A staggeringly slow first half and an overwhelmingly dense plot notwithstanding, Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan: Part 1 delivers a theatrical experience that must not be missed. Here’s why this period drama will most likely take your breath away.
A gripping game of thrones
Based on Kalki Krishnamurthy’s historical novel Ponniyin Selvan, Mani Ratnam’s PS-I is an epic battle for succession to the Chola throne, in the period 907-1215 AD. Conspiracies are hatched, brothers face off, traps are laid and lives sacrificed with one simple goal — to take control of the empire.
The main contenders to the throne are the two sons of King Sundara Chola (Prakash Raj) — prince Aditya Karikalan (Chiyaan Vikram), who’s next in line, and prince Arulmozhi Varman (Jayam Ravi). Sundara Chola also has a daughter — princess Kundavai (Trisha) who wants Arulmozhi Varman to ascend the throne. Aditya Karikalan is not liked by his subjects and his brother’s popularity is a cause of concern for him.
The Chola empire also faces threat from external forces that want their own nominee to become the monarch. Sundara Chola’s nephew Madurantakam, the Pazhuvettaraiyar clan, the Pandyas and queen Nandini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) conspire to kill Aditya Karikalan.
Why does Nandini want to destroy the Chola empire? Will princess Kundavai be able to bring stability to the kingdom? Will the Pandyas be able to conquer the Chola empire? Who is Vandiyathevan and what role does he play in this quest for power? This tale of palace intrigue keeps us on tenterhooks.
Mani Ratnam makes an impressive comeback
After a hiatus of four years — his last directorial was the Tamil crime drama Chekka Chivantha Vaanam — Mani Ratnam returns with a period drama with a classy feel.
The film is a treat with mind-blowing visual effects, scintillating sets and exquisite costumes (designed by Eka Lakhani) that transport one to the bygone era.
Art director Thota Tharrani and his team’s attention to detail is visible in every frame. The production design glorifies the aesthetics of ancient Tamil architecture. Cinematographer Ravi Varman mounts the entire movie on a grand canvas in order to create a larger-than-life experience. The battle scenes in particular are awe-inspiring.
A.R. Rahman’s music blends nostalgia and contemporary
One of the biggest pillars of the movie is A.R. Rahman’s background score, which uses instruments that have a nostalgic appeal but sound contemporary and carries his signature. Rahman’s score elevates the scenes, adding a touch of drama to the writing.
The song Ponni Nadhi, an ode to the river Kaveri, sets the tone of the narrative as a key character is introduced. Alaikadal, sung by Anatara Nandy, is another soulful melody that aptly fits the character of Poonguzhali. The song Sol is also special. A dialogue between two friends, Kundavai and Vaanathi, the song features only the sound of water and anklets — a classic Rahman concept.
Chiyaan Vikram steals the show
In the central character of the ruthless warrior prince Aditya Karikalan, ‘Chiyaan’ Vikram steals the thunder from the long lineup of versatile actors who form the film’s stellar cast. Chiyaan has an enigmatic screen presence and easily leaves a mark on the audience.
Karthi, who plays Vanthiyathevan, is charming and effervescent. The two leading ladies in PS-I have meaty roles. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as the antagonist queen Nandini is spellbinding. Her scheming moves and eloquent eyes make for a deadly combination. On the other end is Trisha, whose princess Kundavai exudes royalty and carries an aura of intellect.
What could have been better
With a runtime of 2 hours 46 minutes, the film is a tad bit long. Mani Ratnam takes his own sweet time to establish the core plot, making the first half of the film move at snail’s speed. By the time the narrative picks up pace in the second half, one starts to lose patience. Editor A. Sreekar Prasad could have been more ruthless at the editing table.
One of the major problems that Ponniyin Selvan: Part 1 faces is the confusing narrative. Kalki’s novel, which had five parts, will be translated on the screen in two films by Mani Ratnam. Hence, the director tries to condense as many subplots into the screenplay as possible. Those who have not read the novel, or have no knowledge about the Chola empire, might find it hard to relate to the story.