Thamizh Talkies: Why Ponniyin Selvan has received such love
The writer is a producer and an art curator
“Aditha, aval Pazhuvettaraiyarin manaivi.”
Kundavai conveys the first line with her complete understanding of the enormity of what her elder brother has turned into because of her intervention. Aditha Karigalan conveys the second line with the gravity of perhaps knowing what lies ahead… Two simple lines, which are at best a word of caution become a potent foresight into an empire’s destiny. This scene is an example of how Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan leaves its audience spellbound in its wake! If there’s ever been a famous novel that’s also hit the proverbial pot of gold as a feature film, it is this one.
As an experiment, I have seen the film thrice so far with different sets of audience. In my third outing, the person sitting next to me confided that he was watching it for the fourth time. I asked him the reason and he said, “Mani Ratnam has made a historical!” That one line sums up the initial opening for the film which has got amplified with endorsements from two of India’s biggest superstars (Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth) at the audio launch and the trailer release. From day 1, the film has raced towards breaking all possible box-office records with a horsepower hitherto unseen (and rather literally, the men on horsebacks, battle sequences and combat scenes shine).
Here are three main reasons I think this film works:
First, the story. Kalki gave us an insider view into palace corridors that spoke of secrecy and wise women, chieftains at war and conspirators inside the royal court, men and women, battling their inner demons while countering their foes outside, plot points that were implausible yet not impossible in an era of limited communication. History and fiction was merged to weave a dramatic, attention-grabbing tapestry.
Second, the film itself. A filmmaker is ‘a lion-tamer of the unexpected’ and this adage fits Mani Ratnam best, and more so for this film. Each scene opens with ‘movement’. Someone walks into the frame (Vanthiyathevan is always seen with acrobatic antics until he meets Arulmozhivarman, who is stoic even in the middle of the Indian Ocean!); or someone exits. The scene is never still.
Also, the exchanges are brief. Take the Vanthiyathevan-Nandhini exchange, for example.
Vanthiyathevan: Naan oru vaira surangatheye paarkkirean.
Or how about a later scene between Kundavai and Vanthiyathevan?
Kundavai: Ungal uyirkku aayiram ponn. Thalai badhiram.
Vanthiyathevan: Uyir ungaludaiyadhu Devi (And AR Rahman takes over).
The scenes leap in forward motion with not a single minute wasted to indulge even a song. The whole 'Chola Chola' song is picturised in an elaborate manner but retained are only lines that speak of Karigalan’s unrequited love. A trippy monologue on heartbreak is the lead to a celebratory song which is an oxymoron in itself! But so is Aditha Karigalan, a man marred by his own languish. Vikram’s lifetime best performance has found a new audience for the actor across age-groups who look at him in absolute, almost reverential awe. The pre-interval scene staged and lit like a stand-alone defining piece of art, is set to the thumping chorus lines from the same song, and has all but one dialogue from Veerapandiyan, “Nandhini…”
And finally, the audience. Give us a good story that has great performances, emotional beats and good music and cinematography, and they have shown they will support it. The speculation and pressure mounted against Mani Ratnam (mainly on social media) worked in his favour as the general audience (meaning families, groups of friends, corporate bookings, bulk ticket sales) are lapping up this political action-drama. The filmmaker demands our unwavering focus on what he’s mounted up onscreen and he rewards our attention by giving us a viewing experience that’s pleasing to all senses. Kundavai (Trisha in her most empowered performance) and Nandini (Aishwarya Rai nails the angst of a woman who carries the weight of her past, akin to her twin-flame, Karigalan), and then, Vanthiyathevan and Arunmozhivarman (Karthi and Jayam Ravi’s offscreen camaraderie pervades into their performances) along with Aditha Karigalan take us into Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan. He succeeds in keeping us inside his world, waiting for Part Two.