IFFI 2023: War of the wounded hearts

In this column, the author revisits Mani Ratnam's Ponniyin Selvan-2 at IFFI 
IFFI 2023: War of the wounded hearts

There’s great joy in sampling new experiences—new food, for instance—when you are away from home. After a while, though, you do crave a taste of the familiar, a gentle reminder of the taste of home. And so, at IFFI, Goa, after a taste of cinema from across the world, I eagerly accepted the chance to revisit some Tamil films (without the distraction of the interval). Among the films I savoured again was Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan – Part 2. Much as it is with people about whom you learn more and more with repeated meetings, so it is with layered, meaningful films.

The first time we saw the film, there were all the political underpinnings we had to keep in mind. All the scheming, all the attempts at dethroning. The alliances, the mistrust. The possibility of war and assassination. Who deserves to be king? Who doesn’t? Watching the film again, it seemed to me that none of it mattered. Not the volume of the source material; not the sweeping landscape of its universe; not the weight of expectations; not the burden of these films being the first adaptations of a much-cherished literary work. All that mattered was the soul of the films, specifically Ponniyin Selvan-2. Was this an action film? A political drama? Well, it turns out the soul is of a period romance.

The second film is all about romantic love—and little else truly registers or matters. The film itself begins by capturing the butterflies of first love (between Nandini and Karikalan). In these spaces, Mani Ratnam delivers the kind of visual poetry that is rarely experienced in cinema. How wonderfully the joy of early romance segues into heartbreaking sadness within the same song, Chinnanjiru Nilave! In small glances at the ring from Nandini and in forlorn stares at the sky from Karikalan, how effectively this film, supposed to be this sweeping epic of action and politics, becomes instead the battleplace of unresolved feelings between two lovers! The grandness of Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan, in Mani Ratnam’s adaptation, gets delicately placed within the small confines of individual longing. “Will I waver in my ambition when I see him?” Nandini asks, almost to herself. Karikalan, on the other hand, cannot be stopped from seeing her—the rest of the world be damned. Death in her proximity would be more desirable than life in her absence. When Karikalan happily gives away his claim to the throne, it’s not politics. It’s indifference. It’s the death of ambition.

And it stems from love—the kind we see everywhere in the film. The best moment Kundhavai gets in the film is one of playful romance—a tender moment when momentarily she forgets all the scheming, all the politics, as Vandhiyathevan’s hand glides up her arm. In the presence of love, the film seems to be saying, bigger conflicts end up being insignificant. Watch the parcel of land in which this tender scene is shot. It’s a small island of sorts, a private place devoid of ambition and manipulation. It’s perhaps the only place in which such an innocent, pure moment could play out. In the absence of love, of course, everything crumbles to ruin. Isn’t that why Karikalan goes to kill? Isn’t that why the whole Chola kingdom is so threatened in the first place? After all, the king himself, Sundara Cholar, has lived a life of heartbreak. Isn’t it fitting then that it should be Mandakini herself, the love of his life, to save him from death, to save the kingdom from spiralling into destruction?

The climax—the real one in the film—is a glorious dance of death between Karikalan and Nandini. It’s where it all began, and it’s where it must all end. That one moment when Karikalan is stunned into silence by the simple act of Nandini turning to meet his eyes communicates emotions worth pages of dialogue. And at the end, there’s even time to register the value of Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar’s love for Nandini. Never mind the war, the politics, the opposing forces vying for the throne… Ponniyin Selvan-2 is a love story, and therein lie the seeds of a thousand battles.

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