Monday, May 1, 2023

Two Diamonds in a Sea of Gems - My essay on Ponniyin Selvan (Part 2)

Disclaimer: I have not read Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan as yet.  This is my review of Mani Ratnam’s film, Ponniyin Selvan (Part 2).

This is it.  This is the Vikram performance that we have all been waiting for.  The monstrously talented actor who has acted in scores of forgettable films in the last two decades, finally gets a role that is befitting his talents.  We saw glimpses of what Mani Ratnam could do with Vikram in Raavanan and in Ponniyin Selvan-1 (PS-1).  But those feel like appetizers to what he serves us in Ponniyin Selvan-2 (PS-2).  Even though the actor did not feature in the Navarasa series, his performance is an exhibition of all the rasas.  His eyes do much of the work.  Whether he expresses anguish over his lost love, relief in hearing good news about his brother, disappointment in seeing his friend seemingly turn against him, arrogance in entering a palace or disdain when seeing his lover’s husband, Vikram’s powerful eyes tell their own story.  Coupled with his fantastic diction and assured body language – you have not lived as a movie buff till you have seen him in his final scene – his performance is one for the ages. 

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, pitted against the powerhouse that Vikram is, manages to hold her own in bringing to life a character that has more than a few shades of gray.  Mani Ratnam has always been a master at ensuring that the human side of antagonistic characters are fleshed out.  That even when we may not quite agree with them or root for them, that we understand their psychological motivations.  Thanks to the balanced writing and Aishwarya Rai’s superbly controlled performance – the quiet, internalized intensity is a riveting contrast to Vikram’s raw, unhinged portrayal -  what we see is a person driven by rage and fury of her own but one who knows fully well that she is not doing right by the ones that truly love her.  With a slew of minute expressions, firm but measured delivery of the lines and a regal presence overall, Aishwarya Rai turns in her best performance yet.  At the end of the day, it is the scenes featuring Vikram and Aishwarya Rai that give the film true emotional depth.  Depth that is sadly missing in the rest of the film. 

The machinations, the political intrigue and the battle for power were all set up perfectly in PS-1.  I went into PS-2 hoping that the plot would unravel in a way that would do justice to the central themes and the seemingly powerful characters.  But in my estimation, PS-2 flatters to deceive.  Mani Ratnam, along with his co-writers Jeyamohan and Kumaravel, had established the core traits of the key characters in PS-1.  But apart from Vikram and Aishwarya Rai, none of the other characters truly get their due.  They appear when the plot needs them to step in and offer a few expositions.  Except for a couple of lovely little moments – the one featuring Trisha and a blindfolded Karthi is vintage Mani Ratnam – there were many moments where what I saw on screen was inelegant writing staged in a way that tried, but failed, to obscure the shallowness of the writing.  The hurried way in which Vinodhini makes Aishwarya Rai recall her past or the rushed manner in which key truths are exposed in the scene on the ship, made me wonder if Mani Ratnam felt that everything outside of Vikram and Aishwarya Rai were incidental loose ends that needed to be tied, even if clumsily.

You know that a film is not quite working for you the way it should when the lines spoken are actually supposed to sting but you are sitting in a theater unmoved.  Jeyamohan comes up with some fantastic lines.  (Having not read the novel, I am attributing the lines to the credited screenwriter.) One line goes, “ArasargaL sollum poiyai arasiyal enbargaL.”  Some of Jayam Ravi’s idealistic lines in the climactic portions are splendid.  Yet the scenes in which they are housed never seem to make them pop out of the screen, say the way Sivaji Ganesan’s “aana vedhai…naan pottadhu” line exploded onto you from within the narrative of Thevar Magan.  And speaking of the written and spoken word, the diction of some of the actors (the “La” and “Zha” sounds were rarely heard from some of the actors!) left much to be desired.

Ravi Varman’s cinematography and Mani Ratnam’s staging too worked best in the scenes with Vikram and Aishwarya Rai.  There is a marvelous shot of the duo framed in a tight close-up which, by itself, increases the intensity of the moment manifold.  Ditto for AR Rahman’s searing background score for their scenes together.  All this serves to underscore my point that when done in service of powerful, nuanced writing, every element of a film’s craft will shine. 

Alas, PS-2, for me, will be remembered for two unforgettable characters brought to life by two shining performances in a film that should have been about much more.  And given the array of dazzling talents behind and in front of the camera, this experience is akin to two shiny diamonds glistening on a surface where the rest of the gems are hidden underneath.