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Ponniyin Selvan 1: A mighty triumph

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I have always been ridiculed for my distaste for Rajamouli’s ‘Baahubali’ films. Indians wear their pride for the two films like a badge of honour, hailing Rajamouli as the King of Indian cinema, especially seeing how his three most recent features (all of them historical fictions) are among the ten highest grossing Indian films of all time. My main issue with these films is that they do not represent good filmmaking and lean much too heavily into the ‘mass’ elements that most commercial Indian films revolve around. I knew Tamil cinema was capable of much more. 

Mani Ratnam is celebrated as one of India’s finest auteurs. Once in a while, he will release a film reaffirming his status as the cream of the crop. My favourite of his works have always been the few with mythological links: 2010’s ‘Raavanan’ was a return to form for the director (modernising the epic Ramayanam) and 1991’s ‘Thalapathi’ is an often overlooked work of art which could stand toe-to-toe with films from any industry (modernising the Mahabharatham). Therefore, one of the most celebrated Indian epics seemed to be in pretty stable hands. However, Ratnam’s career has been quite shaky of late. 2013’s ‘Kadal’ is perhaps the lowest point of his almost four decade long career. 2015’s ‘O Kadhal Kanmani’ and 2018’s ‘Chekka Chivantha Vaanam’ were both underwhelming efforts. 2017’s ‘Kaatru Veliyidai’ was the closest Ratnam had returned to his former glory in the last decade, but even this film did not completely work. My fears have been allayed, however, because ‘Ponniyin Selvan Part 1’ is a resounding success.

‘PS1’ is a screen adaptation of the Kalki Krishnamurthy epic serialised from 1950 to 1954, following the rise of the golden age of the Chozha dynasty in the 10th century AD – touted as the greatest empire in Indian history. We witness the events unfold following a prophecy told once a comet appears in the sky. The Chozha rulers are warned of the spilling of Chozha blood, which sets off a plot of treachery, treason and double crossing. The film travels with Vallavaraiyan Vanthiyathevan, portrayed excellently by Karthi, a trusted friend of the heir to the throne, Vikram’s Aditha Karikalan, who assumes the role of a messenger. Vanthiyathevan is the glue holding together the multiple concurrent stories in ‘PS1’, and the casting decision for the part was crucial for the success of the film. Karthi breezes through this role, playing the part as if it had been written with him in mind.

Ratnam brings out the best from his entire cast – there was not an unbelievable moment from anyone. The most memorable performances were Trisha as Kundavai (who emitted a majestic aura throughout), Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as Nandini (a stoic queen, who keeps her cards close to her heart), Vikram as Aditha Karikalan (a brutal heir to the throne, torn up by heartbreak), Jayam Ravi as Arunmozhi Varman and Jayaram as Nambi (the comedic relief for the film, which he performs spectacularly). Jayaram and Karthi’s chemistry worked wonders, providing a lightness amidst the heaviness of the plot. The rest of the ensemble cast were brilliant too, (Parthiban, Sarathkumar, Aishwarya Lekshmi being other notable performances).

The visuals are stunning. Ravi Varman captures the world of 10th century Thamizhakam  (and its subcontinent) expertly, bringing life to the world. One shot that illustrates Mani Ratnam’s amazing direction is a meeting between the reigning king Sundara Chozhan and his conspiring ministers, while he is being treated for his ailments with acupuncture. The needles in his back foreshadow the many minute betrayals in store for him. Every department requires special mention. The set design, costuming, lighting, sound mixing etc. Every member of the cast and crew put the highest level of effort into the film, and it shows.

A R Rahman’s soundtrack is spectacular as always, and he always saves his best compositions for Mani Ratnam films. ‘Ponni Nadhi’ and ‘Chozha Chozha’ are both incredibly rousing songs. My personal favourite of the track-list is ‘Alaikadal’, a transcendental piece of music, transporting the listener to a boat, ebbing gently on calm seas. ‘Devaralan Aattam’ and ‘Ratchasa Mamaney’ had great accompanying visuals, with wonderfully choreographed dance sequences. My only issue with the soundtrack was that these songs were cut down in the film, to shorten the film’s length.

And now, to address the elephant in the room. Tamil Guardian recently published an article on the controversy surrounding the film over its description of the island of Lanka, with the Hindi translation referring to the land as a Sinhala country. Throughout the novel, Krishnamurthy referred to the island as Eela Naadu. However, the film refers to the island mostly as Ilankai, occasionally as Eelam, and subtitled as Lanka. As a member of the Eelam Tamil diaspora, art has played a huge role in my understanding of my heritage and culture. It is a link to a culture I did not grow up in, and a connection for my parents to a heritage they were forced to abandon. However, the erasure of my culture and history in mainstream media, and especially in such a fantastic film, leaves a sour taste in my mouth, as well as a lot of guilt about enjoying it as much as I did.

I try to remain as objective as I can with these reviews (perhaps a futile endeavour), but it still stands on its artistic merit. And so it is with a heavy heart I condone this film. Watch this if you want to see how ‘Baahubali’ should have been made.

Krishna’s rating: 4.5 stars


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