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It is on many counts and at multiple levels a travesty to compare a silver screen adaptation with the literature forming the underlying backdrop for such an endeavour. Sixty seven years after Kalki Krishnamurthy, the literary genius, penned his epochal “Ponniyin Selvan” that became eponymous with the Chola Empire, Mani Ratnam has in a grandiose fashion brought to the silver screen the fictional trials and tribulations of one of the greatest dynasties in the annals of Indian history. Split into two franchise parts, ‘Ponniyin Selvan – 1’ opened to great anticipation on the 30th of September 2022. Suffice it to say, it is a breathtaking spectacle. Jaw-dropping visuals, an ensemble cast, an arresting narrative and an ingenious soundtrack (all songs are chopped and serrated as they intermingle with the plot in a captivating prose poetic vein), all make Mani Ratnam’s effort a capital success.
The movie opens with a powerful voice over by Kamal Hassan elucidating on some ominous portends that are set to befall the all-conquering Chola empire. The Kingdom presided over by an ailing Sundara Chozhar (Prakash Raj) is in danger of falling prey to external attack as well as internal treachery. While the heir apparent Aditha Karikalan (Vikram) is busy putting his much vaunted sword to deadly effect by ravaging the Rashtrakutas and Kalingas, his younger sibling Arunmozhi Varman (Jayam Ravi) has his hands full annexing the land that is Sri Lanka. While the two brothers are engaged in a bloody exercise of empire expansion, a scheming faction within the Chola kingdom spearheaded by two brothers, Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar (R Sarathkumar) and Chinna Pazhuvettaraiyar (R Parthiban) is busy plotting to unseat Sundara Chozhar and replacing him with Maduranthagar (Rahman), the son of Sundara Chozhar’s departed brother. To add to the woes of the Cholas is the extraordinary character and connivance of the astoundingly beautiful Nandini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) who is seeking unhinged vengeance over the murder of her ex-husband Veera Pandyan at the hands of Aditha Karikalan.
But the cynosure of all eyes and the primary protagonist of the movie is the cavorting yet courageous, playful yet poised, confident yet cautious, Vallavarayan Vanthiyathevan (Karthi). Vanthiyathevan is entrusted by his friend, Aditha Karikalan to deliver a message to emperor Sundara Chozhar and his sister, princess Kunthavai (Trisha) on the potential threats that the Chola kingdom is facing. Karthi just bosses his scenes juxtaposing exuberance with intent. His altercations and shenanigans with a master spy, Alwarkadiyan (Jayaram) makes for riveting and absorbing viewing.
Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as Nandini just sizzles. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned and a scorned Nandini rains down upon her unsuspecting foes a devastating combination of hell, fire and brimstones. She is a smiling assassin whose beauty deceives a brain seething with vengeance and thirsting for revenge.
Vikram as Aditha Karikalan is a raw and savage bundle of visceral emotions. Haunted by an unrelenting ghost of the past, he is a human wrecking machine channeling all his rage and focusing his wrath on one kingdom after another who all fall like nine pins to his rampaging advances. His emotions need constant reigning in by his able commander-in-chief, a role essayed by the Malayalam actor-director, Lal.
Jayam Ravi as the titular Ponniyin Selvan, holds back no punches and smashes beyond his weight. Even though appearing quite late in the movie, he more than holds his own, especially in dueling sequences. Charming, yet mature he demonstrates why he is a prince worthy of all adulation being heaped upon him by an adoring citizens.
Trisha, as Kunthavai is the epitome of grace and wisdom. Astute in the craft of politics and adroit in the handling of unforeseen contingencies, the Princess upends conventional strategies and tactics by throwing in many a cat amongst the pigeons. The scenes in which she locks horns with Nandini teem with subtlety and chicanery.
Jayaram, Parthiban, Prabhu, Prakash Raj, Sarath Kumar and Rahman all do justice to the roles assigned to them. In fact their lasting value is inversely proportionate to the screen presence allocated to each of them.
Elango Kumaravel and Jeyamohan, responsible for the screenplay along with Mani Ratnam himself have judiciously blended the ancient and the contemporary. Cinematographer Ravi Varman gives his audience some post card like memories with expansive backdrops of palaces, sweeping battles involving maritime fleets and camouflaging nature. The climax that comes to a crescendo following an extended and tumultuous fight that takes place on a ship which itself is trying to battle a surging storm brings the masterpiece to a fitting end. A.R.Rahman is in some beguiling form with a unique soundtrack offering. As alluded in an earlier paragraph, all the songs are chipped and almost conclude before they commence. But as is the wont with any A.R.R fare, one needs to listen to the music multiple times before either the song grows into the listener, or the listener is absorbed into the song.
Ponniyin Selvan – Part 1 – a fitting tribute to the genius that is Kalki Krishnamurthy. 2023 and Part 2, we cannot wait for your arrival!