Ponniyin Selvan 1 Movie Review | A grand spectacle that sets the tone

Split up into two parts, Ponniyin Selval: I brings to you the landscape and colourful players of the Chola empire

Update: 2022-10-01 07:54 GMT
Mani Ratnam's adaptation of Kalki Krishnamurthy's literary classic Ponniyin Selvan (originally published in 1955) is a grandiose piece of cinema. (Image credit: Instagram)

CAST: Chiyaan Vikram, Karthi, Jayam Ravi, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Trisha

DIRECTION: Mani Ratnam

MUSIC: AR Rahman

After multiple attempts through numerous decades, the wait has now come to an end. Mani Ratnam’s adaptation of Kalki Krishnamurthy’s literary classic Ponniyin Selvan (originally published in 1955) is a grandiose piece of cinema with a diverse cast, dazzling visuals, marching soundtrack, but with a fine calculative touch that is a trademark of the director. Split up into two parts, Ponniyin Selval: I brings to you the landscape and colourful players of the Chola empire, where a power struggle ensues as the ailing emperor Sundara Chozhar (Prakash Raj) mm announces his eldest son Aditha Karikalan (Chiyaan Vikram) as the heir to the throne.

However, there are murmurs that his brother Arunmozhi Varman (Jayam Ravi) has set his eyes on the same prize and in order to look in to these rumors, Aditha sends his reliable friend Vallavarayan Vanthiyathevan (Karthi) to Kadambur and report back the truth to Sundara Chozar and their sister Kundavai (Trisha Krishnan), who rules for the time being.

Meanwhile, there’s another faction consisting of siblings Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar (R Sarathkumar) and Chinna Pazhuvettaraiyar (R Parthiban), who are working towards making Sundara Chozhar’s brother’s son Maduranthagar (Rahman) as the next ruler by displacing Aditha. Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar’s wife Nandini (Aishwarya Rai) seeks vengeance for the death of her ex-husband Veera Pandiyan, which both her and Aditha remember succinctly. How these factions are set up and where the power struggle goes forms the remainder.

Mani Ratnam establishes the various parties through the eyes of Vanthiyathevan (Karthi.) His character gets the most movement, beginning from Kadambur to ending in Sri Lanka. And through his journey, the women of the story are brought to the fore: Nandini with her charm and schemes, Kundavai with her concern for the empire, and the boatwoman Poonguzhali (Aishwarya Lekshmi.) The brothers Aditha and Arunmozhi are battle hardened and are the alpha males of the tale. A spy in the form of a priest Azhwarkadiyan Nambi (Jayaram) tags along with Vanthiyathevan and their interactions do make for some good comic moments.

As noted earlier, Karthi’s naughty and swashbuckling adventures unfold the women who have a mainstay in this narrative. Aishwarya Rai’s introduction is spectacular. Just a furtive glance is enough to set up her character and Mani Ratnam’s filmmaking experience is in full show here. It also helps that her signature dazzle and charm are still in place. Trisha makes her presence felt and you can feel the hum of her power and concern throughout the background. The first time these two meet is shot in an impressive manner.

Meanwhile, Vikram and Jayam Ravi act more as powerful figureheads for the showoff in the second part. Both appear more in scenes of gore and battle and their signature styles will keep you engaged: Vikram as the temperamental prince has the perfect expressions to capture the scattershot emotions. And Jayam Ravi, who is introduced in the second half, is almost the opposite with the composure and precision of a samurai. Jayaram as Karthi’s tour guide is funny in bits. The others including Sarath Kumar, Prabhu, Parthiban, pic  Aishwarya Lekshmi, Prakash Raj, Vikram Prabhu, Kishore, Lal etc. do their best with the limited screen space given the scope of the tale.

Mani Ratnam has co-written the screenplay alongside Elango Kumaravel and Jeyamohan and they’ve made it as palatable as possible for today’s audience by mixing old and new Tamil.

AR Rahman’s music will captivate you throughout. The tastefully integrated songs and the thumping backgrounds are absolutely central in making this film work. What would initially seem like ‘not another meeting’ ramps up quickly with the BGMs, and when combined with Ravi Varman’s spectacular camerawork, you’ll be absorbed regardless of how much you understand the vernacular.

There’s considerable VFX in the film and Mani Ratnam as always, is determined to follow his own style and vision. The grand palaces, the naval scenes, and the forests of Sri Lanka are particularly eye-watering. Most of the movie is a setup of the various factions and what is to ensue in the sequel.

If you aren’t familiar with the background, then you’d probably have to pay double the attention in order to keep track. This could be a hindrance despite the maker’s best efforts to keep it palatable. Overall, Ponniyin Selvan is a bit like Game of Thrones without as much grisly violence. The polished cast and crew will keep you engaged.

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