Ponniyin Selvan: Part I

Ponniyin Selvan: Part I

There's always been a trait within Ratnam's cinema that has always felt current and of the time when it's being made. Not current necessarily in the sense of making films that take place in the time periods (relatively) they're made in, but more a certain quality of whatever time period Ratnam is portraying on screen, his films always feel of the current moment. This is maybe the first one (that I've seen certainly) where I'd say it goes against that idea. As my friend Collin might suggest, it's the first of his "late-style" or others might suggest, his first "old man film". Not that it's lacking in any of the vibrancy and color and dynamism his cinema has always contained, but there is a quality here that harkens back to epics that were made around 20 or so years back that does feel somewhat out of step with the types of films, certainly big films, being made today.

I'm not well versed in the kind of historical fiction epics within Indian cinema (broadly, let alone in the varying film industries) to be able to say where Ratnam's film is coming from. But to me, while the various historical epics made in Hollywood do have echoes within here, the one film that kept coming to mind throughout my viewing of this one was another late-period epic by a master, Kurosawa's Ran. That film, an adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear, shares many similar plot elements with this one, itself an adaption of a highly popular and acclaimed text within Tamil literature, but I see their points of comparison being far more than skin deep narrative arcs. Ratnam and Kurosawa both have a penchant for the extravagance of melodrama and favor expression through grand gesture and bold exhibitions of chaos/violence and/or romance.

Ratnam shines here in the battle scenes and the smaller more intimate ones too - anyone who's seen a couple of his films can attest that he's adept at both - but it's in the tossed off moments and shots here that really stick it for me as a far stronger film than I might have initially assumed given it's scope. This is no pan-Indian crossover film - although it may be marketed that way - it's approach is firmly within the old world and is far too interested in family and romantic dynamics as well as political intrigue and doublecrossings to truly fall into the same category that more recent action films like RRR or the KGF films. None of those films either, for all their virtue, ever found as stunningly moving a sequence as when Vallavaraiyan Vanthiyathevan awakens from his slumber on a small boat and Poonguzhali rises from the ocean and climbs onto the boat and the two simply discuss her affections for one of the princes. It's some of the most effectively sensual and beautiful filmmaking I've seen this year.

But it is perhaps in an extended moment of reflection - a grand monologue if there ever was one in any of Ratnam's films - where Vikram's Aditha Karikalan pontificates on the loss of his youthful love and how he pushed her away, where Ratnam proves once again why he's one of the few filmmakers working today who is worthy to work with budgets as massive. The way his camera woozily moves in and out and all around Vikram as he monologues, cutting into hazy memories of him and his love when they were young, and then into harsh, precise, and direct images when we're finally allowed to see the revelatory action that separated the two and cast them against one another is simply masterful. It also plays perfectly to the strengths of Vikram (a performer prone to overacting in my opinion) by allowing him to play against no one in a moment of high melodrama and utilize him as a reactive force in flashbacks. Minimal words, just action.

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