Ponniyin Selvan: Part I

Ponniyin Selvan: Part I ★★★★

I’ve been eagerly waiting for this movie since I first heard the announcement about Mani Ratnam’s third and actually successful attempt to adapt this influential book series a few years back, not too long after I started getting into Tamil film, and as the promotional material was released, I admit I was quite the skeptic, a bit wary about how the end product will turn out. Yes MR has been working on this for 40 years, but we’ve never seen him make a real historical period piece before! It could not work! But once I started watching it, I really took to it right away and very easily. Maybe it was because I looked into the general plot synopsis/conflict going in, I honestly didn’t have a difficult time following along the plot of the events and the characters at all. Maybe there were some political details that I missed, but nothing confused me too much. 

 I’ve heard complaints about not being invested in what was happening in the story because “you don’t get to know the characters” but for me I felt that the actors for the most part embodied their roles so well that the characters were defined and never felt flat. The confrontation between Kundavai and Nandini was thrilling to me not because it was the culmination of a steady build up of tension but because it was an introduction, a beginning. You hear the banger background music (that I desperately need to be released in full) while the two women throw verbal barbs at each other and wonder what history was between them and to get a bit more insight in that tension a bit later. And having a great cast and a source material well known for its strong characters really goes a long way. Trisha’s delightful Kundavai is bright but witty and sharp, Aishwarya Rai’s screen presence and famed beauty (everyone that think she’s too old for this stfu) are fully utilized here during her portrayal of Nandini where her impassivity creates an enigmatic mask - though the cracks begin to show involuntarily with sudden, fleeting tremors of emotion. Karthi (who I’ve warmed up to so much this year) is incredibly charming and immediately likeable as Vanthiyathevan, Jayam Ravi surprises everyone by not sticking out like a sore thumb and manages to be a generally convincing honorable, duty-bound Arulmozhi who views war as an inevitable responsibility that he takes no pleasure in unlike his elder brother (obsessed with how each half of this movie opens with mirroring battle sequences that follows with each brother with contrasting atmospheres) Aditha Karikalan where Vikram takes shades of his portrayal of Veera from Raavanan but takes the whole insane tortured lover archetype up a few notches, fully reveling in his pain and trauma. 

Have not read the books so I don’t know the full details but it does seem to me for now that the memorable pre-interval scene strikes me as the emotional linchpin for the entire conflict. A Mani Ratnam movie is always the most compelling to me when it is dealing with twisted complex relationships so I’m naturally very eager to see how this particular thread develops in addition to nearly every aspect of Nandini’s character as well as her doppelgänger mother. The mysterious elderly River woman and the foreboding comet in the sky with the ominous war dance (while we are at it the use of songs was my main complaint but Devaralan Attam was the best in terms of atmosphere/setting and Chola Chola was the best in terms of character/narrative relevance) almost gives this story a supernatural tinge. 

You could say that everything in this movie is just to provide groundwork for “the real story to begin” or whatever but there’s something about this that does not feel as if I just watched and extended announcement for a sequel film. And all this talk from critics about this film being a “slow burn” have really stumped me because I was fully engaged the entire time and the three hours really flew by. I do enjoy a good “mass moment” type film but I admit I can get a bit tired of it all at the end despite having a great time and I do wonder if the reason why I didn’t get any fatigue from this is precisely it isn’t focused on being a action spectacle and focused on the political maneuverings and the characters with their veiled motivations. When this finished, I really wanted to go back and revisit this world and the characters immediately and may even do so bc the pull is strong rn and kinda suffering from withdrawal. Not sure if this belongs up there with my fav Ratnams but it clearly did something right since I’m craving more. Already mourning the end even though the second movie has not even come out yet.

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