Director: Mani Ratnam
Writer: Screenplay by Mani Ratnam, B. Jeyamohan, Elango Kumaravel. Dialogues by B. Jeyamohan. Based on Ponniyin Selvan by Kalki Krishnamurthy
Cast: Chiyaan Vikram, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Jayam Ravi, Karthi, Trisha, Sobhita Dhulipala, and others
Based on Kalki Krishnamurthy’s five-part Tamil language historical fiction novel set in the Chola era that masterfully blends power struggles, valor, conspiracy, love, romance, treachery, and palace intrigue; Mani Ratnam’s duology finds its heart and focus in the concluding part. PS2, unlike PS1, is much easier to follow and doesn’t alienate the audience not acquainted with the 2,210-page literary masterpiece, considered one of the greatest novels of Tamil literature that tells the story of the early days of Chola prince Arulmozhivarman, better known as Rajaraja the Great.
PS2 picks up the threads of the story from where PS1 had left but not before establishing Nandini and Aditha Karikalan’s backstory, which not only adds the much-needed softer moments but also puts their tumultuous relationship that forms the core of this sprawling saga into perspective. While the previous had ended with Arulmozhi Varman’s ship being caught in the storm and him drowning in the choppy waters, this one begins with a young Nandini (Sara Arjun) emerging from the water—here the water is clear, quiet, and still. The turmoil of experience is yet to tear apart the calm of innocence. Mani Ratnam depicts the early romance between the star-crossed lovers, Nandini and Aditha Karikalan (Santosh Sreeram) with a comforting sensuality. But post this flashback, the story returns to the present-day Nandini and Aditha, where Aditha is convinced that the conniving Nandini, who has been instrumental in waging a war against the Cholas, had hatched the plot to kill his brother. What follows is a complex tale of power struggle, palace intrigue, greed, treachery, and family secrets. But what roots it is a heartbreaking love story. In the second and concluding part, Mani Ratnam’s ambitious magnum opus becomes deeply personal.
The second part, like the first, is punctuated by stellar performances by the entire cast. Chiyaan Vikram as Aditha Karikalan, the great warrior and the crown prince who is tormented by his past, gives a superlative performance. He brings in the swag and machismo but also imbues the broken man he is inside with a tragic gloom. He is brilliant in the confrontation scene with Nandini. Jayam Ravi as the quieter and more cerebral Arunmozhi Varman steals the scenes even when, especially when, he has zero dialogues. His turn as the eponymous Ponniyin Selvan can be a masterclass in minimal acting. The scene where he skilfully thwarts an assassination bid on him is a stellar example of the same. Karthi as the mischievous but loyal spy and warrior Vallavarayan Vanthiyathevan brings in the spunk and humour but is never over the top. His scene with Kundavai on a patch of land surrounded by water is exquisite and deserves its own separate fanbase. Their love story is everything a good spin-off needs. Trisha as Kundavai, the princess known for her beauty as well as political acumen, keeps her momentum from PS1 and holds on her own. Sobhita Dhulipala as Vanathi doesn’t get many opportunities to shine but does her bit.
But PS2 belongs to the stunning Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. She not only looks drop-dead gorgeous even with the tell-tale sign of aging, but she and her bewitching green eyes give their career-best performance as Nandini. While her scene where Nandini and Aditha Karikalan come face to face can very well be considered among one of the most stunning and poignant scenes Indian cinema has seen in recent years, she leaves the story with a hauntingly beautiful if tragic visual, which will break your heart into a thousand pieces.
The music by A.R. Rahman is glorious, after ages and multiple mediocre scores later, the legendary composer finally finds his groove back with this Mani Ratnam collaboration. The wardrobe by Eka Lakhani is exquisite and well-researched and becomes a crucial part of bringing to life the early days of the golden age of the Cholas. But it is also customized to reflect the mood of the scenes and the essence of the characters wearing them–the darker tones reflect the rage and passion of Aditha Karikalan and this is juxtaposed with the more mellow tones, especially white and gold, for the charming and more stable Arunmozhi Varman; while Kundhavai, born into royalty has a more subtle but regal wardrobe, Nandini, who has had to work to acquire her royal status, is given the brighter reds and more attention-grabbing clothes and jewelry as she wants to show off her power. Production design by Thota Tharrani is every bit stately, stunning, and appropriately flamboyant for this sprawling period drama. But unlike an immaculately manicured Bhansali set, the world of Ponniyin Selvan has a lived-in feel to it which enhances the human drama and helps in making it relatable. There is limited use of green screens and VFX. And the scenes on locations are astoundingly gorgeous. Cinematographer Ravi Varman’s camera creates a mesmerizing visual tapestry that ensures while it reflects the aura of a period piece, it also looks contemporary. His camera is hardly ever static, but it never screams for attention. His close-ups are poignant and his use of light creates exquisite frames. In fact, he lights each of his main characters, Arunmozhi Varman, Vanthiyathevan, Nandini, Kundavai, and Aditya Karikalan, differently. He even uses a handheld camera to capture the impulsive Aditya Karikalan. The experience is further enhanced by Sreekar Prasad’s seamless editing in most parts. However, at almost three hours, it tends to get a bit monotonous, especially during the battle scenes. In fact, the battle scenes can be called the Achilles heel of this robust saga. None of the battles, especially the one near the climax have any grand moment that will make the audience root for or invest in the bloodbath. Those are too generic and go on for too long. It might have been a more poignant experience if the movie had done away with the last 10 odd minutes of final denouement and left the audience with that haunting visual of Nandini’s final hours.
To condense such an epic pentalogy replete with intricate plotlines and complex characters into a two-part film is no easy task. While PS1, especially pre-interval, was difficult to follow for the audience unversed with the story with a barrage of characters cropping up and multiple events unfolding, with PS2 Mani Ratnam gets a grip over things and instead of being an ardent fan of the book becomes the masterful filmmaker he is. While PS1 stayed absolutely faithful to Kalki Krishnamurthy’s epic, with PS2 Mani Ratnam takes certain artistic liberties. Instead of attempting an authentic adaptation of the book, he focuses on creating an impactful cinematic experience, which is further enhanced by the glorious music of AR Rahman.
With the character introduction and the world-building already taken care of in the first part, he delves beyond the grandeur of the epic. Instead of the ostentatious, PS2 shines in its restraint. Shot extensively in tight close-ups that put the focus on the emotions rather than the opulent sets, and with dialogues devoid of stilted melodrama, it is unlike the imposing spectacle movies we have seen in recent times. And there lies the craftsmanship of Mani Ratnam. He turns a grand spectacle into a poignant human drama. The lavishly mounted grand spectacle finds its heart, and beyond the power struggle, palace intrigue, and treachery, it is the love story that shines with its intimate moments.