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Mani Ratnam’s films, as most Tamil films tend to be, are just themes. Sequences and situations are written to flesh out the two-three aspects of the theme. His films are shot well; characters say smart things; they dress up nicely; the gloss is never understated; and quite often the songs stand out as much for the music as for the picturization. In the early films, all these were novel and first class. They helped him to deliver hits sequentially. But post Alaipayuthe, Mani Ratnam’s formula started wearing thin. The template was dominating and was becoming cliched.
Reviewing OK Kanmani, this writer called Mani Ratnam a fossil, pointing out that interesting and pathbreaking films were being made by interesting directors while he was still stuck. Mani Ratnam films captured the zeitgeist for a while but, even as he aged, he still tried to make movies for young people and failed to deliver. He had his reasons because young people constitute the filmgoing public. Rarely do we see too many older people in theaters now.
Chekka Chivantha Vaanam saw him trying not to be Mani Ratnam. The gangsters were bad characters. The good guy was all good – no gray shades there. Yet, the Mani Ratnam formula was still there, and, for that reason, the tired feel brought the movie down.
Ponniyin Selvan has a plot, buildup, well fleshed out characters, and a denouement. It is an iconic work. It has come to represent Tamil popular fiction. It has come to represent Tamils themselves
But Ponniyin Selvan is a story through and through, more than anything. Perhaps it’s for this reason that the songs were made deliberately understated. In Dalapathi, the songs overtook everything else.
Ponniyin Selvan has a plot, buildup, well fleshed out characters, and a denouement. It is based on an iconic work that has come to represent Tamil popular fiction, if not Tamils themselves.
The Cholas, though only one among three Tamil potentates, came to represent historic Tamil glory with their conquests, records, and grandeur. Their conquest of Sri Lanka made their tiger flag the symbol of Tamil resistance to Sinhalese domination there. .
Even those who have read some of Ponniyin Selvan will not know all the details. So the story holds interest among the young people.
Mani Ratnam has struck to the text, by and large. Instead of a serialized narrative, he has told a straight story. Everything is explicitly made clear.
The cast plays its part. Though old and showing their age, they pull it off. Karthi suits the warrior who nevertheless knows his station in life. He dares to punch above his weight with Kundavai and Nandini but only in a non-serious way. When Arunmozhivarman played with appropriate regality appears, Karthi becomes self-effacing. There was always the happy-go-lucky younger brother in him in other movies. Here it’s put to good use.
Aishwarya Rai has moved on to adult seductress roles from chocolate girl. And here she has a part waiting for her. Yet, when she is shown to be the guardian angel of Arunmozhivarman at the end, there was a hoot among the audience. Trisha’s smile has just that dash of mischief required to convey malice and intrigue, even flirtatiousness. No one looks out of place, just a bit jaded though sometimes, such as Vikram as Aditya Karikalan. Or was it his real life illness?
In the Ponniyin Selvan movie, Vedic religion is the religion of the royals. The chanting of Rudram – the most well known Rig Vedic chant – is part of their lives. And they stage a Krishna-Kamsa play to entertain themselves and tune up their religious credentials
The usual tropes and Mani Ratnam gimmicks are not there. The clever talk of Vandhiya Thevan is Kalki’s, not Mani Ratnam’s, and sounds far more real.
The half-denouement that PS-1 ends with conveys everything but is clearly not a lavish production. The sea is rarely the scene of climax in Tamil movies, but here it is. As Arunmozhivarman comes to the rescue of Vandhiya Thevan, the air becomes still. Everyone is bewildered. But that’s only the proverbial lull before the storm. As the storm lashes and breaks the boat, the Chola prince and his cohort fight for their lives.
Throughout the movie it’s clear PS-1 is lavish only where it needs to be. The war scenes are just about enough, nothing more. Inmathi.com had pointed out that the massiveness of Bahubali may be missing in PS-1 and it does. Mani Ratnam is a stickler to budgets and lays much stress on planning to not overspend.
Kalki’s novel is a story in and of itself on text so it doesn’t quite need the visual grandeur of Bahubali. In any case, there was no epic battle in Kalki’s work either. PS-1 is therefore a bit of a Malayalam film, in that the story is the true star. The acceptability of sequels has made Ponniyin Selvan possible. Jeyamohan has done a capable job compressing the serialized novel without losing the essential details. The narration rarely slacks.
Vedic Cholas vs tribal Pandiyas
Now for the grand narrative of Ponniyin Selvan. Those who deconstruct movies always run the risk of overthinking and overanalysis. But there’s a grand narrative in the film.
Unlike the meaning the novel has taken in today’s age, the movie is not a paean to Tamil history and greatness. The Cholas are not glorious in and of themselves. Aditya Karikalan is as brutal as kings come. It’s the Tamil Pandiyas who are the main detractors of the Cholas and they ally with the Sinhalese king Mahinda.
The Cholas are critiqued by scholars for tightening the feudal holds on Tamil society (M D Muthukumaraswamy called it The Dark Age Of Ponniyin Selvan). They brought many brahmins from the north and gave them land that eventually led them to occupy a high position in society. With social status assured by scriptures, social structure, and economic backing, brahmins were intrinsic to the ignominy of feudal Tamil society. And the Cholas of the Raja Raja era inaugurated it, all the grandeur notwithstanding.
In the Ponniyin Selvan movie, Vedic religion is the religion of the royals. The chanting of Rudram – the most well known Rig Vedic chant – is part of their lives. And they stage a Krishna-Kamsa play to entertain themselves and tune up their religious credentials.
The Pandiya revenge seekers are worshippers of a bloodthirsty Kotravai – a Sangam-era deity – who demands human sacrifice. In the film, Kotravai is the tribal goddess of villains whereas the Vedas are the scriptures of the protagonists. Azhvarkadiyan, a memorable Kalki character who hasn’t developed fully in PS-1, only helps to normalize the changes Tamil society saw at that time.
PS-1 is not about Tamil greatness. It’s a very good adaptation of a novel. Mani Ratnam has probably shown the way for Tamil film directors. They may well start adapting novels so their stories become strong.
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