Unfamiliar with the written work of Kalki Krishnamurthy, I went into Ponniyin Selvan: I completely unaware of what to expect. I’m also not well-versed with the history of the Chola kingdom. I do vaguely recollect snippets about the Chola-Pandya conflict from middle-school history books. But beyond that, I had absolutely no frame of reference for this movie and the time that it is set in.
A series of animated shots give us a quick set up—a thousand years ago, a comet appeared in the skies. It is foretold that a great king would come to power soon.
Sundara Chola (Prakash Raj) sits on the throne while his sons, Aditha Karikalan (Vikram) and Arunmozhi Varman (Jayam Ravi) are fighting battles in Kanchi and Lanka, respectively. The king and the heirs are in mortal peril from the various plots that are afoot around them.
Plotting to overthrow the king
One such plot is concocted by the chieftains within the palace walls who seek to supplant the king, and place the son of the former king on the throne. Meanwhile, a group of Pandya soldiers are also hellbent on avenging the death of their king Veera Pandiyan, who was killed by Aditha. Concurrently, Nandini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), the charming and intelligent wife of the treasurer, is playing a game of her own.
Also in the mix is Vallavaraiyan Vanthiyathevan (Karthi), a messenger, errand boy, and loyal friend who serves both as a narrator and as a comic relief. He is our conduit into the world. And there is Kundavai (Trisha Krishnan), who is a politically savvy and intelligent princess who is trying to protect the throne and her family.
Given the number of characters and backstories, the movie quite understandably, takes its own sweet time to establish things. To the point that the titular character doesn’t come on screen till the second half. I have seen people say that they were both lost and bored in the first half.
I wasn’t. I thoroughly enjoyed the layered and beautiful world that Mani Ratnam is building for us. The plot is complex and there are a whole host of characters, which sometimes lends to a sense of chaos. My unfamiliarity with the history and the written material only added to the confusion. However, slowly, things start getting clearer. While nowhere near to getting answers, I have a sense of the story. I can understand what it is setting out to achieve.
In a movie where every cast member’s acting is good, it is tough to stand out, but three of them manage to do so. Vikram as the tortured, heartbroken, and battle hardened Aditha Karikalan portrays the pain and the manic energy with finesse. Karthi as Vanthiyathevan is charming, impish, funny, quick, and cunning, all at the same time. He has a screen presence that compels you to keep your eyes glued on him.
The scene stealer for me, though, is Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as Nandini. Decked in gorgeous sarees, she is breathtakingly beautiful. Her eyes glitter like stars as she uses her feminine charms to actively manipulate her husband and everyone around her. It’s a complex role and Aishwarya does full justice to the role.
A special mention to Eka Lakhani and Chandrakant Sonawane, for they gave us a visual treat with the detailed costumes of the movie. Along with the art direction by Thotta Tharani, we are transported to a time thousand years ago, during the reign of the Cholas.
A.R. Rahman does a great job with the music, though I wish in some scenes the background music was different. I do have a problem with the cinematography by Ravi Verman. In some places, it is stunning. But then, in certain scenes, the jerky camera movement is rather dizzying. Especially since one of it was such a pivotal scene where we learn the backstory of Aditha and Nandini.
I know certain critics say that the battle sequences felt clunky and amateurish, but I don’t completely agree with that. I liked that it was not the stylized action sequences that we have been seeing. However, the scene involving the elephant missed the mark by a wide margin.
Overall, I think this was a great movie. This is the Mani Ratnam I remember. I have been yearning to watch a good historical movie that was something new, something different. And Ponniyin Selvan gave me exactly that. And for that alone, this movie gets my thumbs up.