The most popular novel in Tamil literary history Kalki’s ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ (translation by Indra Neelameggham, 1993) begins with describing the amazing monsoon months in Tamil Nadu and the Veera Narayan Lake reservoir. And, along what the author describes as the ocean-like reservoir with 74 flood gates, the valiant Vallavaraiyan Vandiyadevan rides along enjoying the beautiful sights and sounds of the countryside. A scene that is one of the most resplendently shot ones in the film by the master at his game –Mani Ratnam.
Ponniyin Selvan 1 – the first part in the iconic two-part movie series introduces the characters, places establishing the characters and the conflicts takes precedence over story itself. However the maestro’s magic gets the perfect canvas with the second part of this legendary story that has become part of culture for Tamil Nadu.
Part 2 starts with a back story of the princes of the Chola Empire – Aditha Karikalan and Arulmozhi, in their childhood learning warcraft. Meanwhile Aditha Karikalan, who grows up to be this dashing youngster, falls in love with an orphan girl Nandini much against sister Kundavai’s wishes. The commander of the army played by Prabhu ensures Nandini leaves the city. However the love between the two lives on, taking a turn for the worse with time.
Fast Forward to the times when Nandini is plotting the murder of Adith, his brother Arulmozhi and father Sundara Chola’s murder, She has support from the Pandyans who wish to avenge Veerapandyan, their king’s death; Sundara Chola’s brother Madhurantakan is eyeing the throne, as he feels its his right and teams up with enemies – the Rashtrakutas and Chola kingdom is in trouble as the vassal kings plot to support Madhuratakan while the allies Vallavaraiyan, the Boudhavirama in Lanka, the mysterious older woman who saves Arulmozhi the second time, the Vaishnava spy Nambi are all working to protect the reign of the Cholas.
The story is about how Aditha Karikalan finds a solution to Nandini’s problem and his guilt, how Ponniyan Selvan becomes the Raja Raja Chola, and most of it is not a history lesson. It is a historical fiction story of unrequited love, passions, emotions and human conflict- all of which Mani Ratnam is master at showcasing and you get to witness the mastery in all its glory. The tender moments of romance, the playful banter, the fierce battle scenes and intense confrontations set against beautiful locations and resplendent sets, beautiful people and their finery, great camera work, last but the crucial background score that can on its own become a lesson in history make Ponniyin Selvan Part 2 a delight to watch.
To watch Chiyaan Vikram in action is amazing. Karthi is endearing. Aishwarya Rai aces her role. AR Rahman’s best songs were reserved for Part 1, yet his music gives that edge to the story – the highs, lows and the silences all play a role in elevating the scenes. The flip side is that in all this grandeur and great scenes, you miss out on connecting emotionally with the characters, which is the actual strength of the novel.
That said, India needs such films to be made by sensible directors like Mani Ratnam and perhaps preserved as valuable heritage for all times to come.