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Ponniyin Selvan-I: Spectacular adaptation of Kalki’s masterpiece

Updated: Nov 29, 2022

Based on the cult classic book series of Kalki Krishnamurthy, Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan-I arrived in theatres with the kind of hype that perhaps only KGF-2 matched this year, or Bahubali-2 in the recent past. The first film in the two-part series seemed to have lived up to the hype with world-wide box office collections coming close to Rs 450 crore by its second week in theatres.

The big question that arises every time a book is adapted into a movie is how faithful it has been to the original literature. This is where Mani Ratnam deserves full credit, along with Jeyamohan and Elango Kumaravel, who have co-written the screenplay. Taking on the epic task of adapting five novels, published in the 1950s, into two movies for viewers of the 21st century, they have ensured that the screenplay remains mostly true to Kalki’s work, while streamlining it for the silver-screen.

The film tells the story of the great ruler Arulmozhi Varman, who came to be known as Raja Raja Chola — the name that translates to Chola, king of kings. Varman was the Chola ruler who expanded his empire from modern-day Tamil Nadu all the way north to the Gangetic plains. Just like the novel, the film is based on real people and historical facts, while taking a few liberties here and there.

The film opens with the ailing Emperor Sundara Chola (played by Prakash Raj), who is on his death bed and may breathe his last any time. The battle for succession between the brave, but hot-tempered, crown prince, Aditha Karikalan (played by Vikram), and his younger brother, Arulmozhi Varman (played by Jayam Ravi), who is loved by the people, is the central plot of the first part. There is also another contender for the throne — Madurantakan (played by Rahman). It is primarily the age-old story of an heir who turns against his own when he is denied the throne.

For those who are not familiar with Kalki’s Tamil bestsellers, the first part of the two-part series introduces the viewers to the characters. One may struggle initially and take time to recognize the characters, since there are so many, and with complex names. However, as the movie progresses, the story is easier to understand.

The movie is a fast-paced affair, attempting to pack a lot of things in a span of just over two-and-a-half hours. It focuses on the important events and people, instead of trying to fit the entire contents of the book into the movie. As a result, there is hardly a dull moment across the 165-minute running time, and time flies by as one gets engulfed by spectacular visuals and the star-studded cast comprising Vikram, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Jayam Ravi, Karthi, Trisha, Aishwarya Lekshmi, Sobhita Dhulipala, Prabhu, R. Sarathkumar, Vikram Prabhu, Jayaram, Prakash Raj, and Rahman, among others.

Unlike the recent period films like Samrat Prithviraj, Padmaavat or Bajirao Mastani, there aren’t many larger-than-life battle sequences. So, if one is expecting another Bahubali, this film is not for them. However, if one is looking for realistic and layered characters with their little imperfections, tied together through great storytelling and impactful dialogues, they would not be disappointed by PS-I. Some parts do seem rushed, but perhaps that is due to an attempt to shorten the film.

Apart from the breath-taking cinematography and stunning visuals, it has been the effective performances which play a major role in bringing the Chola kingdom from the pages to life. Aishwarya Rai, who plays Nandini, proves through her performance why she is best suited for the role. From the very first scene, she, along with Trisha (as Kundhavai), has a strong presence throughout the movie. Vikram, Karthi and Jayam Ravi play their characters, Aditha Karikalan, Vallavarayan Vanthiyathevan and Arulmozhi Varman, flawlessly.

The film ends on a cliffhanger, setting the stage for the second part. There is no doubt that the wait would keep up the hype and PS-II, which is to be released in 2023, will be eagerly awaited. So, Mani Ratnam and company have their work cut out for them. The second part needs to not only match the first, but be even more grand, given the events that are expected to happen after the characters that have been established in PS-I.

(Vishav is a Jammu-based journalist, with over nine years of experience in various media organizations, including The Asian Age, The Pioneer and Outlook. He loves to teach, and has worked as Assistant Professor (Guest) at Delhi University for three years.)

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