** Major Spoilers ahead**
First to things that I loved in Ponniyin Selvan. Vikram as Aditya Karikalan was a treat in all the limited scenes he appeared and is the proof that an actor doesnt need to have more screen time to leave an impact with audience. The actor is wonderfully restrained in a brief intro that shows us what type of a warrior Aditya Karikalan is when he sets his enemy free without killing. Later, when Karikalan speaks about Nandini (Aishwarya Rai) – first to his friend and then to his sister, Vikram brings out the anger and pain of the character all out in a measured manner that makes you realize what a great performer you have been missing along these years as he keeps landing himself in the wrong films.
These Karikalan monologues which cuts into his flashbacks with Nandini are also when Mani Ratnam is in his finest form in the film. He reserves his next best moments for the two leading ladies- Nandhini (Aishwarya Rai) and Kundavai (Trisha) with both of the actresses delivering superb jobs. Kundavai walking into a room of men who were busy conspiring against her father and taking over in style is one of the well written segments in the screenplay. Its safe to say there are more developments in the film whenever Kundavai is on screen.
And Nandhini had to be Aishwarya Rai Bachchan making you wonder if anyone else in her place could have given more justice to the character. As Mani Ratnam continues his collaboration with Aishwarya Rai across 4 decades now, the filmmaker also gives utmost care and takes his time whenever Nandhini is shown on screen. Some of her reaction shots are brilliantly captured – like when Nandini looks at the King’s throne and realizes how she has dreamt to sit there from her childhood or when she sends out men to capture ArulMozhi Varman( Jayam Ravi) as a prisoner while plotting her revenge against Karikalan.
Jayam Ravi could now give rest to the apprehensions of whether he would look convincing as the titular character. He does look the part and does bring in a sense of calmness and dignity in the proceedings. Ravi Varman’s cinematography is brilliant ( even if VFX falters at times) as most of the frames in the film look exquisite. The lighting inside the palace corridors is especially pleasing to the eyes.
Now to the things that I felt wanting more from the film. Karthi has great comic timing which does bring you a smile in lot of occassions as he plays Vanthiyathevan . His combination scenes with Jayaram( another fine performance) is also fun. But Vanthiyathevan gets his most screentime in the first half where a viewer who hasnt read the book is still trying to familiarize with all the characters that are introducted quickly one after another. And this might play a hindrance to have an emotional connect with this character.
A.R Rahman’s BGM works in some places like the one he has around Aishwarya Rai’s Nandini. But in lot other places, it just doesnt help to add to the elevation or tension of a scene. The fact that he produces good scores but not that is gelling with the scene on screen is something I notice in recent times since Malayankunju.
For a film that is made on this scale and period, comparisons with Baahubali come naturally. Though you do not expect that kind of goosebump or elevation scenes of a mass commercial film from Mani Ratnam’s film-making school, what I miss really here is the old trademark Mani Ratnam tense atmosphere that he was able to create between characters on screen. In Thalapathi, you have Suriya and Thevan on one side of the table, you have Arjun as collector on the other side. It is not a stunt sequence. It is a plain conversation with each dialogue filled with extreme tension that brings you to the edge of your seat. In Agni Natchathiram when the two brothers keep confronting on the screen, you felt this tension. That is missing here.
The only portion where Mani Ratnam finds this old brilliant skill of him in Ponniyin Selvan is when Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar (Sarath Kumar) and Chinna Pazhuvettaraiyar(Parthiban) have a conversation with the king on how they should bring back Karikalan and Arulmozhi Varman back and the camera gazes around Kundavai’s face who senses a devious plan arround it. The climax portions where Pandyas capture Vanthiyathevan and how Arulmozhi Varman swims across to the ship to save him fails to bring any sort of thrills . First because the fights itself are lukewarm through the film. Wish the stunt choreographer had done a better job here. Second you fail to have any connect with the villains Pandyas who are not developed properly in the film to lend any kind of seriousness to them. This should be one of the constraints where it was difficult to develop and capture every character from a big novel to two film installments.
All in all, Ponniyin Selvan is a neatly made film with some excellent performances. The way it has ended makes you wanting to wait for the second installment where you get a feeling you could have more conflicts and tense moments. Just that you finish this first installment wishing there was a little more in this one itself.