When it comes to sequels, one needs to tread with caution as they have a tendency to live in the shadow of the first. Not this time. Not when it is Mani Ratnam. After watching his two-part magnum opus, one can safely say that Ponniyin Selvan: II has gone one better and truly raised the bar. Where PS-I was all about motivations for cataclysmic actions, PS-II is about the consequences of each of those actions.
Looking back, PS-I did all the heavy lifting for the screen drama based on Kalki Krishnamurthy’s historical novels — setting up the characters, circumstances and nuances of interpersonal relationships — and, as a result, ended up overwhelming a lot of people, including yours truly, who hadn’t read the novels. There were just too many characters and places and myriad connections to keep track of, including plans for a coup, assassination attempts on the king and heirs of the Chola dynasty, petty intrigue, spurned love and more. Phew! No wonder PS-I felt like hurtling down at a breakneck pace, flitting from place to place and character to character, especially in the first half. But all of it pays off in PS-II.
At the centre of the drama spanning the two films is the doomed romance between Chola crown prince Aditha Karikalan (Vikram) and Nandini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan). In fact, PS-II doesn’t even pick up from where PS-II left off — Arulmozhi Varman (Jayam Ravi) aka Ponniyin Selvan and Vallavaraiyan Vandiyadevan (Karthi), a friend of Aditha, plunging to the bottom of the sea in a storm while being chased by Pandians. Instead, PS-II goes back to the teenaged Aditha and Nandini, and sets up their romance and eventual heartbreak through just stunning visuals, soulful A.R. Rahman tunes and a few dialogues.
When we do get back to where PS-I had left off, we find a severely ill Arulmozhi being escorted in a boat by Vanthiyathevan and Poonghuzali/Poornima (Aishwarya Lekshmi), later joined by the spy Azhwarkadiyan Nambi (Jayaram) to a monastery in Nagapattinam. In Thanjavur, various intrigues are afoot from the coup to replace Aditha's uncle, masterminded by Nandini, who is now the wife of Periya Pazhuvettarayar (R. Sarathkumar), the chancellor of Chola Empire. But Nandini has an even bigger agenda — revenge against the Chola king Sundara Chola (Prakash Raj) and his two heirs for the murder of Veerapandiyan, in the form of an assassination attempt.
Aishwarya Rai Bachchan is a revelation as Nandini in PS-II, balancing cunning, bloodthirst, hurt, love and betrayal with equal aplomb. So is Vikram, who excels at giving us a glimpse of the tortured soul that dwells behind the angry, vengeful warrior. Aishwarya and Vikram’s face-off right before the final climax, shot mostly in close-ups, is one of the best scenes across the two films. So much so that apart from the grand battle sequence (choreographed to a pulsating number, it is absolutely magnificent), the finale feels underwhelming, leaving the audience in the hall as slow to root for the ultimate sacrifice made by Ponniyin Selvan as the thousands of Chola subjects present at the occasion.
What makes PS-II a better film than PS-I is its focus on giving the audience the opportunity to connect with all the main characters and feel more invested in what happens to each one of them, and even root for one over another. Given that five books worth of content has been stuffed into two films, many characters feel short-changed, be it Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s dual role as Mandakini Devi or Trisha’s role as princess Kundavai, Sobhita Dhulipala as Vaanathi or Prabhu as Periya Velar. The only other character that leaves a significant impact, like in PS-I, is Karthi as Vanthiyathevan, who once again holds the narrative together.
With PS-II, Mani Ratnam proves yet again why he is a master of his craft, making the grandiose real and believable, whether it is the film sets or the characters or the epic romance. And you know what’s the sign of sure success of a movie? That it makes you want to read the source material — the novels by Kalki Krishnamurthy. This is Game of Thrones-level epic.