Ponniyin Selvan 1 Review: No one can defeat the Cholas except a slow pace

Shaurya Thapa
Shaurya ThapaOct 03, 2022 | 18:48

Ponniyin Selvan 1 Review: No one can defeat the Cholas except a slow pace

The Cholas are coming but with a mixed bag of an otherwise ambitious movie (photo-DailyO)

Mani Ratnam’s highly-anticipated historical epic Ponniyin Selvan: 1 (PS1) is finally here and it succeeds at showcasing the grandeur of the historical Cholas even though the payoff comes at a frustrating pace. 

First things first, PS1’s cast includes some real-life figures such as the sons of the Chola ruler Sundara Chola, but the plot is largely derived from the historical fiction novel Ponniyin Selvan by Kalki Krishnamurthy. Regardless of what Vikram and the rest of the cast says, a disclaimer at the beginning of the film itself tells you to not take the film’s events as historical fact (we said the same a week ago). 

A plot that feels complicated but is ultimately too simplistic: With that clarification out of the way, PS1 starts off with the grand entry of Vikram’s Aditha Karikalan, the eldest son of Prakash Raj’s Sundara Chola, as he successfully leads an attack against a rival Pandya ruler. The big-budget set pieces are on full display and the viewers might be hyped for what is to follow. 

Alas, what follows is a painstakingly long hour where Vikram disappears and Karthi’s Vallavaraiyan Vandiyadevan takes centrestage (a commander of the Chola army and a friend of Aditha Karikalan). The plot progresses when Karthi discovers a conspiracy to usurp the Chola throne. While most of the protagonists support Jayam Ravi’s Arulmozhi Verman (basically Vikram’s younger brother) as the rightful heir to the throne; the antagonists back someone else, the princes’ uncle. 

It is this Shakespearean clash of royal rivals within the Chola family that forms the premise with a lot of character names crammed into the narrative in some way or the other. But unlike a Shakespearean play, there aren’t many dialogue-driven moments for the characters to stand out. 

Given that I haven’t read the original novel, I cannot answer whether PS1 is a strong adaptation or not. However, from a layperson’s perspective, it takes time to comprehend PS1’s story and the stakes of the characters. While Mani Ratnam’s direction is expectedly praise-worthy, his screenplay (co-written with Elango Kumaravel) feels a tad bit too simplistic. B Jeyamohan’s dialogues come off as either overdramatic or just bland; there is hardly any in-between. 

In other words, the good characters look and sound extremely righteous while the others are caricatures of scheming and sly villains. Barring Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan’s Nandini, there is hardly any scope for grey areas, giving way to a familiar good vs evil story (a lot of which we have seen from the film industries). 

Performances are good but might not meet your expectations: For all his grand speeches on the Cholas at PS1’s promo events, Vikram gets surprisingly limited screentime as Aditha Karikalan. After a grand entry in the opening scene, he reappears only towards the second half. But for all the scenes he gets, Vikram delivers his dialogues with enough passion and intensity even though he might come off as too melodramatically loud in a few scenes. We understand his hopeless pain through the love that he still harbours for someone although one can crave for knowing more aspects of his personality. 

Jayam Ravi gets even less footage than Vikram but given that his character is the titular Ponniyin Selvan (the son of Kaveri) who will ascend the throne and become the great Raja Raja Chola I, he would definitely be a major player in the sequel. 

The actor who gets the most of the runtime is probably Karthi who shines with a charming, optimistic energy as Karikalan’s friend (even though we hardly ever see him with Karikalan). But as he continues smiling and flirting with literally every woman he sees, Karthi’s Vallavaraiyan can get on your nerves. 

This is what's ultimately saddening. Despite boasting a star-studded ensemble occupying every inch and corner of the film’s poster, PS1 hardly has any standout performances. Whoever shines, shines in bits and pieces. 

Aishwarya’s Nandini stands out: Even though Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan is not extremely exceptional, she still owns her role well as Nandini, the wife of the Chola kingdom’s treasurer. Nandini however is no tokenistic consort as she hatches conspiracies of her own. Ultimately, Rai’s Nandini definitely makes for a way more interesting character than the one-dimensional princes. 

Trisha’s Kundavai, the Chola princess and the sister to Vikram and Ravi’s characters, serves as a good companion character to Nandini. While Trisha is good enough on her own, her conversations with Nandini make for particularly notable moments. Both women despise each other but layer their hate with passive aggression and sarcasm. 

The technical aspects make it a visually-stunning period piece: All criticisms aside, PS1 definitely lives up to its grandiose budget. The battle scenes are grandly suited for the big screen, adding some momentum to the otherwise-slow pace. Not to spoil much but the action in the very final minutes will make you crave for more (which we're sure PS2 will fulfill). 

As the characters keep on travelling from one place to the other, cinematographer Ravi Varman (Anniyan, Barfi, Ram-Leela) captures the changes in environment from multiple angles and poetic widescreen framing. PS1 proves why Varman is after all, one of India’s most sought-after cinematographers. 

The official IMAX poster of PS1 (photo: Lyca)
The official IMAX poster of PS1 (photo: Lyca)

Art director and production designer Thotta Tharani also does a good job in the sense that all characters and kingdoms have their distinct style, not succumbing to unoriginal sword-and-sandals costumes and setpieces. Even the differences in every character’s jewellery is enough to show you Tharani’s attention to detail. 

AR Rahman’s background score is distracting and rather disappointing: Ever since Roja, AR Rahman has been Mani Ratnam’s constant creative collaborator, helming some of his most memorable career hits with this partnership. The songs of PS1, if not Rahman’s best recent work, are still as majestic as expected. But in terms of the background score, Rahman seems to have gone overboard with his composition being a little more dramatic than required.

With the visual aesthetic of PS1, one would expect music comparable to a modern Mahabharat or Ramayana serial. But what we get is some Indian soap opera music with the chants and hums getting too excessive in moments. There is even a part that goes like “dhum tana na na” in a scene from the second half!

Loud chants and hums are expected in Rahman's score for PS1 but there's literally a 'dhum tana na na' moment! (photo- memeflip)
Loud chants and hums are expected in Rahman's score for PS1 but there's literally a 'dhum tana na na' moment! (photo- memeflip)

Final verdict: Even with a runtime of 2 hours and 47 minutes, PS1 only manages to be a prelude for most of its scenes. The pace does pick up towards the latter half but the end product is still a heavy slowburn. Perhaps a longer TV miniseries format might have suited the novel where every major character gets their moment to shine. 

Instead, what we get is Ratnam chaotically cramming in multiple character arcs (even when the characters can easily fit within the aforementioned binaries of good and evil). As expected, a sequel is slated for a release next year that might provide more context on these characters. But for now, most of the ensemble lacks depth.

Comparisons with SS Rajamouli’s Baahubali duology were made ever since PS1’s teaser dropped. Such a comparison feels wrong given that both period movies are extremely different in style. For starters, PS1 doesn’t rely on the over-the-top battle strategies and weapon systems that stem out of Rajamouli’s eccentrically creative mind. Even though PS1 is based on a fictional novel, Ratnam’s adaptation does try to be realistic in its military action. If only the melodrama of the dialogues would have been reduced a little, PS1’s narrative would have also shone as brightly as its visuals. 

We’re going with 3 out of 5 for Ponniyin Selvan 1. 

Last updated: October 03, 2022 | 18:48
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