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Tamil Movie Review: Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan Part 1 – Historical, Epic and Concise

Ponniyin Selvan Mani Ratnam A.R. Rahman Tamil Movie Cholan

One of the biggest challenges in making a movie that is based on epic bestselling novels like JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings and now Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan is in bringing the movie’s storyline as close to the actual event or the novel and yet taking care to make it as excited as possible despite the storyline is predictable. Image source: JFW

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This is a short summary of the Ponniyin Selvan story in English but one certainly needs to read the 5 volume novels to get the details and all the schemes that happen both inside and outside the Cholan king’s palace.

Background of Ponniyin Selvan

Most of us are aware that the story of Ponniyin Selvan is not new as it is based on a 1955 novel by Kalki and the story itself and despite many attempts; no one had successfully made this epic story into a full-feature movie until now.

Ponniyin Selvan: I (transl. The Son of Ponni) is a 2022 Indian Tamil-language epic historical action drama film directed by Mani Ratnam, who co-wrote it with Elango Kumaravel and B. Jeyamohan.

Produced by Ratnam and Subaskaran Allirajah under Madras Talkies and Lyca Productions, it is the first of two cinematic parts based on Kalki Krishnamurthy’s 1955 novel, Ponniyin Selvan.

The film stars an ensemble cast including Vikram, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Jayam Ravi, Karthi, Trisha, Jayaram, Aishwarya Lekshmi, Sobhita Dhulipala, Prabhu, R. Sarathkumar, Vikram Prabhu, Prakash Raj, Rahman, R. Parthiban and Lal.

The music was composed by A. R. Rahman, with cinematography by Ravi Varman, editing by A. Sreekar Prasad, and production design by Thota Tharani. Ponniyin Selvan: I dramatizes the early life of Chola prince Arulmozhi Varman, who would become the renowned emperor Rajaraja I (947–1014).

Ever since its publication, a film adaptation of Ponniyin Selvan had been explored by several Tamil filmmakers, including an attempt by M. G. Ramachandran in the late 1950s; however, it never materialized due to financial constraints.

Decades later, Ratnam attempted to adapt the novel in the late-1980s and early-2010s but was unsuccessful. Calling it his “dream project”, Ratnam revived the effort in January 2019, after Lyca agreed to fund the film.

Following several changes in cast and crew, production of Ponniyin Selvan began in December 2019 and concluded in September 2021, halting twice due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The film was shot in various locations across India, with a few sequences in Thailand. It was originally intended to be a single film but was split into two parts.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Ponniyin Selvan’s storyline is part factual, part fictional with true characters from the old history of South India namely Raja Raja Cholan who reigned over good parts of South India & Northern Sri Lanka and influenced Southern Asia in the 10th century with a fictional story of treachery, dirty politics and heroism.

It is indeed a big challenge for a seasoned movie maker like Mani Ratnam to bring this epic story to the big screen without making too many creative changes and adding unnecessary scenes & sub-storylines that will depart far from the original timeline and disrupt the overall flow of the story.

ponniyin selvan jayaram karthi

One of the funniest & joyful characters in the movie and both are spies in the mission. Karthi as the brave warrior prince of the Vaanar Clan, Vallavaraiyan Vandiyadevan, and Jayaram as Azhwarkadiyan Nambi who is a Veera Vaishnavite spy who works for the Prime Minister played their roles exceptionally. Image source: Kerala 9

Watching Ponniyin Selvan At Cinema

The reviews online on Ponniyin Selvan looked quite good and even the reviewer who does not often give good marks for the reviews.

As usual, we did not immediately book the tickets to watch Ponniyin Selvan in the cinema the moment it was listed in Malaysia. When we decided to go to watch it, we opt to watch the movie on a normal screen although my son decided to watch it on IMAX as he already watched it on the normal screen a few days earlier without our knowledge. Fun fact: Ponniyin Selvan is the first Tamil movie to be released in IMAX format.

We decided to head to Sunway Pyramid considering that they are the closest cinema around with an IMAX screen and both shows in IMAX and normal screens were starting at the same time. I booked the tickets online using the web instead of their non-working app but noticed that we were the only ones that have booked the seats.

When we reached the theatre on the day of the movie, we noticed a large crowd waiting for the movie to start but surprisingly all of them were going to the IMAX show instead of the normal show instead of us. We walked to an empty cinema and till the movie started, we were still the only ones inside. 5 minutes into the movie, 2 other movie-goers entered rather confusingly and sat a few rows in front of us.

ponniyin selvan imdb tamil movie

Generally, the reaction to the movie is positive with almost 80% of the viewers giving a rating of above 8 on the IMDB. On average, the movie scored an average rating of 8.3 from almost 24,000 users. 

Ponniyin Selvan Movie Review

So how the Ponniyin Selvan Part 1?

There is nothing to comment on the Ponniyin Selvan storyline as one has to follow the same storyline as in Kalki’s novel. So let’s look at how Mani Ratnam worked around the fixed storyline. He started by trimming the overall storyline into 2 parts from 293 chapters spread over 5 volumes of the novel. One has to read the novels to comment on effective this has been.

Plus Points

The movie is supported by an ensemble cast of good actors and actresses (but not necessarily matching the characters in the novel) from Kamal Haasan who provides the opening narration and sets the tone of the movie at the onset.

On the “good side”, we have Vikram as Aditha Karikalan (the eldest son and the crown prince), Jayam Ravi as Arulmozhi Varman (the youngest son and in the future, Raja Raja Chola I), Trisha as Kundavai (the brilliant princess of Sundara Chola) and Karthi as Vallavaraiyan Vandiyadevan, the brave, adventurous and sarcastic warrior prince of Vaanar Clan at one side.

On the other side, we have Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as the scheming Nandini ( wife of Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar), R. Sarathkumar as Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar (the mastermind, chancellor of the Chola kingdom), R. Parthiban as Chinna Pazhuvettaraiyar (the chief in-charge of Thanjavur fort) and Rahman as Madurantaka Chola alias Uttama Chola (the son of Gandaraditya Chola and he suppose to be the rightful King).

The production set was also epic and a great deal of it has been well-propped with high-quality CGI and costumes. The storm scene at the climax is probably one of the best I have seen in Tamil movies. The soundtrack for the movie is first class as usual considering it was done by the same duo of Mani Ratnam & A.R.Rahman.

Minus Points

It is unfortunate that there are too many characters in the storyline and not all the time the pace of the storyline is consistent. At times, the story pace slows down and I have to admit, I dozed off during these slow, dull moments of the movie. It will take another watch of the movie to catch up on these slow moments and understand any of the important information that I may have missed out.

Some of the scenes and characters were not properly introduced or rushed to be brought into the scene and the viewers have to decide and connect the dots for themselves. You do not know who are they and why they are doing those acts in the storyline. Whilst this is understandable given the length of the story in the original novel, a more detailed background narration would have been good.

The overall cinematography by the award-winning Ravi Varman who had worked on past blockbusters like Anniyan, Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu, and Dasavathaaram is good especially when it comes to visual colors and lighting. However, I hated the shaky camera movement during the action fight scenes which not only make the watching unbearable but also it causes a minor headache.

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Ponniyin Selvan Soundtrack

Mani Ratnam worked with his favorite music composer, A.R. Rahman and as usual, it takes some time for one to truly appreciate the compositions done by A.R. Rahman. There is an interesting background story on how A.R. Rahman worked on the composition and instrumentation for the movie’s soundtrack:-

A. R. Rahman called Ponniyin Selvan as one of the most difficult projects, since it is an epic film, and required an exhaustive research. It took him six months to work on the project, and he and Mani Ratnam also went to Bali and Cambodia for writing some of the songs.

However, Rahman had stated the challenging part on scoring the film is that, Ratnam wanted a particular sound, “which is unique but at the same time relatable”, adding that he worked hard to get that sound. Rahman researched on periodic instruments for the songs in tune to the film’s setting in Chola period.

During their music session in Bali and Cambodia, he incorporated those instruments from the region and used it in the soundtrack. In a September 2019 interaction with the press, Ratnam revealed that the film will have 12 songs (featuring in two-parts).

(Source: Wikipedia)

The opening song of the movie titled Ponni Nadhi by A.R.Rahman and lyrics by Ilango Krishnan is pleasant to hear and I like the “Theeyari Esamaari” chorus in between. It was mentioned that it does not mean anything but it is a wonderful addition to the overall composition.

The lyrics of this song, translated in English are well written to explain the journey of Vanthiyathevan across the Chola empire to carry out his mission to meet and warn the King and the princess.

River Kaveri, your character is wonderful.
Even the sky bows before you.
You can see the future of the earth,
You walk in fear.
On your edge is the camp of heroes,

Horses quench their thirst with your water.
One has to walk tirelessly to meet the river Kaveri.
Keep your hobby as a sport and keep going without stopping.

The evening will be quiet,
The weather is nice,
To reach his lap, keep walking without stopping.
To get the love of the fields, you must go without stopping,
To see the highest waterfall, you have to go without stopping.
To see the rivers, you have to walk.
Mother has called, that’s why you have to go without stopping.

What a beautiful sight,
Hold the heart
The harvest is like gold,
A pebble is like a pearl,
My mind tells me to stop here.
But the destination is still far away.

Heroes must go.
Kaveri called.
So the heroes must go without stopping.
To kiss the land of knights,
Tighten the chest when an arrow moves, don’t stop

To keep growing
One has to walk tirelessly to meet the river Kaveri.
Keep your hobby as a sport and keep going without stopping.

The evening will be quiet,
The weather is nice,
To reach his lap, keep walking without stopping.
To get the love of the fields, you must go without stopping,
To see the highest waterfall, you have to go without stopping.

Oh great, keep going,
Heroes must go with you.
To reach him, you have to keep walking.
Heroes should be painted in your colors.
The sun shines golden,
Silver rains from the moon.
Vegetables are burning in the fields,

My heart is stuck
Time is like ice
Melt by hand.
duty is upon me,
Now we must go through the wind without stopping,
Oh love, we’ll meet again sometime.
Oh dear, I have to go somewhere now
One has to walk tirelessly to meet the river Kaveri.

Keep your hobby as a sport and keep going without stopping.
The evening will be quiet,
The weather is nice,
To reach his lap, keep walking without stopping.

Oh great, keep going,
Heroes must go with you.
To reach him, you have to keep walking.
Heroes should be painted in your colors.

(Translation source: Lyricsvyrics)

As mentioned, it will take time before one embraces A.R. Rahman’s new style of compositions and you need to have a good player and headset to truly appreciate the different instruments used in each song. Of course, listening to the songs with visuals elevates the quality of the songs even more.

ponniyin selvan mani ratnam tamil movie

Mani Ratnam, the man at the core of bringing this epic story of Ponniyin Selvan into the big screens and had managed to pull off a very tough assignment with overall positive results. Mani Ratnam is a very talented and brilliant movie maker but sometimes, it does take time and a couple of rewatching before one appreciates his form of art on the big screen. Image source: Kerala 9

Final Say

Before one goes and watches the movie, it is best to do 2 things which are firstly don’t compare it with the Bahubali movie by S.S. Rajamouli, and secondly, it will be helpful (but not necessary) if one has read the novel by Kalki.

One should not compare with Bahubali and have Bahubali in mind before watching Ponniyin Selvan, otherwise, you have some disappointment. The reason is that when it comes to stories of kings & queens, ancient battles, and politics within palaces, Bahubali has already set a very high benchmark for similar types of movies as the suspense & pace are consistent.

Further, I personally feel that Bahubali 1 & 2 soundtrack by M.M. Keeravani is a class higher than the Ponniyin Selvan soundtrack by A.R. Rahman. CGI was comparable but that is understandable given that Ponniyin Selvan would have used the latest technology on CGIs.

Reading Kalki’s original Ponniyin Selvan novel is not necessary but it is greatly helpful to fill up the gaps that are in the movie. And the best part is the novel is also available in English in both hardcopies (one in Lazada going for almost RM250 for all 5 volumes) and online as PDF. Of course, it will take time to run through the whole novel.

There are some parts of the movie, Ponniyin Selvan that hits the attention of the viewers well such as the CGIs, storyline flow, list of the storm scenes, palace interior scenes, and the dialogues and there are parts that missed the attention of the viewers namely the action scenes. They could have scaled down the action scenes and added more of the core storyline.

We had just watched Part 1 of Ponniyin Selvan and yet unlike Bahubali Part 1 where everyone is waiting for Part 2 to answer the burning question of why Katuppa killed Bahubali?, there is no real anticipation for Part 2 of Ponniyin Selvan. The ending of Part 1 was rather uneventful so there is no anticipation for Part 2 of Ponniyin Selvan in 2023.

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