Ponniyin Selvan: Part I

Ponniyin Selvan: Part I ★★★★★

exactly how historical epics should be made in 2022. mani sir's late style thus far has been so fruitful due to how he seems to have maintained the energetic young spirit that made all those classics we hold dear today, while also proving that his maturity has deepened his understanding of his characters and the worlds they inhabit. ratnam, and whatever goated dp he works with at any given point (shoutout ravi varman for this one), seem to have an innate sense of where the camera should travel to follow the emotions of a scene - with which clarity of plot and motivation follow along, in my opinion, not the other way around - and that leads to such dynamic, expressive framing. wide shots seem to stretch for miles in the distance, the depth and expanse of tamil nadu, lanka and the sea surrounding their coasts then populated by various people and animals and ships in the oddest of places on the frame. some angles reminded me of the dusty, sun-baked desert shots of king hu's films, while others show our characters' heads sprouting like buds in the corners of the screen, something that reminded me a lot of orson welles' shakespeare films. the grandiosity of the chola empire is found in most frames here, but the coolest part about it is the way the blocking is seemingly found on a whim, the ever-mobile camera zooming its way to exactly where it needs to be. like i said, everything follows the emotion, so when mani sir wants you to understand the fear and paranoia within princess kundavai, all he needs to do is wander around the characters speaking and plotting until he lands right in front of trisha ma'am's beautifully expressive eyes, and there you go, a complete clarity in spite of how dense the dialogue can be and how methodically it's delivered. same can be said of aishwarya's cutthroat princess nandini or jayam ravi's noble ponniyin selvan.

but if we're talking expressive eyes, there are none more than karthi's, undoubtedly the mvp of the film and the one who ties it all together for me. his dashing young prince i immediately fell in love with, because he portrays the swashbuckling spirit with such verve. you can tell he is so excited to be in this world! his timing was impeccable with the humor, the passion, the anger; i really responded to the way he fell in love with every seasoned gorgeous actress the moment he saw them which-- well, who can blame him? one of my absolute favorite performances of the year for sure.

i need to talk about vikram too: that signature animalistic fury is brought in and out of him so masterfully. there's an incredible sequence right before the interval where he drinks to endure the wounds of a past heartbreak and its everlasting pain, a spiraling captured in constant motion and dissociation of the camera, a moment which i could only compare to man on fire's iconic gun montage... just stunning stuff.

i really could've just gone right into the next three hours of this story. by the time the climax rolled around, a darkly lit battle on a ship caught in a disorienting storm (an expansion of the climax of kadal in a way!), i felt as though i was transported back to my favorite huge epic stories as a child. and yet i'm stunned too at the simultaneous realism, how, much like sayombhu mukdeeprom's work on the film i watched last night, thirteen lives, or the high frame rate experiments of ang lee or james cameron, the hyper-clarity possible now with modern digital technology is used for complete immersion from one edge of your vision to the other. much like with those digital masters, i'm ever thankful for mani ratnam's constant evolution through the years.

*i almost forgot to mention a.r. absolutely owning the fuck out of the soundtrack, gorgeous stuff that is so integral to every beat of the film

**the immersion i felt with this film was extra-personal for me in its authentic cultural pov, and especially, a delight for someone with tamilian roots to see characters eat puliyogare and chug buttermilk in a big-budget worldwide release

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