If you are not aware of author and freedom fighter Kalki Krishnamurthy’s iconic five-volume novel Ponniyin Selvan, Mani Ratnam’s cinematic adaptation might remind one of Game of Thrones. But before you even let that thought marinate, the ace director is quick to correct that: “[Perhaps] Game of Thrones is the English version of Ponniyin Selvan: 1.”
The novel, which spans about 2,200 pages, is a work of fiction but draws heavily from events and characters from the Chola dynasty. Condensing it to just two parts would be a herculean task by itself, and even Mani Ratnam agrees that the story could have been “done as five or ten different films.” However, the budget constraints decided the fate of the number of films.
Not just Mani Ratnam, PS:1 also marks the return of Aishwarya Rai Bachchan to the big screen after four years. But sitting amid a house full of cinephiles in a Delhi theatre who cheered and applauded as Rai-Bachchan entered the scene, is enough to know how much she was missed on the silver screen.
The story revolves around the intricate power struggle unfolding in and around the Chola empire. After receiving the reins of the kingdom from his brother, Sundara Chola (Prakash Raj) transfers it to his son Aditha Karikalan (Vikram). Madurantaka Uttama Chola (Rahman) who is the rightful heir seeks revenge and gets support from another king Pallavaraaya (Sarathkumar). In the meantime, Karikalan sends out his army commander Vanthiyathevan (Karthi) to decode what’s happening. From hereon begins a journey full of grand spectacle, light moments, A.R Rahman’s magnificent music, and well-choreographed action sequences.
The allure of ‘Ponniyin Selvan’
Krishnamurthy’s novel is considered to be one of the prominent pieces of Tamil literature. It was serialised from 1950-54 in Tamil magazine ‘Kalki’ on a weekly basis and later published as a book in 1955 called Ponniyin Selvan or ‘son of Cauvery’. The book’s magnanimity and cultural relevance are such that a sequel was also penned a decade later, by author Venkatesh Ramakrishnan titled Cauvery Mainthan.
And now, six decades later, Mani Ratnam has brought this epic saga to the screens. But he is not the first one to helm the arduous project. Stalwarts of Tamil cinema like MG Ramachandran, and Kamal Haasan also attempted but failed to adapt the legendary novel for a feature film. Even for Mani Ratnam, it took 40 years to be able to take the idea to the floors. In almost all cases, the film never saw the light of day, solely because of the lack of budget and technical aid for Indian filmmakers in those times.
Things changed after S.S. Rajamouli shattered the box office and opened doors for unthinkable possibilities with his two-part blockbuster series, Baahubali. Even Mani Ratnam, during promotional events for PS:1, lauded Rajamouli for showing the filmmakers that one “can tell stories in two parts and be successful”.
Writers Mani Ratnam, Elango Kumaravel, and B. Jeyamohan drew inspiration from the traditional storyline and weaved a screenplay peppered with a balance of action and drama and engaging enough for the contemporary audience.
Karthi and Aishwarya Rai steal the show
Come to think of it, the story that depicts the intricate power struggle unfolding in and around the Chola empire, PS:1 is an amalgamation of massive stars and legendary artists. Besides Rai-Bachchan, the film stars Vikram, Trisha, Karthi, Jayam Ravi, Aishwarya Lekshmi, Sobhita Dhulipala, R Sarathkumar, Rahman, R Parthiban, Vikram Prabhu, and Prakash Raj. AR Rahman, who has been working with Mani Ratnam for 30 years, reunited for the 16th time for PS:1.
Each actor gels well with the character fleshed out for them but Karthi has the most screen time. And, his well-rounded performance has you laughing with him and cheering for him all the time. Rai-Bachchan plays Nandini, the clever, scheming queen, with utmost panache and sophistication. It is hard to visualise anyone else in that character.
The film ends on a cliffhanger, with the second part slated for release in 2023. On the whole, the storyline is engaging with some muddled sub-plots sprinkled here and there. It can also get a tad overwhelming for someone not well versed with the universe of Ponniyin Selvan. But it is still worth a watch and guarantees a grand theatrical experience.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)