It has been a long time since a historical drama actually felt like history and not unabashed jingoism, chest-beating propaganda or even like a fantastical fever dream. The year 2022 has already seen historical retellings, where some like Akshay Kumar’s Samrat Prithviraj painfully tried to rewrite history or even The Kashmir Files that went on a determined track to present a garbled narrative. SS Rajamouli’s glitzy and fever-dream like RRR, supposedly set in British India, had all the massy action one would expect from the filmmaker—down to wild animals flung around like weapons.
So, it was undoubtedly a relief to watch Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan 1, a tale of warring clans and princes, twisted rivalries and loyalties, all set in the Chola period of India back in the ninth century. It needs to be emphasized that there’s no character in PS1 waxing eloquent about the brilliance of India. No, they are all too busy betraying, mourning, killing and avenging each other. It’s been called the Indian Game of Thrones, which is a disservice to Mani Ratnam’s efforts as the film stands on its own.
The storytelling, acting, splendid sets and the distinguishable characters with their own agenda and demons kept the proceedings interesting. There’s the boisterously cheerful Vallavaraiyan Vandiyadevan (Karthi), the faithful spy for Vikram’s Aditha—a warrior prince, intoxicated by victory and heartbreak. There’s the diplomatic Arunmozhi—the actual Ponniyin Selvan, who doesn’t appear till the interval. In the middle of all this, there are warring chieftains. The story seemingly rests on the shoulders of these men, but the truth is, the women pull the strings. The men play the games that women have quietly set up for them. Sometimes, they just watch the games playing the men.
Ponniyin Selvan cleverly twists the old sexist stereotype of women being too emotional for politics. Mani Ratnam’s carefully crafted film doesn’t allow space for the rhetoric where glamorous women are just pawns in patriarchy, sitting limply and watching from their corner. Whenever previous films or shows have been criticised for purposely showing cruelty to women, the age-old defence is, “But that’s what it was like in those times.” PS1 smirks at such adages.
Here, wars are not being fought over women, even if there is a heartbreak lurking in the background. It doesn’t place them in the typical domestic sphere. The women here exercise deadly calm, juxtaposed against male warriors like Vikram’s hot-headed Aditha Karikalan.
The two powerful women in the tale, Kundavai and Nandini, who are the brains in the kingdom, have their own vested interests and are driven by their own causes, which might not collide with the side they seemingly support. They know how to bring around the results they want to see, and the ends justify the means for them. This enhances the complexity and unpredictability of the narrative.
Kundavai and Nandini
Kundavai dismantles a group of cunning chieftains with a smooth proposition of marital alliances. In another moment, Poonghuzhali—also known as Samudrakumari—ferries passengers across the sea while on the constant lookout for danger. At the centre of the entire twisted and writhing dynasty politics is Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s beguiling Nandini playing her cards close to her heart as she nurses the thirst for revenge. Nandini isn’t swayed by her past passion for Aditha, and neither does it cloud her ability to plot. Kundavai isn’t a paragon of virtue, and neither is Nandini evil incarnate. They’re actually fleshed-out characters with innumerable streaks of grey. They seem real.
Kundavai, seen with flowers and her ladies-in-waiting, is a patriot for her Chola Nadu, and also functions independently of her father and brother’s interest. She remains unruffled by condescending men. She knows how to shut them down with careful words and different propositions. Normally, many films would have been desperate to show her as a sword-wielding woman, riding into battle and crushing out the historical realism, but Mani Ratnam sticks to Kalki’s perception of Kundavai—a woman who has a way with words. She can be hypocritical as well and sees herself as someone who knows what’s best for her family—as evident in the way she drove away Nandini from her brother.
Aishwarya Rai’s dialogues are minimal, and her presence limited—-yet, she’s luminous, even when she looks piercingly from the palanquin. She is feared for her intelligence, and is a cunning strategist. The men are almost puppets. It’s Aishwarya’s finest performance in years, because she’s not being utilised for ornamental purposes—a mistake that Bollywood often makes. Instead, she exercises power over the storytelling and narrative itself.
In one of the most riveting scenes of the film, Trisha’s Kundavai and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s Nandini meet, in a splendour of red and gold. They exchange barbs, doused in sweetness—and it’s clear that neither will stop at anything to achieve their desires. The immense dislike is contained between the two of them, while others shower the union with love and appreciation, unaware of what either woman is planning.
But that’s not all that Aishwarya does. She is also Oomai Rani, the mysterious woman who saves Prince Arunmozhi from death, several times. There is almost a mythical quality about her as if she’s some sort of guardian angel. You wonder if it’s just some fantastical dream, even though you might have just seen her. But it isn’t, as the conclusion to the first part of the film shows. Oomai Rani swims to save him from drowning, and earlier, she had charged on an elephant to rescue him from the Pandya rebels.
Considering the dearth of actual good cinema in the past year, Ponniyin Selvan 1 is immensely satisfying and feels like a film, without excessive dosage of VFX or slo-mo action sequences that take away the essence of the story. Every character stands out in this film with crisply-written dialogues and Mani Ratnam slowly builds the tension up to a crescendo. A visual feast, PS1 shows what a real historical drama looks like.