It is rather unexpected that a person like me was asked to do a guest post reviewing Ponniyin Selvan Part-1 (“PSI"). I have watched a lot of good movies in Tamil but I am not one to be up to date on all the new Tamil movies. In fact, I haven’t been to the theater to see a Tamil movie in twenty years! But PSI – how could I not go see it in the theater?! This is Ponniyin Selvan we are talking about! The famous Kalki novel that everyone who grew up in Tamil Nadu would have known! I have not read the novel. But being someone who loves the Tamil language, I had to support this grand venture for sure. I did my homework and read the story summary in detail and watched YouTube videos so that I could enjoy the movie and not focus on understanding the plot. I wanted to watch the movie because I had not watched historical fiction in a long time. I love listening to pure Thamizh being spoken. Another reason for me to go watch PS1!
Did I love the movie? The movie was so hyped up in the media that I went in expecting some magic. But I came home wondering why I didn’t have that “Niraivu” (complete feeling). Fragments of the movie stayed in my mind. Karthi was good in his light-hearted ways. Jayram was very capable in how he acted with great timing and flow. The Ponniyin Selvan novel, as a movie, would have fared well with greater emotional depth had it been split into three parts. It felt as if the director was vacillating between it being a crowd pleaser versus retaining a tight grip on his standards of movie making. “Devaralan Aatam” song for example just did not fit in with the weighty feel of the story. It seemed like a song that would fit in better in some other movie like Chandramukhi.
Like the winter sky on a calm night, there were so many stars but their shine didn't come through because of how little time most of them had on screen. Prakash Raj was lying down most of the time. Prabhu was silently beaming next to Arulmozhi Varman. Vikram’s dialogues were not befitting his stature as the possible successor when he talks about his heartache over Nandhini. The heartache may have been real but the space given to bring it out was cramped. Aishwarya Rai was radiant but lacking spark because we were made to focus on her "beauty" with the warm glow of light on her face and the glittering jewels adding to it. It reminded me of the photoshopped models on magazine covers. I almost wish they had cast someone who would have brought out the conniving nature of that character a lot more. Vidya Balan maybe? Aishwarya Lekshmi’s costume in “Alaikadal” felt like I was about to watch “Nila Adhu Vaanathu mele” from Nayagan. A dream song between Vikram and Aishwarya with words like “Narumugaye” would have fit in better. I guess a sensuous song was thrown in to engage the masses? Shobita Dulipala does not have a Tamilian face for her role as Vanathi and I wonder if there is a paucity of Tamil actresses for such prized roles. Thankfully Trisha looking fresh as always was there to put a Tamil face there!
The cinematography was spectacular and carried the movie. It reminds me of the times my son would remark that a doubles team won because one player carried the match and made them win. Thotta Tharani’s experience and visual panache showed in the spectacular sets that made you feel like you could almost walk alongside the characters in those grand palaces. But even Ravi Verman and Thotta’s magic could not keep the attention of those who expected more for a whole three hours. A catnap was needed in the last third of the movie to get through the rest of it. The songs were good but not as catchy as some of ARR’s have been in the past. The Tamil language used in the movie also had bits of colloquial Tamil thrown in small doses like light music tunes thrown in the middle of a serious kutcheri. Why underestimate the masses?! If they come to see a historical fiction movie, they will appreciate the synchrony in the imagery and language representing that era.
All said, I have to confess that I plan to go see the movie again with my family. Why? Because it is the great Ponniyin Selvan and it is decently made even if did not measure up to the hype. It gave us the excitement of seeing a grand historical fiction movie based on the great Raja Raja Chola. It gives us a reason to look him up and learn about the great ruler and about the awe inspiring Brihadeeshvara Temple he built. It reminds us that the complexities of human interactions and emotions were the same thousand years back. I am grateful to the director Mr. Mani Ratnam for bringing this novel to life. The amount of research he and his team have put into every detail in bringing it to life shows and it is much appreciated. This movie demands a cerebral presence as it is to keep track of the many characters and twists in the plot. When you talk to someone, if they say all the right words but you don’t feel the authenticity of emotion, you come back feeling like something was missing. That is the feeling I had after watching this movie.
Mr. Mani Ratnam is to blame for setting our expectations high because of how well made some of his past movies have been. To this day when you think of the movie Nayagan, you feel connected to it. Ponniyin Selvan as a novel has a cult following and has been talked about so much that even just attempting to make a movie has the trappings of a high bar to meet. If Mr. Mani Ratnam could step back and view it in his home theater by himself away from his adoring fans and the high praise showered on him, he might be able to tighten it up and deliver an amazing PS2! After all, for someone of his caliber who has money and success in great measure, if he doesn’t raise his own bar, what else is left?!