Ponniyan Selvan – 1 works around a screenplay that misses out on clarity. The confusion in the narrative takes the attention away from the otherwise amazingly shot film with the best of the production values
“We welcome our readers to get into the boat of imagination and go sailing down the flood of sourceless, endless. Let us travel a century for every second and quickly reach the times of a thousand years before the present…”
This is how the most popular novel in Tamil literary history Kalki’s ‘Ponniyan Selvan’ (translation by Indra Neelameggham, 1993) begins with describing the amazing monsoon months in Tamil Nadu and the Veera Narayan Lake reservoir. And, along what the author describes as the ocean like reservoir with seventy-four flood gates, the valiant Vallavarayan Vandiya Devan rides along enjoying the beautiful sights and sounds of the country side. A scene that is one of the most resplendently shot ones in the film by the master at his game – Maniratnam.
His ‘Ponniyan Selvan – I’ is one of the most awaited films in recent times. It is the film adaptation of the novel that appeared as a serial in a magazine in the 1950s, published as a five-part book and was translated as well. The story is set in the grand Chola period of 10th century when the brave Chola kings were rising back to power and were expanding their kingdom stretching all of south India, and Srilanka, Kalinga, Pataliputra (East Coast), Indonesia, Maldives etc., especially during the reign of the legendary Raja Raja Chola. He is the hero of the story Ponniyan Selvan – Arulmozhivarman. This is just part one of the film, and for most part explains the premise of the film, while introducing the characters.
I begin the review the film with a salute to Maniratnam to have taken upon this noble deed – noble because there is a glaring gap in south film industry when it comes to adapting the wonderful literature and also recreating a slice of history, especially in the last few decades. ‘Ponniyan Selvan’ yet again sees Mani sir recreating the places and times quite stunningly and you cannot steer away your eyes from the visual splendour be it in the form of actors, or the canvas on the whole.
With Vikram, Karthi, Jayam Ravi, Aishwarya Rai, Trisha, Aishwarya lekshmi, Sobhita Dhulipala, Prakash Raj, Sharat Kumar and so on, it is quite a line-up of talented actors that you see in the film.
Here are the highlights of the story, which are bulleted for clarity. In fact, it is this clarity that went missing in the story narration, that kept the attention away from the otherwise amazingly shot film with the best of the production values. It is a complex plot that kept the audience in confusion, with names of places and people that come and go and inter-related in many ways. So, for most part you are trying to get your head around the characters, and by the time you understand the whole line of inheritance, the feud, and the plots – you reach the end of the film.
- The story starts with a war that Aditha Karikalan (Vikram) wages against the Pandya kings, a significant war – he kills their king Veera Pandyan and wins the war. From then on, the Pandyan loyalists plot to take revenge and get back the lost glory. He is also a hurt man and is still pining for the lost love of his childhood, Nandini (Aishwarya Rai). He turns bitter when he sees her begging for the life of Veera Pandyan. Nandini marries a much older Tanjavur minister and so Aditha refuses to go back, and is happy waging wars and fighting enemies.
- Aditha’s brother is the reason for the title of the film. He is the third child of the Chola king – Sundara Chola (Prakash Raj). Arulmozhi (Jayam Ravi) is an obedient son and a law-abiding citizen who is on an expedition to win Srilanka.
- Their sister Kundhavai (Trisha) is beautiful, intelligent with great political acumen, and is in Pazhayarai when she hears of a political plot to dethrone her father.
- It is their uncle Uttama Chola (Madhurantakan), whose father was the original heir but gave away his right to his brother Sundara Chola. Hence, Uttama Chola feels it’s his right to rule, and hence hatches a plan to dethrone the king, against his mother’s wishes.
- With him are Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar (Sharath Kumar) – the treasurer, and the most powerful person after the king and had been a great warrior; and his brother (Chinna Pazhuvettaraiyar) who is also Dalapathi. He meets the vassal kings secretly at Kadamboor to make a plan for Uttama Chola to become the king. He marries the much younger Nandini and is charmed by her, and gives into her vile plotting.
- Nandini is the beautiful princess of Pazhuvoor, who nurtures a hatred for the royal family and desires the throne. She is seen plotting for the murder of the two princes, and teams up with with the pandiyas.
- Ponniyan Selvan – Arul Mozzhi (Jayam Ravi) is known thus because it is believed that he was saved from drowning at the age of five by Mother Kavery herself. He is brave, merciful, righteous prince, and is loved by all.
- Vannathi (Sobhita Dhulipala) is the beautiful daughter of a vassal king – Kodumbalur Chinna Velar and a dear friend to Kundavai and loves Arulmozhi immensely.
- And then there is the boat woman = Poonguzhali – who is loyal to the cholas and loves Arul Mozzhi. More to her character in the plot will perhaps be revealed in the later part of the movie.
- Periya Vellar (Prabhu) commander of the forces in the south who fights alongside Arul Mozhi.
The novel is a fictionalized story rooted in history and brings forth the grandeur of a great kingdom in our history. And, recreating this story with its plots, emotions, tales of bravery interspersed with detailed description of the times – is indeed challenging. But by missing out on the most crucial part of narration – Maniratnam has done grave injustice to the story, the history and to his own legacy. Perhaps he assumed that a popular novel that Ponniyan Selvan is – wouldn’t need much of an introduction – but then – here is a pan-India film – and for a story that is going to be made in parts – the first part fell short.
Is it another lost opportunity – only time will tell…
Verdict: A Must Watch Film, for it’s historic value – Do not Miss!