Everybody knows he's a master of sublime, but Mani Ratnam's brilliance in escalating drama delivers a goosebumps-inducing impact when bolstered by A R Rahman's musical gravitas, notes Sukanya Verma.
After keeping us on tenterhooks for over half a year, Mani Ratnam welcomes us back into the Chola dynasty to share the second and concluding part of his long cherished dream.
Ratnam's magnificent adaptation of Kalki Krishnamurthy's five-part literary epic, Ponniyin Selvan: 1 steered us through a star-studded assemblage of characters, their motives and mysteries while piquing our curiosity about what lies ahead over a breathtaking cliff-hanger.
His follow-up, Ponniyin Selvan: 2 winds up the saga in all its spectacular and sorrowful glory. On the whole, it's a striking, sweeping journey but bits of it left me wanting more.
It's understood only a viewer familiar with Ponniyin Selvan: 1 will want to know what happens next in Ponniyin Selvan: 2.
Both the movies are two halves of an ambitious whole and cannot be fully appreciated as standalone treats. You won't know Aditha Karikalan from Adam if you skipped the 2022 release although a quick recap in Anil Kapoor's voiceover (I watched a rare, satisfying Hindi dub) tries to give a vague idea.
An ailing king (Prakash Raj) must safeguard his three kids and the dangers awaiting them from seen foes and unseen forces eyeing reign over Chola kingdom.
Where a technicality regarding the heir drives a wedge between blood relatives, of which a pair of sly statesmen siblings are quick to take advantage, lineage plays a key role in splitting up young lovers. And so Nandini's spurned seductress (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) conspires a long-harboured vendetta in cahoots with a defeated enemy, the Pandya assassins.
Amidst these stressful happenings, a raging Aditha (Vikram), his righteous younger brother Arunmozhi (Jayam Ravi), quick-witted sister Princess Kundavai (Trisha) and their valiant well-wisher, the Vanar clan warrior Vanthiyathevan (Karthi) whose entertaining antics in Ponniyin Selvan: 1 brought about tremendous cheer, must regroup and brace themselves for multiple attacks.
Essentially, a 10th century family drama and political thriller combined in one, the events of Ponniyin Selvan are sparked off by a love story gone sour between the crowned prince Aditha and commoner Nandini.
Years before their resentment took the shape of rage and revenge, Ratnam offers us a pristine glimpse into their young adult romance.
Destiny is seldom kind to star-crossed lovers.
But when the repercussions of their long-standing discord disrupts the peace of a prosperous empire, it's a countdown to doom.
Earlier too when pitted against each other in a 'it's complicated' scenario like Ratnam's Raavanan, Vikram and Aishwarya have seared the screen with their innate intensity.
Ponniyin Selvan: 2 explores another facet of their ill-fated dynamic in a striking moment of pardon and pathos. What follows is a deadly dance of death, daggers and darkness.
Splendour becomes Aishwarya, but I was fascinated by the Smeagol turned Gollum-like moral dilemma consuming her Nandini the more she lets her loathing overpower her love.
On the other hand, Vikram's palpable vigour in expressing Aditha's arrogance, conflict and misery is another level of wow.
Next to their charismatic allure, Jayam Ravi is a decidedly bland presence, never quite embodying the Rajaraja Chola distinction or title role significance. He conveys the nobility of his character but never the dynamism. Imagine Michael Corleone played by Master Oogway instead of Al Pacino.
A sprightly Karthi fares well even though it's a fairly less flamboyant turn this time around.
As much as I wish Trisha had a little more to do, it is interesting to note the insecure side of her otherwise poised nature in a telling childhood flashback.
Everybody knows he's a master of sublime, but Ratnam's brilliance in escalating drama delivers a goosebumps-inducing impact when bolstered by A R Rahman's musical gravitas. The maestro has composed quite a few evocative songs (dipped in Gulzar's lyrical ink) here but it's the theatricality of his background music that dials up a scene's cinematic quality from exciting to epic.
What I found a tad underwhelming is how hastily and unremarkably the final battle wraps up. Or how the film doesn't play on the book's ambiguity and chickens out from its wild suggestions about a certain character's parentage to opt for a safer, strait-laced ending.
Nevertheless, in Ponniyin Selvan: 2, the story has moved on to a tonally darker and emotional territory yet Ratnam's glittering pageantry shines through its postcard visuals showcasing the scrupulously put together costumes, sets, song and dance.
Chases across craggy caves and marketplaces swarmed by folks in peacock feathered headgears, monsters camouflaged in monk's clothing, ash-smeared army of Shiva bhakts, secret passages holding treasures and terror, grand parades and royal funerals or just the mere sight of a silver mane belonging to an enigmatic figure whose concealed identity and resemblance to a central character is a foregone conclusion -- Ponniyin Selvan: 2 is designed for the eyes and senses.
Much praise to Ravi Varman's chameleon-like camerawork and Sreekar Prasad's seamless editing. Both are so one with the storytelling's hectic mood, their harmony is a jaw-dropping technical achievement.
Apart from its exquisite aesthetic, Ponniyin Selvan: 2 also conveys a sense of human fallibility in the final chapter that's usually missing from big-budget bonanzas.
Ratnam's Greek tragedy approach isn't interested in smash-boom gratification or bombastic bluster.
Inner battles outweigh the ones fought on the field and the unchanging nature of politics is highlighted in alliances of convenience and power play between graceful privilege and ruthless fanaticism.
His spectacle may be steeped in fiction and fantasy, but its entitlement and opportunism feels as real and relevant as ever.