from drowning in the Ponni river (aka Cauvery), shows his charm and diplomacy. There is a mother figure who saves him each time he is in danger of the water.

DP Ravi Varman does justice to the sweep of the story, especially the battle scenes that reminds one of the photography on the “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, especially coupled with Rahman’s soaring music.

Throughout the below-the-line work is top-notch, not just with the camera and music but also production design (Thotta Tharani). The Cholas were famous for the temples they built, with the Thanjavur temple standing even now as a testament to their artistry. The sets displaying the city of Thanjavur, the new city of Kanchi and Sri Lanka, while augmented with excellent VFX bring to life Kalki’s prose that enchanted so many readers.

Add to that the costume design, hair and makeup and especially the jewelry (pieces of which are now offered on sale) for not only the princes and other nobles but also the ladies from Nandini to the princess Kundavai (Trisha Krishnan).

Ratnam has always had a knack for drawing out the best performances from Rai Bachchan (whom he had cast in his “Iruvar,” “Guru” and “Raavanan”),  as she does on her return to the screen for the first time after 2018, even if her dialogue is spoken by Deepa Venkat. As Vandiyadevan, Karthi brings an exuberant action to the film while Ravi as Arunmozhi is charming and Vikram and Parthiban exhibit dangerous intent. Rai Bachchan is suitably scheming as is Krishnan as the princess who only cares about the Chola kingdom and is jealous (with reason) of Nandini’s beauty and beguile.

The film ends on a cliffhanger. Part two is scheduled to be released in 2023.

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