Movie Review: Ponniyin Selvan — Part 1 ( Tamil) / PS1
Finally, PS1 happened.
I discovered that it is a film that puts the audience in a particular basket. The audience is the audience. But then, the artist is the artist. The artist is the creator, and the core of the art lies in his imagination. Not all audience may like the artwork, but the artwork remains.
PS is a work of art, the greatest novel in Tamil literature, retold by one of the greatest filmmakers of Indian cinema. For a moment, it is important to keep the artist’s reputation away from the artwork to see it in absoluteness. I mean both Kalki Krishnamurthy, the novelist, and Mani Ratnam, the filmmaker.
Plot and Screenplay:
PS is a great novel, because it takes a footnote of history — the battle for succession preceding Rajaraja Chola, the great Chola Emperor known for his prolific conquests and victories over Cheras, Pallavas, Rashtrakutas and the Anuradhapura kingdom under Mahinda V — and plotted and weaved intricately between history and fiction.
The movie is a whittled narrative of the long novel, so the screenplay is a succinct but sharp retelling. The story rides on the plains of the novel, ignoring its peaks and valleys, thereby keeping the main thread going and discarding the subtleties which are the mainstays of Kalki’s storytelling. This is the biggest difference if one has read and savored the novel and then goes to watch the movie.
The existing Chola King is ailing and uncertainty looms about his succession plan. His treasury minister and the minister’s younger brother cast the dice to support the son of the elder brother of the present king, who fancies his chances with the support of other chieftains.
The mastermind of this plot is Nandini, a singer-girl, who was in love with the crown prince, Karikalan, but was rejected by the royal household. In vengeance, she marries an enemy (Pandya) king, who is beheaded in a battle by Karikalan, despite her pleas. Her vengeance multiplies as she seeks to install a Pandya Prince to the throne. To achieve this, she marries the old treasury minister.
Up against this plotters are the kin of the present king. Karikalan, the crown prince, is temperamental and mourning Nandini’s love, is fighting the Rashtrakutas ( Chola’s Northern neighbors). His sister, Kundavai, is the Machiavelli of the royal family. She holds the family together, counters the moves with her intelligence, and tries to bring the brothers together. The youngest, Arulmozhi Varman is called Ponniyin Selvan ( The son of ‘Ponni ‘— a euphemism for River Cauvery). Arulmozhi is the titular character and grows late into the movie, and easily becomes the most important character, apart from one.
The story is mostly told through the point of view of the fictional character Vandhiya Thevan, who is a friend of Karikalan. The story travels with him as he visits the Treasury minister and the king on behest of Karikalan. He encounters Nandini, and easily charms his way with her. He meets Kundavai, the princess, who falls in love with him, and Vanathy, who is the bride-to-be of Arulmozhi.
The King approves Kundavai’s plans to bring both brothers to the capital. Taking the King’s advice, she heads to meet her elder brother and crown prince, Karikalan who is stationed in Kanchi. On Kundavai’s request, Vandhiya Thevan heads to Srilanka, where he meets Arulmozhi to explain the situation brewing in Thanjavur, the capital of the Cholas.
The plotters accelerate the timelines learning Kundavai’s moves, and plan to assasinate the king and his two sons. Their initial attempts are interceded by other characters among which Poonguzhali, who is a boatwoman and fancies Arulmozhi and Alwarkadiyan, a Vaishnavite jester, and a mysterious character, Oomai Rani are prominent.
The last minutes of the first part are packed with visuals of Arulmozhi and Vandhiya Thevan battling the assasins sent by the Pandyas ( read Nandini) while Poonguzhali tries to help. The film ends with the sinking ship and the royal family in Thanjavur mourning the loss of Arulmozhi.
The screenplay moves the story at a fast clip, but in couple of plays jumps forward without cogency — the Srilanka episodes of the assasin’s attempts in specific. The script is short, but enables the sketching of characters. Except for Nandini, other characters move forward as chess pieces. This is the second difference between the movie and the novel.
The flow is uninterrupted, even the songs push the story forward, so the screen play is action packed. The storytelling avoids drama a la Rajamouli, because Mani Ratnam prefers a bareknuckled way avoiding fantasy, but sticking to the main thread without breaking it.
It is evident that Mani Ratnam has certain actors in mind when he visualized this screenplay. The temperament, style, looks — especially the facial expressions and demeanor, which is a signature for every actor, is intricately woven into the character. Karthi is perfect as the bubbly Vandhiya Thevan. Trisha carries herself regally and eloquently as princess Kundavai. The two brothers cannot be more contrasting — Vikram as the temperamental crown prince and Jeyam Ravi as the diplomatic and suave Arulmozhi, sign into their roles easily.
But Mani Ratnam’s favorite cast, is Nandini, essayed by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. No man can resist her beauty, Kalki says. I will show you that, says Mani Ratnam. Lo and behold, his favorite actor, Aishwarya sparkles as Nandini. The camera stays on her tad longer, the light and darkness play as if they were supporting actors in each frame that she is present. The mastermind takes her spot easily in the ranks of a long list of characters.
Costume, Camera and Setting:
The casting director has avoided excessive opulence, while sticking to accessories and artefects of the period. Nandini and Kundavai, the two main female characters, would have been a challenge to imagine and create, and it is a resounding success.
The director has used real locations mostly. We can see the dilapidated state of the palace, reflecting the distracted hegemons. The dance sets, especially in the Treasury minister’s palace or Kundavai’s are simple. The piers and dockyards along the Cauvery river are resplendent. The marketplace and other sets are easy on the eyes.
The camera work excells in patches. The killing scenes of the Pandya king, when Nandini and Karikalan meet again, and the introspective scenes of Nandini are notable pieces of camera work. However, the lighting in Karikalan’s lamenting face was underwhelming, missing a great opportunity in capturing the raw emotions of heartache.
AR Rahman’s music is not intrusive, but lacks imagination. I liked the ‘Sol’ song, among all the others. ‘Ponni nadi’, the flagship song, could invoke some dance steps. The background music does well on introspective scenes but is too loud, adding to the chaos of the action scenes.
The VFX could have been better. The camera goes dark as if to cover up the shortfall in visual effects. While it is dark, there are emotions in action scenes, which are not captured. The underwater scene, the tempest, the rocking boat and bridge — and the dark silhouttes that spar at each other, amid the loud music.
This is when I want to go back to the novel. In the last twenty minutes depicting the action scenes in deep waters, Mani Ratnam’s performance is literally out of his depth.
VFX, Camera, BGM — these are the things that Mani Ratnam had to get it right to match Kalki’s magic with words. There, he failed.
But because it is PS, I will go back to watch PS-2.
~Ashok Subramanian, © 2022