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Ponniyin Selvan I: Mani Ratnam’s magnum opus is a crash course in how to overcomplicate a straightforward story

Post Credits Scene: Lacking any sense of intrigue or compelling characters to latch on to, Mani Ratnam's Ponniyin Selvan I is a textbook example of how not to adapt dense source material.

ponniyin selvanAishwarya Rai Bachchan in a still from Mani Ratnam's Ponniyin Selvan: I.

It’s quite normal for the top-grossing Indian films every year to mostly be subpar stinkers, but is 2022 the first year in recent memory where people have been duped into believing that the biggest films are actually good? Or is it just because they’ve been so starved for big screen entertainment, they feel like it’s their civic duty to praise everything that pretends to be large scale?

KGF: Chapter 2 was practically unwatchable, as was Brahmastra. RRR has been given far more credit than it honestly deserves, and Vikram was so devoid of personality that I forgot large chunks of it before I’d even finished. The less said about The Kashmir Files the better. Each of these movies was offensive in different ways; while some endorsed a problematic worldview, others proved that money can buy visual effects and big stars, but not storytelling skills. Director Mani Ratnam’s historical epic Ponniyin Selvan: I belongs to the latter category.

Having scrutinised the film over three endless sittings after its streaming debut on Prime Video, I have come to the following conclusion: PS: I is a case study in how to overcomplicate a wafer-thin plot with irrelevant nonsense. It’s loosely structured, riddled with plot contrivances that wouldn’t fool a five-year old, and has the tendency to drown its own themes under gallons of pointless exposition.

Based on the epic series of historical fiction novels by Kalki Krishnamurthy — which, I must admit, I haven’t read — Ponniyin Selvan has been described as the Tamil Game of Thrones. But actually, it has more in common with that show’s recently released spinoff, House of the Dragon. Sensing the power vacuum that will likely emerge in the event of the ailing king Sundara Chola’s death, a conspiracy to unseat crown prince Aditha Karikalan (Vikram) is concocted by a close aide. The central conflict, at least on the surface, closely resembles Alicent and Rhaenyra’s argument in House of the Dragon over who will succeed the sickly Viserys.

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But at no point in this film do you get a sense of why these people are fighting in the first place. The challenger for the crown, Madhurantakan (Rahman), is introduced an hour into the film, and makes just two or three forgettable appearances in total. The reason behind his quarrel with the Chola rulers is ignored — there is, however, some vague talk about Madhurantakan having been scammed out of his birthright — thereby robbing the movie of vital personal drama. The central conflict in House of the Dragon worked not because of the political wheeling and dealing — there’s a lot of that in PS: I as well — but because at every step of the way, we knew that two childhood best friends with a shared past, two young girls in a world dominated by men, were on a collision course towards self-destruction.

In PS: I, you couldn’t care less about who ultimately wins, and that’s because the movie lacks perspective, and doesn’t devote nearly enough time to developing characters. Everything must have some grand purpose, every scene must end with a flourish and not finesse; films have forgotten what it’s like to communicate via mood, atmosphere, and tone. To be clear, this is an indication of what directors these days think of the audience. Make no mistake about that. They’re convinced that we need to constantly be explained what is happening.

Ponniyin Selvan: I — a title that has the aura of a thinly veiled threat — is more crowded than the inside of a Chennai tiffin house at breakfast, features action so poorly directed that it will remind you of Steven Seagal movies from the 90s, and has so many speaking roles that you’d wish for Isha from Brahmastra to be imported for the sole purpose of yelling the names of characters every time they appear on screen.

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Aditha Karikalan is ostensibly the protagonist, even though his brother (Jayam Ravi) is the titular character. It’s Aditha who sets the plot in motion by sending his trusted aide Vallavaraiyan Vanthiyathevan (Karthi) to the kingdom of Kadamboor to spy on chieftains (before disappearing entirely for an hour). And it is a sign of just how poorly constructed this movie is that the moment Vallavaraiyan arrives at Kadamboor, he conveniently overhears a conspiracy to overthrow his buddy. Was there no better way to do this?

Just how many times can one movie get away with coincidences by shrugging its shoulders and suggesting that a character just happened to be in the right place at the right time? In PS: I, it turns out that virtually every major plot development is made by contriving a scene for exactly that purpose. How else can you explain the existence of a character like Nambi, who is introduced almost exclusively to provide backstory for primary antagonist Nandini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), to the right person, at precisely the right moment.

It gets worse. Aditha had instructed Vallavaraiyan to relay his findings to his sister, the princess Kundavai (Trisha). Which means that for over an hour, we follow the semi-comedic Vallavaraiyan as he travels to Kadamboor to collect some information, and then travels some more to communicate that information to someone else. A full hour, in which the man we’d been made to believe was the protagonist is completely removed from the picture. I am convinced all of this could’ve been achieved in a montage, or even better, off-screen.

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For the movie to spend nearly half its run time on what is essentially an inciting incident is scandalously poor storytelling. But more tragically, creative decisions like this come at a cost. Instead of taking the source material, which by all accounts is unwieldy, and boiling it down to its core essence — themes of jealousy, betrayal, revenge — the movie would rather introduce dozens of characters that do nothing but create even more confusion, and somehow still find the time to include the single most hilarious monologue of the year. But that deserves an article of its own. Maybe one day…

It would seem that Mani Ratnam isn’t familiar with the concept of composite characters; they’d have come in handy in a film like this. But there’s evidence to suggest that even he was overwhelmed by the sheer density of the source material. Perhaps that could explain a scene that comes around an hour-and-a-half into the film, when Kundavai basically recaps everything that we’ve seen so far to her father. And almost as if to prove my point, she is able to do it in a couple of minutes. This is when I almost threw a shoe at the screen. The movie could’ve literally started with this (post-interval) scene, and we’d have been none the wiser.

Going on tangents is actually a good thing; the most boring way for a filmmaker to tell a story is by being beholden to plot. But flights of fancy such as the Karthi-centric sequences that ‘drive’ the entire first half of the film must always be in service of tone, character, or themes. They must have a purpose, however abstract. Had PS: I accomplished this, it wouldn’t have had to routinely rely on exposition to fill in the gaps. But that’s what inevitably ends up happening.

Ultimately, PS: I is the cinematic equivalent of a corporate off-site trip that could’ve been an email. It has all the intrigue of a user instruction manual. It’s a tense experience on occasion, but only because it feels like an exam that you ought to have studied for, but didn’t.

Post Credits Scene is a column in which we dissect new releases every week, with particular focus on context, craft, and characters. Because there’s always something to fixate about once the dust has settled.

First published on: 09-11-2022 at 08:10 IST
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