Ponniyin Selvan -I: Achieves the rare feat of bringing the Cholas back!

Caveat: This is not a Maniratnam fan post. This is not a Kalki (the man who wrote the original magnum opus) fan post either. This is a review by a person who has read the book.

Ponniyin Selvan - l is a long-time dream of Maniratnam and so many million fans of the sprawling novel. After decades of being on the brink of getting launched to getting shelved, the film is finally out. It was an arduous task to stay away from the spoilers and reviews of the movie as I didn't get tickets to watch it in the first three days. There was also this mild trepidation of the possibility of this enormous task foundering royally. With all these mixed feelings when I watched it finally on the big screen, I felt gratitude. Not just because I got to witness the spectacle on the big screen. Or for watching a period film after the Baahubali franchise. But also because it stays true to the source material.

The film has a stellar cast with Karthi, Vikram, Jayaram, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Trisha, Prakash Raj, Rahman, Parthiban, Sarath Kumar and a lot more. In films that have such a huge star cast, some characters may be underwritten. But it is not the case in PS-I. Even though the writing focuses more on highlights from the books, the depth of the characters is not missed out. The best part is that the depth of these characters is established in clever dialogues and fantastic visuals.

One of my favourite scenes is the one that involves Nandini and Kundhavai where we see just half of each of their faces in subsequent shots. Sreekar Prasad's editing, Ravi Varman's lighting and ARR's lilting music elevate this scene of the cold war to a level that needs to be felt while watching on the big screen.

The first chapter of the first book has pages and pages of description about the riches and the verdant landscape of Thanjavur. The master stroke of Maniratnam the writer is in the way he described all of that in the fantastic Ponni Nadhi song. Ravi Varman's camera captured all that was described - the lush landscape, the brimming Ponni river, the singing and dancing womenfolk, the playful kids and the devout brahmins offering their prayers to the sun. The brilliance doesn't end here. The way Aditha Karikalan's suppressed feelings erupt into Chola Chola is pure poetry. Devaralan Aattam is another instance where Maniratnam shows why he is a legend. Here too, pages and pages of description of the heady environment and the weird ritual are beautifully captured in the eccentric dance moves and intense score by ARR. I also liked the creative liberty taken in the Ratchasa Maamaney to show the first interaction between Vandhiyathevan and Kundhavai. I missed Sol Sol song on the screen though.

As much as I liked the decision and placement of the songs, I couldn't help but wonder if the decision to do away with songs (at least the Ratchasa Maamaney which wasn't in the "script") could've led to more action and interaction between the characters. While the fans of the epic on the paper would get the nuances without having to be explained in visuals, the poor ones who haven't read the books might find it a tad bit difficult to understand the same. As a result, the connection with the characters might not be as deep. This is the reason why there are complaints about the action being rushed.

To all the naysayers I would like to say one thing. While I am with you on the potential of making this a web series, it also needs to be understood that a film is a decision that one man took. This is an audacious decision. Note that not even one frame in the film shows any lack of effort or thought. Right from the production design to the careful usage of the language even in the lyrics, there is painstaking attention to detail to take us to 9th-century Tamil Nadu. One should also keep in mind that this is Maniratnam's version of Ponniyin Selvan. While I wouldn't mind watching a 10-hour film with every minute detail of the book shown on the screen, I am aware of the constraints that this two-hour-forty-seven-minutes saga has all the highs and lows of the first three books in the series.

In essence, the Cholas did really come back (which reminds me, was "The Cholas are coming" Mani's response to "The Winter is coming"?) and took us to the murky world of flirtation, seduction, betrayal, scheming plots and a rich tour of the diverse Chola kingdom.

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