Mani Ratnam’s magnum opus “Ponniyin Selvan: I” celebrates the grandeur of the Chola Dynasty and educates the audience about the rich history of the Chola Dynasty that ruled not just over the southern part of India but also expanded to Sri Lanka and other Southeast Asian countries. This film has been in the making for years, and it finally went on the floor in the year 2019, helmed by a powerful cast. It is based on the epic saga of Kalki, which was released as a five-part series in the year 1955. Many attempts were made by legends like MGR to adapt this saga on screen earlier. Now the veteran director Mani Ratnam has adapted this political saga set during the rule of the illustrious Chola Dynasty.
What Happens In The ‘Ponniyin Selvan: I’ Film?
Since I am one of the audiences who has not read the book, I am unaware if the story remains true to the actual literature. Mani Ratnam’s adaptation of “Ponniyin Selvan: I” begins with the battle sequence in which the Cholas win against the Rashtrakutas. Soon after the victory, Aditya Karikalan (Vikram), the crown prince of the Chola Dynasty, sends across Vanthiyathevan (Karthi) to deliver the message to King Sundara Chozha and princess Kundavai. Meanwhile, the Prime Ministers of Sundara Chozha, Chinna Pazhuvettaraiyar (Parthiban), Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar (Sarath Kumar), and his wife Nandhini (the ethereal Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), form an elaborate plan to replace the ailing King and make way for another family member who claims to be the true heir of the throne and kingdom. The kingmakers here intend to rule over the dynasty by placing a dummy king on the throne. As there are threats from neighboring Pandyas, the infighting within Chola has begun to destabilize the current monarch and his family. Residing in the capital city is Princess Kundavai (Trisha), who is a political advisor to her father. On hearing of the conspiracy brewing to dethrone her father, she requests Vanthiyathevan to send a message to her brother Arunmozh Varman, aka Ponniyin Selvan, to come back to the capital city to take up the role of the King in line.
There are other subplots in the form of Aditya reminiscing about his first love, which enrages him, and he is afraid it might destroy him. Nandini, on the other hand, is a big player, manipulating people and situations just like a game of chess while she remains determined toward her final goal. On reaching Lanka, Vanthiyathevan reveals Kundavai’s message and makes Arunmozhi aware of the possible assassination attempt on his life that will eliminate him as a potential king after the death of Sundara Chozha. This forms the story of the film, and we wait for the political wheel to start churning.
‘Ponniyin Selvan: I’ Ending Explained: How Did Arunmozhi Varman And Vanthiyathevan Escape The Assassination Attempt?
Princess Kundavai is fully aware of the secret plan that Nandhini and her husband are plotting. She knows that they want to dethrone her father. She comes to her father’s palace and has a silent confrontation with Nandhini (a scene well directed). Kundavai visits Nandhini and her husband in the Prime Minister’s chambers, aware of the fact that the plot is progressing. She puts the marriage trump card in front of the schemers, giving them a chance to be a part of the royal family. Nandhini is enraged and devises another plan to decimate the Chola warriors sent to bring back Arunmozhi with the help of her gang of loyalists. It is revealed to the audience that Nandhini was in love with the Pandya king, and while she was tending to him after a brutal war, Aditya came to know of their relationship. Aditya, who was always in love with Nandhini, sees this as an act of treachery and kills Veerapandyan in front of her. Nandhini, from that point on, decides to avenge her lover’s death by destroying Aditya Karikal’s family and their right to rule.
Arunmozhi is soon made aware of the plot to assassinate him, and he decides to conduct a last-minute switch where he asks Vanthiyathevan to take up his identity while he plans to rescue his people by taking up a common man’s identity. The plan goes awry as Vanthiyathevan is captured and taken to the Chola Ship, now taken over by Nandhini’s loyalists, who were following her orders. Following this, intense combat ensues between Arunmozhi and his killers on the ship, which is hit by a severe storm. After rescuing Vanthiyathevan, the ship on which the combat ensued wrecks due to the storm and goes down in the sea without leaving any trace of Arunmozhi or Vanthiyathevan. The news of the disappearance of the Prince reaches the royal court. Aditya marches towards his father’s palace to confront Nandhini and learn of her involvement in the alleged drowning of his brother. The last shot of “Ponniyin Selvan: I” has an old woman who has a striking resemblance to Nandhini jumping into the sea to rescue both Arunmozhi and Vanthiyathevan from drowning. Nandhini is elated to learn the news of one potential King who will possibly never come back to court, making her path to glory easy. But the older woman who resembles Nandhini rescues Arunmozhi on two different occasions, raising the question of how she could be related to Nandhini. What is her past? Is her character somehow connected to the current Chola King?
“Ponniyin Selvan: I” ends on an interesting note, where the audience is left dumbfounded to see that the potential King, the people’s favorite, might not survive the shipwreck. Mani Ratnam sets up the second part of the film in a rather epic pattern. A brief interaction with fans of the epic novel after we were done watching the film made us aware of how Mani Ratnam merged a lot of scenes from the book into one to keep the screenplay intact without ruining the literature. “Ponniyin Selvan: I” works because it is a politically charged film, and there is no dearth of audiences who don’t love a good film backed by the politics of a courtroom. The motives of the schemers and the goals they set out to achieve are rather well explained in this two-hour saga. For example, Nandhini, the key strategist, is fuelled by her anger toward Aditya for murdering her beloved in front of her eyes. Her need to see him destroyed is a treat to watch in the film. Her ego-filled meeting with Kundavai on the steps of the royal palace is one of the best scenes in the movie. Both are aware of each other’s plot but stick to remaining civil for the audience and continue one-upping each other to reach their final goal. Kundavai is a well-written character. Her father’s strongest ally, his political advisor, makes sure she is ten steps ahead of all the enemies surrounding her father in the court as well as outside the kingdom. It is fascinating to watch women turn the political wheel while men are their mere puppets. Meanwhile, Aditya Karikalan has not moved on from the love and hate he carries for Nandhini, a reason why he refuses to come back to the capital city. He is a true-blue warrior, willing to sacrifice his life for the family and kingdom. Arunmozhi, though transforms well, from being a fierce warrior to a noble prince sent out to ally for the purpose of expanding his kingdom.
The screenplay of this film is easy to follow, even for those who haven’t read the books. Mani Ratnam made sure the screenplay was accessible to everyone. Since most of the audiences are fans of historical fantasy fiction that is set inside a courtroom, they are aware of the politics of the King’s courtroom, the infightings within the kingdom, and the looming tensions from across the border caused by the enemy kingdoms. The director just amps it up to enhance the overall experience.
“Ponniyin Selvan: I” ends at a point that sets the second part up perfectly. This film also asks a pertinent question: who is the old woman that resembles Nandhini, and what will her role be in the upcoming second part of this saga? Mani Ratnam’s film is a masterpiece in every sense. It excels in every possible department; direction, action sequences, performances of the actors, VFX, editing, screenplay, cinematography, music and BGM, production design, and costume design. Mani Ratnam brings together all of these and gives us a fine film that must be enjoyed on the big screen.