Ponniyin Selvan 2 Movie Review: The intimate in the grand, the emotion in the chaos

Ponniyin Selvan 2 Movie Review: The intimate in the grand, the emotion in the chaos

Rating:(3.5 / 5)

So, Ponniyin Selvan 2. Where do we begin? I suppose a good starting point would be reflecting on the film’s own starting point… which instantly bares the soul of both Mani Ratnam films: A steadfast focus on the emotional and the intimate. The film is truly comfortable when it’s up, close, and personal with some of its main characters, when it leaves aside, for a moment, all the complex politics and the nefarious schemes that are at play in the big, bad world outside. Consider, for a moment, where the first film ended. A prince seems dead. The king wanted him arrested. Pandiyan spies are out and about to end the Chola reign. A dangerous spy has infiltrated the Chola kingdom. Meanwhile, a challenger for the throne is forging alliances.

Director: Mani Ratnam

Cast: Vikram, Aishwarya Rai, Karthi, Trisha, Prakash Raj, Jayaram

Amid such heightened political tension, such tumult, Mani Ratnam makes the audacious decision to open the second film by capturing the beginnings of the tender romance between young Karikalan and young Nandhini. This isn’t Game of Thrones (there’s no equal focus on several conflicting parties); this isn’t Succession (there’s no detachment or a dark sense of humour). This is Mani Ratnam grounding this epic in the ruins of an adolescent romance. This idea is further cemented when we realise that the king, Sundara Cholan, himself encountered something similar, with someone who didn’t look all too different from the woman his son desires. Voila! Does it not make sense then the king should deal with Nandhini the way he did? Isn’t that also why he gets Karikalan? “There was a time in my life when I wasn’t too dissimilar…” rues the king. There’s the expectation of an extravaganza surrounding these Ponniyin Selvan films, but it is fascinating (and brave?) that Mani Ratnam focusses more on these tight, emotional spaces than on the expansivity of complex politics or grand action. It’s evidenced in all those recurring, memorable tight close-ups.

In fact, the film feels almost half-hearted when it’s talking about shifty individuals and shifting loyalties. I suppose that’s a product of having so much to cover. Here’s Madhuranthakan winning over new armies. Here’s Pazhuvettarayar colluding with chieftains. Here’s Parthibendran manipulated by Nandhini. Here’s Vandhiyathevan evading some spies. It’s a lot, and the film seems almost short of breath as it rushes through them. That perhaps explains why we even get some expository dialogue, like when Vasuki, the maid of Nandhini, reminds the latter about her own life—when it seems like she’s actually just reminding us. Even at more than 330 minutes (including the first film), it feels like we are merely scratching the surface of our understanding of the many characters populating this universe.

Unless we talk about the likes of Nandhini and Karikalan, of course. Both Aishwarya Rai and Vikram are explosive when called upon. There’s a great moment with Nandhini when she takes down Ravidasan by casually remarking that he would never be able to accomplish anything she cannot. And yet, does Nandhini really come off seeming all that powerful or crafty by the end? Almost every single character speaks of her beauty—and she seems like an enchantress aware of the sway she has over people. And yet, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that she almost… tapers off, without much consequence. Karikalan is half-dead from the beginning, anyway.

And yet, my most favourite part of this film is the Karikalan-Nandhini face-off at the end. It feels so literary, so rife with possibilities, as both characters grapple with their past, present, and future in a momentous, ominous meeting. As that conversation hurtles towards his breathless, emotional end, it feels like the film does too. As the film sinks into a brief period of mourning following it, I was catching my breath, reeling from what had just happened. Even a war scene, later on, doesn’t come close to matching such conversations for significance and intensity. Everything else after that feels like a post-script.

I wish the film had done more with Kundhavai (Trisha) though. We don’t get much of the tactical mastermind she’s supposed to be; she’s rather reactive in this film. Perhaps her best display of strength is in that scene when she reacts to the news of Arunmozhi passing away. Her eyes betray sadness, but she isn’t one to outwardly show weakness (not quite unlike Nandhini herself). But I can hardly remember any other moments of fortitude from a woman, who came across as such a pivotal character in the first film. Her most striking contribution in Ponniyin Selvan 2 comes in the form of a delicate love scene with Vandhiyathevan by the waterside. It’s a scene that speaks of the sensations of early love—and it shows what Mani Ratnam can do in such spaces. However, this relationship itself feels like a bit of an entertaining distraction.

As strange as it is to say about a film that is about warring armies and assassination plans, this isn’t a film that thrives in moments of machismo. It’s almost disinterested in it, and this comes through particularly in its slightly generic, even if intimate, action. What PS-2 is more interested in is all the atmosphere. You remember how wonderfully Mani Ratnam captures a marketplace in which Vandhiyathevan eludes capture (in the first film)? Take the pre-interval block of this film (the one in the first film speaks of the pain and regret of Karikalan; here, it speaks of the assurance and confidence of Arunmozhi). In a breathless sequence full of music and energy, we see Arunmozhi stepping out of a monastery, as the air remains thick with danger. When someone warns him, he shows why he’s king material by saying, “If I can’t trust my people, how can I hope to rule them?” After all the set-up and the tension, when he casually escapes the danger (and a bad man flies away, as if punched by a mass hero), it doesn’t exactly seem like a reward. But as I said, the rewards of this film don’t lie in heroism or machismo. They are in the moments leading up to it.

I suppose it’s the scale of the source material that I’m still left with many questions. The transformation of Madhuranthakan. The acceptance of Pazhuvetturayar. The motivations and choices of Mandakini. The extent of Nandhini’s relationship with Veerapandiyan. I could go on and on, and while I’m not sure if PS-2 is in every way the wholly satisfying experience I sought after the first film, we must remember what it must have taken to finally give us adaptations of a novel Tamil cinema has been too intimidated to touch. With all the focus on Aditha Karikalan and his doomed romance in the Ponniyin Selvan films, I even wondered whether Mani Ratnam might have been more freed, making an Aditha Karikalan spinoff, shorn of the pressures of having to condense all the surrounding material. In fact, if you think about it, despite all the expectations and all the anticipation, PS-1 and PS-2 feel like he’s, as they say these days, gone off and done his own thing. That’s its own kind of lesson.

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