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Unpopular opinion: Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyn Selvan is a disappointment

When Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyn Selvan 1 was announced and was ready to release. I picked up the book to read before I watch the movie.

By Rajeev Tyagi
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Ponnyn selvan review

There was a lot of buzz when the Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyn Selvan 1 was announced, and was ready to release. Quite like a lot of people, I also picked up the book to read before I watch the movie. The first book was a remarkable attempt to set up the Chola empire, and the beautiful landscape of Tamil Nadu. I was quite immersed in the book and the conflict of the same. Hence, I was so excited to see the film as well. Then the trailer dropped. PS-1’s trailer is one of the most underwhelming trailers I have seen. So much hype, and no substance in the trailer. Particularly the color-grading was so bad. I thought they would rectify the same in the movie. But, no. They didn’t.

Mani Ratnam is by far one of the finest directors in Indian Cinema. There could not have been anyone better to adapt a Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan than him, possibly. Maybe, Rajamouli would have been the close second. But, maybe not.

In an interview with Anupama Chopra for Film Companion, film’s actor Vikram said, PS is India’s Game of Thrones, not the other way around. Sorry to break it to you Vikram, it is not. The book and HBO series Game of Thrones was a lot about the ‘Iron Throne’, and other thrones. But here, it is more about the conflict between Nandini and Aditya Karikalan. How, and why? Answers to this question would be in the territory of spoilers.

Part I

I went to see PS-1, in the theatres. I thought that was the right way to do it. And, I loved the first book. The film starts with an action sequence. Underwhelming again. The intensity didn’t build. The problem was two-fold. The action didn’t commit to the realism of a battle, or maybe the budget failed Mani sir here. And, then the edit didn’t keep up with the pace of what was being shown. There are numerous such action sequences which didn’t have enough at stake for me to care. The film exhausted me. Halfway through I was yawning, and trying to keep up with what was happening.

In the book, Vandhiyathevan is our way into the narrative. But, the film doesn’t give us that hand, rather after a point leaves us to our own understanding. 

Although, the climax of the film wants you to watch the next movie. At the same time, get to know what was happening with Nandhini, and his pursuits. Furthermore, know about the mysteries of the woman who saved Prince Arulmozhi Varman a.k.a Ponniyn Selvan. 

Part II

Next, I took up the task to read the remaining four books. I did read three. And, they were exhausting. It was more to do with how it was written, and the depth of the plot. The characters, being from a certain era, were talking in a very formal manner. Like, how you engage with kings or people in power and don’t want them to feel offended or disrespected. While the female characters have gravitas, it is hard to notice their individuality except for Nadhini in parts.

Don’t have too much hope from the reveal of the conflict, it might leave you dissatisfied. I don’t have the heart to read the fifth book. Or, maybe one day I will.

The film. The PS movies are not about Ponniyn Selvan. They are more about Nandini and, Aditya Karikalan. The sub-plots are forgotten and, the movie becomes more about the angst and grief of both. Although, Nandini is a great character for a movie. The shades of her characters are nicely fleshed out in the book and the movie, so maybe for her you can ‘surf’ through these two tedious creative works.

Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar's quest for power, Madhuranthaka Chola's quest for the throne, and the Pandya dynasty's revenge is reduced to the aforementioned two characters' individual pursuits or lack of it. I think the comparison of the book and movie with the Game of Thrones series is quite not fair, and quite unnecessary.

Conclusion

PS-II has been released with lesser box office numbers than part of I. According to The Indian Express, part II collected some 32 crores on day one, while part I collected record-breaking 80+ crores. Maybe, this is the first time a sequel has grossed lesser numbers. Although, PS-II has more favorable reviews and great word of mouth. But, the disappointed audience from PS-I might not watch it again, or maybe they will.

At the same time, there is a sort of cult from the book and the movie. There is a sense of regional identity associated with the book. Hence, criticism of any makes people defensive. Please look out at the comment section of anyone who has criticized the book or the movie. Furthermore, there is obviously a Mani Ratnam and AR Rahman cult. It has been a while since I saw a satisfying Mani Ratnam movie. No offense.

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