Mani Ratnam’s screen adaptation of Kalki Krishnamurthy’s literary classic Ponniyin Selvan has been at least a couple of decades in the making. Krishnamurthy’s novel, which was published in a five-volume set in 1955, is a sprawling work of historical fiction based on real characters and events from the tenth century.
Ponniyin Selvan: I (part two will be released in 2023) distils the essence of Krishnamurthy’s gargantuan epic: the Chola empire is under threat from disgruntled courtiers and former rulers of the realm. Part one sets up the characters who matter the most in a narrative seething with treacherous murmurings in dark corners and grand battles on the land and the sea.
Ratnam’s screenplay, co-written with Elango Kumaravel and Jeyamohan and neatly structured by editor R Sreekar Prasad, presupposes a familiarity with Krishnamurthy’s hugely popular books. The ailing Chola emperor Sundara Chola (Prakash Raj) has named his first-born Aditha Karikalan (Vikram) as his heir. Aditha stacks up the battlefield victories that consolidate his father’s rule.
Aditha’s brother Arunmozhi (Jayam Ravi) is holding another military front in present-day Sri Lanka. Arunmozhi is the “Ponniyin Selvan” of the title, or the son of Ponni (another name for the Cauvery river). Their sister Kundavai (Trisha) rules in her father’s stead.
Trouble emerges on two fronts. The powerful siblings Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar (R Sarathkumar) and Chinna Pazhuvettaraiyar (R Parthiban) are plotting to replace Aditha with the prince Madurantaka (Rahman). Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar’s wife Nandini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) has skin in this succession game, with a personal connection to Aditha that neither of them has forgotten. A faction of the Pandyas, who were defeated by the Cholas in battle, is also lurking about.
An emissary doubles up as the glue that binds together the plot strands. Aditha’s trusted lieutenant Vandiyathevan (Karthi) journeys across the land taking messages from one dynast to the other. Along the way, Vandiyathevan befriends the Vaishnavite priest Azhwarkadiyan Nambi (Jayram), gathers information on the Pazhuvettaraiyar betrayal, and falls serially in love.
Women have pride of place in the narrative. Kundavai, whose brains are as dazzling as her looks, is a keen participant in royal affairs. The boatwoman Poonguzhali (Aishwarya Lekshmi) plays an important role in protecting the Cholas from harm. These proto-feminist women are counterbalanced by Nandini, an archetypal enchantress who uses her beauty to her advantage.
Ratnam’s reputation for precise and economic storytelling holds him in good stead when it matters the most. Whether it’s the first sighting of a battle-hardened Aditha riding through the mist or Nandini seen through a semi-parted curtain, Ratnam needs only a single moment to establish an entire character graph.
Ravi Varman’s jumpy camera looks down on the proceedings and winds between characters as they hop from one location to the next. There is no shortage of action sequences to keep the adrenaline flowing. AR Rahman’s martial background score is plastered over moments big and small. But it’s in the two-handers that the film is most vividly alive.
There are pairings both extant and in the making, as well as rivalries between people who have fallen out. Nandini and Kundavai have a polite slanging match, delivered through fixed smiles and arch words. Nandini’s relationship with her much older husband is conveyed with a meaningful look and a well-placed gesture.
Vandiyathevan, the trump card of both the novel and the film, is the most mobile of the characters, charming nearly everyone he meets with his mischievous demeanour. Apart from forging bonds with Aditha, Azhwarkadiyan and Arunmozhi, Vandiyathevan meets a series of impeccably styled women. It is through Vandiyathevan’s wonderstruck eyes that we gaze upon the eye-watering costumes (by Eka Lakhani) and the jewellery (from Kishandas and Co in Hyderabad).
The power dressing and Thota Tharrani’s sumptuous production design ensure a pageantry parade. But even at the end of 167 minutes, the themes of Ponniyin Selvan: I are still coming into view.
Part one is nearly all preface, and doesn’t extend beyond the obvious dictum about corrosive ambition. Ratnam’s deeply respectful approach to the novel, which includes the use of formal Tamil speech, cancels out a contemporary update on the political manouvering. We will have to wait for part two to learn if Ponniyin Selvan: I has a position at all on the consolidation of empire, as do recent historical fiction films and shows.
A comparison with SS Rajamouli’s Baahubali is correct only in that both films view power from the perspective of the palace, rather than what lies beyond it. The performances and staging in Ratnam’s film are in a realistic register, without the eye-rolling bombast of Baahubali.
And yet, there is no equal just yet of the iconic “Fuck-the-king!” moment from Game of Thrones. That show’s examination of how power play affected dynasts and commoners alike has no place in Ratnam’s conventionally classic and risk-free vision.