It’s a well-known fact that male directors who promote themselves as auteurs or geniuses form a fanbase that makes them impervious to criticism. Folks cheer for them if their work is even loosely synonymous with the word “competent.” And even those who are supposed to watch films from a critical point of view fall head-over-heels in love with their latest project and treat it like the best thing in existence. But for those who don’t have those rose-tinted glasses on their faces, the whole circus feels confusing because they’re watching the same thing as the “devotees,” and yet it’s doing nothing. Such has been my experience with both “Ponniyin Selvan: Part 1” and the recently released “Ponniyin Selvan: Part 2.”
In the Hindi version of the film (which is the only version that’s available in my city), Anil Kapoor does a decent job of giving a voice to the recap, where he talks about the plot by Veerapandiyan’s men, led by Ravi Dasan, to kill Arunmozhi Varman or Ponniyin Selvan. Vallavaraiyan Vandiyadevan momentarily disguised himself as Arunmozhi so that the real Arunmozhi could get away. But as soon as Arunmozhi learned that Vandiyadevan had been captured and held captive on a ship, he went after them on a boat. After freeing him, the duo fought Veerapandiyan’s men. However, the ship capsized due to a massive storm, and both Arunmozhi and Vandiyadevan were presumed dead.
This enraged Arunmozhi’s elder brother, Aditha, and he proceeded to wage war against Nandini. “Ponniyin Selvan: Part Two” opens with a flashback to establish Aditha and Nandini’s relationship, how they fell in love, and how they were supposedly separated by the Queen Mother, Sembiyan Mahadevi, and Princess Kundavai. In the present timeline, Prince Madhurantakan plans to ascend to the throne with the help of the Kalamugars. After being saved by Oomai Rani, Arunmozhi stays in hiding to recover, while Vandiyadevan gets captured again by Veerapandiyan’s men to prevent them from going after Arunmozhi. And that’s where he learns that Nandini is working with Ravi Dasan to seemingly end the Chola empire.
Based on this premise, it’s safe to assume that there’ll be a looming sense of threat throughout the movie. But the most surprising thing about Kumaravel and Mani Ratnam’s writing is that they inundate you with so much exposition that there’s no space for tension in the entire narrative. It genuinely feels like Kumaravel and Mani Ratnam are under the impression that a “faithful adaptation” of a book means that they’ve got to make the audience feel like they’re being hit with words instead of emotions. If the audience cannot transform those words into emotions, then it’s the audience’s fault because Kumaravel and Mani Ratnam can do no wrong.
Well, this time, they certainly have by confusing the art of adapting a book with copywriting. It seems like they haven’t done a good job at simply copying and pasting the text either, as there are multiple scenes that end abruptly and are resumed in an even more jarring fashion. It’s truly wild that they decided to conclude “Ponniyin Selvan: Part 1” with the reveal of Oomai Rani and then proceeded to give her the worst possible character arc imaginable. The passage of time and sense of geography are as bad as those last two seasons of “Game of Thrones,” as characters practically teleport from one place to another. And by the time the movie comes to an end, and you see everyone in a celebratory mood, you’re left wondering what these characters are so happy about after two pivotal deaths.
I would’ve been forgiving towards “Ponniyin Selvan: Part 2” if Mani Ratnam, cinematographer Ravi Varman, editor A. Sreekar Prasad, and production designer Thotta Tharani were doing anything interesting, visually speaking. The only scene that manages to make an impact is the island romance between Vandiyadevan and Kundavai. I like it when a movie slowly goes from a medium shot to an extreme close-up to express the growing proximity between two characters. But Ratnam and his team manage to ruin that sensual moment by randomly cutting to a wide shot. Why? What’s the reason behind that? I really want to know what Ratnam and Prasad’s issue is with letting a scene breathe. What’s the need to even shoot an extreme wide shot for that scene, let alone include it in the movie?
Actually, I don’t want to know the answer because I’m sure it’s going to be something stupid. Well, hopefully, it won’t be as stupid as the thought process behind the action scenes. If Ratnam’s aim was to make a punch, a kick, or a sword hit feel as unimpressive as possible, he has achieved that effect. He has delivered what’s arguably one of the most bland and incoherent final battles in film history, which is marred with bad VFX and weird insert shots of a sword scratching an enemy’s body.
When it comes to the performances, I think it’ll be unfair for me to comment on them because I’ve seen the dubbed version of the film, which, I want to reiterate, is the only version that’s available in my city. If the Tamil version was available, I would’ve gone for that because I’m a dub-over-subtitles guy. Since an actor’s vocal inflections are an integral part of what they are bringing to the screen, I’ll be doing a disservice to everyone in the cast if I judge the dub and their facial expressions as one complete thing. So, instead of doing that, I’ll critique them separately. Just like most dubbed films, the voicework is absolutely atrocious here. It’s stupid to expect it to be good because the dubbing artists haven’t lived these characters; the actors have.
I understand the concept of accessibility, but I’ll recommend releasing films with subtitles in different languages instead of dubbing over the work of the actors and ruining it. Based on what everyone is doing physically, much like in the first part, Karthi and Vikram are the best out of the lot. I understand being mesmerized by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Trisha, and Shobita Dhulipala. But this is a motion picture, which requires expressions and whatnot, and they are severely restricted in that department. I won’t say it’s entirely their fault because they are great actors; hence, the blame falls on Mani Ratnam. The rest are just there. They appear, do something forgettable, and then disappear, only to return again to repeat the cycle. It’s tiring.
In conclusion, if you are suffering from insomnia, you should definitely go to the theater and watch “Ponniyin Selvan: Part 2.” I won’t suggest doing a double feature, i.e., watching the two parts back-to-back because you’ll have trouble waking up after watching the first part. What I’ll suggest, though, is that you stop deifying directors, please. If you love someone’s work, criticize it so that they can get better. If you keep praising someone because you love their older work and you don’t have the heart or the ability to point out the issues, then it’s going to lead to snooze fests such as the “Ponniyin Selvan” films. On a slightly positive note, I do hope someone adapts the five volumes of Kalki’s novel as five separate films or five seasons of a show because cramming all that wonderful lore and character work into two films was clearly not a good idea.