Ponniyin Selvan: 1, directedby Mani Ratnam, is the first of the two films in the Ponniyin Selvan franchise, the official adaptation of Kalki Krishnamurthy’s 1955 novel series of the same name.
When the ailing emperor of the Chola dynasty Sundara Chola (played by Prakash Raj) is ready to be succeeded by his son Adithya Karikalan (played by Viram), enemies begin conspiring against the succession. Amidst all this, Karikalan sends his friend Vanthaiyathevan, a spy, to bring back his siblings Kundhavai (played by Trisha) and Arunmozhi Varman (played by Jayam Ravi).
This synopsis is not even one-fourth of what unfolds in the film. To condense almost two and a half novels of a series which is touted as the best work in the history of Tamil literature into a three-hour film is a mammoth task to say the least. The film has to stay loyal and do justice to the legacy of the original work and its die-hard followers spanning generations of readers while also pleasing the ones who are new to Kalki’s universe.
The extent to which you will like the film is highly subjective because it depends a lot on your expectations from it. If you want a popcorn entertainer with a larger-than-life setup filled with crowd-pleasing moments, I’m afraid that you’ll be in for a disappointment. The film’s target audience is the one that craves for more than just a fantasy-land and is ready to flex its brain cells in order to follow the dense plot jam-packed with twists, conspiracies, manipulation and betrayal (think Mahabharat for reference). It requires you to follow every dialogue, make a mental map of relations among the characters while watching the film and focus on what and who is being spoken about, because it can get difficult to keep track of the events taking place in case you plan to watch it passively.
There is something to admire in practically every frame of the film, but despite the grandeur and the staggering beauty of the set-pieces, the efforts put into making things realistic and grounded ironically make the deliberate imperfections turn every scene near flawless. However, the VFX-induced artificiality of the background in a fight sequence at a sea-shore is easily noticeable; a rescue scene featuring an elephant, which was very crucial for the plot, is also choreographed in a generic way, lacking the element of mystery the sequence deserved.
Much has already been said about the cinematography by Ravi Varman and the music by AR Rahman and the only way to know how great they are is by experiencing them for yourself, if possible, in IMAX format.
There is no doubt in the fact that PS: 1 would have collapsed without the strong performances it boasts of. Karthi’s Vanthaiyathevan, from whose perspective a large part of the film has been shot, is the most lovable character of all. He is flirtatious and funny but equally smart. Vikram convincingly brings out both the physical prowess of Karikalan and the ache he suffers from his tragic past with his previous lover Nandhini. Jayam Ravi totally justifies his titular role of Ponniyin Selvan and the rest of the cast, including Trisha, Jayaram, Shobhita Dhulipala and Aishwarya Lekshmi play their characters with full conviction too.
But it is the antagonist of the film, easily the most layered character, Nandhini, played by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, in which the film finds its heart and soul. Her vile serpent smile and the appetite for the throne in her eyes curtain the pain and the thirst for vengeance burdening her existence (a theme that will be fully explored in the upcoming part). Her blinding beauty is a weapon for manipulation, cleverly defining the course of events. Watch out for her expressions in Adithya Karikalan’s flashback that is staged right before the intermission and the scene where the camera lingers on her gaze that eyes the throne brimming with an unfulfilled dream; it is only a testimony to how well the actress has mastered the art of conveying volumes while not speaking any dialogue.
But with all the twists in the story and a narrative jumping back and forth in different places, PS: 1 leaves you with very little to chew on as it serves mostly as a set-up film and leaves much of the interesting part to the second movie (to be released next year).
A nail-biting cliff-hanger that cleverly allows you to connect some dots and make theories of your own will make sure that you start counting days until the release of the next film.
I am going with 3.5 out of 5 stars for Ponniyin Selvan. To watch or not, do you really have to ask?