At the end of Ponniyin Selvan: Part 1, Mani Ratnam left us at the bottom of the ocean, where the Chola prince Arulmozhi Varman (Jayam Ravi) and his loyal lieutenant Vandiyathevan (Karthi) were left to die by Pandya assassins. The duo were rescued by a mute woman whose resemblance to the Chola courtier Nandini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) was more than a coincidence.

Water, and its secrets, drive the concluding part to the 2022 film. Ponniyin Selvan: Part 2 is the rare sequel that matches up to the hype created by its predecessor. The Tamil film, adapted from Kalki Krishnamurty’s classic historical fiction novel, has been dubbed into several languages, including Hindi.

With the graphs of a dizzying array of characters having been established in the first movie, Ratnam and co-writers Jeyamohan and Kumaravel dig deeper into the dramaturgy aspect this time round. The pace is more measured, with a greater emphasis on the consequences of impulses that cannot be contained and dreams that are not meant to be. Vikram, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Karthi are among the standout actors in the sprawling cast.

The new film begins with a young Nandini (Sara Arjun) emerging out of a pool. Sensuality – one of Ratnam’s strengths and among the chief draws of his mesmerising sequel – washes over the star-crossed romance between Nandini and a young Aditha Karikalan (Santosh Sreeram). Barely anything is said, with one of AR Rahman’s soulful tunes conveying everything we need to know about their thwarted love.

Vikram in Ponniyin Selvan Part 2 (2023). Courtesy Madras Talkies/Lyca Productions.

The tenth-century Chola kingdom led by Sundara Cholan (Prakash Raj) is battling a conspiracy to oust his family that is led by Nandini’s present husband, Periya Pazhuvettayar (R Sarathkumar). Nandini has teamed up with the Pandya rebels, led by Ravidasa (Kishore), to avenge Aditha’s perceived betrayal.

Periya Pazhuvettayar wants to place Sundara Cholan’s cousin Madhurantaka (Rahman) on the throne. Among the important players are Sundara Cholan’s daughter Kundavai (Trisha) and her siblings Aditha and Arulmozhi, Vandiyathevan, the priest Thirumalai (Jayaram) and the boatwoman Poonkuzhali (Aishwarya Lekshmi).

Trisha in Ponniyin Selvan Part 2 (2023). Courtesy Madras Talkies/Lyca Productions.

Ratnam’s command over a dense plot that can fill several films feels staggeringly effortless. The veteran moves seamlessly between battlefield action and verbal feints, wide shots that showcase Thota Tharrani’s stately production design and intimate close-ups that give every major and minor player the opportunity to make an impression. Cinematographer Ravi Varman’s fluid camera movements and editor Sreekar Prasad’s near-invisible editing have the flow of the Ponni river that inspired both book and movie.

AR Rahman’s songs and background score provide the aural accompaniment for sequences that are visually stunning without trying to be. The oppositional elements that mark the source material translate into emotions as grand as they are of a human scale. As Ratnam draws a shimmering curtain on events, not a shot is wasted, and not a line feels out of place.

Ratnam’s deeply respectful, family-friendly approach towards Krishnamurthy’s novel ensures that the films stay on the surface without delving into too many subtextual possibilities. Amidst the gorgeous visuals and gracefully choreographed movements of characters, the impeccably clad actors and the attention to period detail, a sense of remorse for ruinous decisions just about sneaks through.

The spell lingers from the start of the 164-minute film to its conclusion. When the spell lifts, we are left with marvel at Ratnam’s filmmaking bravura and a halfway peek into the souls of deeply flawed humans.

Ponniyin Selvan Part 2 (2023).

Also read:

Mani Ratnam on what we can expect from ‘Ponniyin Selvan 2’

‘A magic that touches you inside’: The ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ book that has inspired Mani Ratnam’s film