Still from Mani Ratnam's film
Still from Mani Ratnam's film

Ponniyin Selvan-1 review: Mani Ratnam stays true to novel & craft

Ponniyin Selvan 1 has elevated Tamil cinema's status in India and Mani Ratnam has shown why he is the master of pan-Indian films.
The narration is smooth as Mani Ratnam establishes these characters deeply and there is no commercial compromises.(4 / 5)

Cast: Vikram, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Jayam Ravi, Trisha Krishnan, Karthi, Aishwarya Lekshmi, Sobitha Dhulipala, Jayaram, Sarathkumar, Parthiban, Prabhu, Vikram Prabhu, Ashwin Kakumanu, Jayachitra, Rahman, Kishore, Riyaz Khan, Arjun Chidambaram, Mohan Raman and Nasser

Director: Mani Ratnam

Music director: AR Rahman

Synopsis: Vandhiyathevan travels across terrains and delivers a message to Chola king Sundara Chola from his son Aditha Karikalan. With civil war looming and threat to the ailing Sundara Chola, and his sons Aditha Karikalan and Arunmozhi Varman's lives, from various quarters, who will save them and help Cholas build one of the strongest empires in the south that would extend as far as Indonesia.

It has been exactly 65 years since late Chief Minister MG Ramachandran decided to make Ponniyin Selvan that was shelved due to various reasons.

After several attempts, Mani Ratnam's version of Kalki's epic novel went on floors in 2019 and the first instalment of the two-part franchise was presented to the audience on Friday. Making a film of such a scale comes with its own challenges-- especially when the audience and the film fraternity alike all are huge fans of the novel. Though people are familiar with the story, the wait was about how Mani Ratnam has catered it to big screen sensibilities and are the characters upto audience's visual imagery. The answer is yes. The team has ticked almost all boxes right despite Mani Ratnam taking his creative liberty in parts.

The movie begins with Aditha Karikalan (Vikram) and Vandhiyathevan (Karthi) defeating Rashtrakutas followed by Karikalan asking his friend Vandhiyathevan to deliver a message to his father Sundara Chola (Prakash Raj) in Thanjavur. Vandhiyathevan on his horse Semban, (Karthi's equestrian skills are as smooth as crusing in a car on a highway) sets off to Thanjavur and introduces several characters to us. He meets Alwarkkadiyan Nambi (Jayaram), Chinna Pazhuvetarayar (Parthiban), Periya Pazhuvetarayar (Sarathkumar), the chieftain of Cholas, his wife Nandini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), Sundara Chola, Madurantakan (Rahman), Vanathi (Sobitha Dhulipala), Sendhan Amudhan (Ashwin Kakumanu) and Kundavai (Trisha), who sends him off to Sri Lanka to bring her younger brother Arunmozhi Varman (Jayam Ravi) back to Thanjavur. Each of these characters has a message for one another that is conveyed through Vanthiyathevan or the characters he meets.

Vanthiyathevan makes us laugh, sends chills down our spines and makes us think. Simultaneously, Mani Ratnam lays a solid platform for these characters not with heavy dialogues, but with varied emotions in their eyes. Nandini's eyes are filled with revenge while Periya Pazhuvettarayar's are of helplessness and angst. There is innocence in Madurantakan's eyes and tyranny in Chinna Pazhuvettarayar's eyes. Aditha Karikalan graces the screen only for a short period of time in the first and Vikram does what he is best at. Aishwarya Rai shines bright with her villainy behind the jewellery she is adorned with. However, the first half belongs to Karthi and Trisha with their best performances till date. If Trisha as Jessie is class and as Jaanu is elegant, she is a performer as Kundavai. There is a scene with Sundara Chola in which she emotes without batting her eyes for quite a few minutes while mouthing a strong dialogue simultaneously. Karthi's energy as Vanthiyathevan keeps us on the edge of our seats.

The narration is smooth as Mani Ratnam establishes these characters deeply and there is no commercial compromises. The first half wins big and Vandhiyathevan leaves for Lanka. The second half begins with introduction to Arunmozhi Varman and Jayam Ravi slays it from the moment he appears on the big screen. Vanthiyathevan and Arunmozhi meets various hurdles before it is climax and Mani Ratnam saves his best for the last few minutes of the film with an unexpected twist.

Ponniyin Selvan-1 works well because it is men in women's world. Nandini, Kundavai, Sembiyan Maadevi, Poonkuzhali (Aishwarya Lekshmi) are the one who calls the shot. Else things get chaotic even for the mightiest of warlords in the Chola empire. Aishwarya Lekshmi needs special mention as Poonkuzhali the boatwoman. Her various emotions are a sight to behold.

The movie will be spoken about for years to come for its technical brilliance. Ravi Varman's camera work and his capturing of emotions as well as his actors in each frame is award worthy. Art director Thotta Tharani takes us back to Chola period and is en route to another National award. Unlike other epic film, Ponniyin Selvan is not all glitters as the first part is clearly set before the golden age of Cholas. Locations are mostly outdoor which makes the film realisitic and is devoid of any over-the-top stunt scenes despite war scenes and sword fights.

Ponniyin Selvan is not a war film. It is a political drama which tends to get a bit slow in the second ha… AR Rahman's songs are a part of narrative and he has reserved his best for Mani Ratnam yet again. Devaraalan Aatam is an experience of sorts. . Kundavai-Nandini face off scene is rich in visuals and music. PS-1 has finally broken the jinx of CG works in Indian cinema. However, the ship fight that was shot in a green mat could have been handled better. With part one, Mani Ratnam, has established his characters well and has ended it in a way such that part two will br bigger and better.

Overall, Ponniyin Selvan 1 has elevated Tamil cinema's status in India and Mani Ratnam has shown why he is the master of pan-Indian films.

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