In the world of the creative arts, liberty in the form of imaginative license is an indispensable attribute for success. However, when such liberties transgress the boundaries of reasonableness, the outcome is distortion. Thus, creative license can be a double-edged sword. Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan 2 (PS 2), the screenplay adaptation of the late Kalki Krishnamurthy’s magnum opus, Ponniyin Selvan, finds itself on the wrong end of the imaginative sword of creative license. Rushed, helter-skelter and frantic, PS 2 and its director, over the course of approximately 180 minutes, breathlessly and futilely try to keep pace with the original epoch, which puts what seems like two continents between itself and its pursuers, let alone staying a step or two ahead.
The sequel begins with a throwback to the times when Aditha Karikalan as an adolescent is smitten by the bewitching beauty of Nandini. Just when his advances are reciprocated by Nandini, the lass and her family are forcibly driven out of Tanjavur. With this melancholic background out of the way, the plot tracks back to the dramatic rescue of Arul Mozhi Varman and Vanthiyathevan from the depths of a roiling ocean. This rescue, the beginnings of which marked the ending of Ponniyin Selvan 1 is pulled out by a mute woman named Mandakini, also known as Oomai Rani (‘mute queen’). The rest of the movie involves the escapades of Arul Mozhi Varman and Vanthiyathevan as they attempt to foil manifold treacherous attempts launched by the spies of the slain Pandiyan King Veera Pandiyan to assassinate Sundara Chozhar, Arul Mozhi Varman and Aditha Karikalan, acts which would bring the glorious reign of the Chola Empire to an abrupt and untimely end.
Arul Mozhi and Vanthiyathevan are aided and abetted in this endeavour by the redoubtable spy, Alwarkadiyan Nambi and the fearless and resourceful boatwoman, Poonkuzhali. At every step of their way, stands the scheming, conniving and deceitful Nandini who has taken a pledge to decimate the Chola Empire. Whether the Chola kingdom can stand the wrath of a woman scorned or whether it would wilt away in frightening submission, is what the nub of PS 2 strives to address.
It takes an extraordinary degree of adroitness, courage, and ingenuity to bring to the silver screen in an undiluted manner, a period classic, spanning five volumes and embedding within its confines a phalanx of characters, who at the dizzying speed of light hurl themselves into, across and out of close to 2200 pages! While there is no doubting either the adroitness, courage, or creativity of Mani Ratnam – his credentials being testimony to the fact of his being one of the best in the business – the master craftsman’s Achilles Heel in this venture has been going overboard with creativity. While acknowledging that a degree of departure from the book is an absolute necessity, straying away to the extent where the content gets diluted is putting it mildly – an avoidable travesty.
PS 2 could easily have been India’s answer to the Hollywood franchise phenomenon. Think Mission Impossible; recall Fast & Furious. Ponniyin Selvan could have been a majestic and imperial contribution by India to the world of franchise cinema. From a positional perspective as well, this would have worked wonders since the genius of the late Kalki would have been exposed to the world in all its grandeur and splendour. Instead of trying to pigeonhole five humongous volumes in a short span of 6 hours, and in the process inevitably cutting corners, the makers could have mulled over multiple parts instead of just the opener and its sequel. But then again, I as an ordinary movie goer am not privy to the constraints and cumbersomeness which such an ambitious goal would entail.
Now coming to the movie, itself. One of the greatest ever Chapters in the annals of historical fiction is the one titled “Karirul Suzhandadhu” (“Darkness Enveloped” in the fourth volume of Ponniyin Selvan. This Chapter details the eventful rendezvous between Aditha Karikalan and Nandini at the fort of Kadambur and sets in motion a cascading series of explosive events. Vikram as the broody, perennially infuriated, disgruntled, and ruthless Aditha Karikalan bosses this scene. With a degree of effortlessness that can only be termed inveterate, Vikram is the heart and soul of PS 2. From delivering dialogues with consummate ease to facial expressions that would put a chameleon to shame, Vikram delivers a performance to Remember. Aishwarya Rai as Nandini, slugs it out toe to toe with Vikram and comes out astoundingly unscathed. Doing ample justice to one of the seminal characters in Kalki’s eponymous work, Ms. Rai is exemplary.
Karthi as Vanthiyathevan is ebullient, effervescent, and eager. Friend to Arul Mozhi, loyalist of Aditha Karikalan and smitten by Kunthavai, Karthi as Vanthiyathevan is a refreshing breath of fresh air. The talented Jayaram as Alwarkadiyan Nambi hardly gets the screen space that he deserves. One of the most memorable and relevant characters in the novel, Alwarkadiyan’s presence in the movie is restricted to a few scenes of substance. The same can be said for Poonkuzhali (Aiswarya Lakshmi) and Oomai Rani (Aishwarya Rai again since she stars in a double role) as well. Jayam Ravi as Arul Mozhi Varman is a tad bit too docile for a future emperor emblematic of qualities that are magisterial, intimidating and regal.
The genius of A.R. Rahman mesmerizes yet again. The mellifluous tones will linger on loop, long after trooping out the cinema. My personal favourites being the “Veera Chozhan” and “PS 2 Anthems”.
The cinematography, as is usually the case with every Mani Ratnam movie, is alluring and captivating. The action sequences are shot with a great degree of precision and the mark of meticulousness is apparent.
Finally, this is one question which merits asking, and repeatedly – ‘Where art thou, Manimeghalai?” Only Mr. Mani Ratnam can provide a plausible and feasible clarification to this query which has been burning through me since the time I came back home last noon after watching the movie.