Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan (Son of River Kaveri; Kaveri is Ponni) is a benchmark in epic movies from India. It is disgustingly lush and loud, and as good, if not better than Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy. If only because of the elements of drama and intrigue, which help the characters, especially the lead female characters essayed by Aishwarya Rai (as the cold, wronged, and scheming Nandhini) and Trisha (as Kundhavai, the very wise and masterly princess, and daughter of the emperor Sundara Chola), and the hero, Vikram (as Karikalan, son of Sundara Chola, betrayed by Nandhini in love), to come across as humans with motive and edge.
In Homer’s Iliad, after the war and the fall of Troy on account of Paris abducting Helen (wife of the Spartan king Menelaus) she is taken back to Sparta and lives rather happily with him. I have often thought about Helen after the war. She can’t have been happy, no matter what the legend says.
The character of Nandhini is much like a sequel, a traumatised Helen after Troy. Except, Ponniyin Selvan (PS1) is based on a historic novel by Krishnamurthy in the early 1950s, serialised in the magazine, Kalki, for four years, and then published as a novel in five volumes running to over 2,000 pages. The story is set in the 10th century Chola empire, and centres on their dynastic intrigues, and conflicts with their traditional rivals, the Pandya kings.
The wonderful thing about PS1, shot in a budget of Rs 250 crore (part II is about to hit the theatre, at the expense of another Rs 250 crore) is that it shows there is another history to India — equally incarnadine and perhaps more ancient than the much-exhausted trope of Mughal and British invasions of the North and the politics of victimisation so mythicised that the BJP, which has exploited it with great verve and talent, is now, and for the foreseeable future, in power.
Mani Ratnam is saying with this movie that the South has a history too and that it could be internecine.
PS1 shows in tribe and clan, caste and gender that everybody is potentially both a victor and a victim. Mani Ratnam renders that essential understanding of the human nature dramatically with spectacular violence and gripping narration: the kind of riveting epic pulp that Karan Johar tries to make in Brahmastra and fails because of the fundamental flaw of casualness with which he approaches both life and art. PS1 is proof that the vein of the typical commercial movie has not been exhausted. You just have to tap it better.
The plot is complex because the novel is expansive, its canvas vast, and characters are as many as convenience warrants it. The essential plot-line though is driven by Vandhiyadhevan (Karthi pulling out a light and smart, rakish performance) as Karikalan’s friend and trusted commander, venturing across the tricky and dangerous Chola land from Tanjore to Kanchi with a message to the king. The obstacles in his way bring to the fore his enterprise and soldiery. And it precipitates developments for the plot.
The movie is written by Mani Ratnam, Elango Kumaravel, and B Jeyamohan. The screenplay and dialogues keep the story going at a good clip despite a weakness for vast and synchronised choreography.
The jokes are rather pointed and often a play of what the characters ‘know’ of each other, and what is actionable on the surface. As in the example of the exchanges between Aishwarya and Trisha. They are so very complimentary to each other’s beauty and smartness; except they hate each other. What they say is not what they feel, which adds to the layers.
Again, in Mani Ratnam’s world, what we are most of the time is what we abhor to be. There is a great chasm between what we started out as and where we ended up. Aishwarya Rai’s Nandhini is very much a person like that. As explained in PS1, she switches her affections pretty fast, a transformation empowered and enabled by great beauty perhaps, and when a vengeful Vikram (Karikalan and Nandhini are the Romeo and Juliet of the Chola times) kills his rival King Pandya in war and love, Nandhini begins her long drawn out and intricate schemes from within the dim recesses of her fort.
As is well known, Mani Ratnam has been trying to make PS from the 90’s. Typical of the fantasy-land of the Indian cinema, a special movie like PS has had to die several times before it was born. The great Indian actor Mohan Lal once said that a ‘movie is a happening,’ meaning everything is uncertain about the product until it reaches the screen. Perhaps that is why stars are so much in demand. They offer some kind of minimal guarantee, perhaps.
There are a couple of issues, of course, with PS. For a man who is supposed to deliver a secret message to the king, the effervescent Vandhiyadhevan attracts just too much attention everywhere he goes. He fights, performs all sorts of acrobatics, and picks quarrels with great gusto. A spy should be a little more discreet, normally. But this is a war epic, and without Vandhiyadhevan’s mischief, the scope of action in the first half is almost nil, except for the first battle scene waiting to happen as soon as Kamal Haasan’s voice over narrates the context of the Chola/Pandya wars.
The wars are first class. So is the climactic battleship fight in the storm. You were on the broken ship, and sea was heavy, shifting and sliding over you. In other battles, the horses and elephants looked like they had been watching great action movies since they were this high. The violence was very gratifying. The production design by Thota Tharani is as good as any you can see anywhere in the world.
Mani Ratnam always exacts great performances from his actors. Jayam Ravi, normally eye-candy to my mind, as Ponniyin Selvan in this movie, is grand and powerful and does not, mercifully and maniacally, laugh whenever at a loss – a compulsive habit of the powerful in Indian cinema. The only actor who put laughter to good use and turned it totally potent and evil was Amjad Khan, as Gabbar Singh in Sholay.
This movie is noisy. When someone eats a snack, it is like a storm cracking off a branch from a tree. That can’t be helped, perhaps. But, when you get out of the theatre, you do doubt if there was a variation of the sound level at all. It is uniformly Big Bang. A R. Rahman’s music tries and often succeeds in keeping its head above the general cacophony. But if you felt as though Rahman must be the slightest bit running out of ideas, you may be excused, just this once.
None of it really matters. Ponniyin Selvan 1 is a singularly heroic achievement for Mani Ratnam. He makes a nearly exhausted formula of the epic action movie come alive not just because of special effects, but also because there is a great story, good storytelling, and actors who perform as characters, not as themselves.
The good cake is not just about the icing. Over the weekend PS1 collected more than Rs 100 crore. From my limited interactions with Bollywood producers and directors, the reason why the South scores is because the guys wearing the caps read more.
(C P Surendran is an author and senior journalist. Views are personal)