‘Ponniyin Selvan: I’ Review - A sprawling period piece

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

Murtaza Ali Khan

Mani Ratnam’s latest directorial ‘Ponniyin Selvan: I’ is the first part of the Ponniyin Selvan saga based on Kalki Krishnamurthy's 1955 novel ‘Ponniyin Selvan,’ which is regarded as the greatest novel ever written in Tamil literature. The film which has suddenly stirred deep interest in the Cholas basically tells the story of Arulmozhivarman aka Ponniyin Selvan who later became the great Chola emperor Rajaraja Chola I. The film stars an ensemble cast featuring the likes of Vikram, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Jayam Ravi, Karthi, Trisha, Aishwarya Lekshmi, Nassar, R. Sarathkumar, and Prakash Raj, among others.

Centuries before the Europeans (Britain, Spain, France, Portuguese, etc.), the Cholas had succeeded in becoming an imperial superpower, imposing their colonial influence on Sri Lanka, Maldives, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Cambodia under Rajaraja Chola (Reign: 985-1014 AD) and his son Rajendra Chola (Reign: 1014-1044 AD). It's a testament to their naval dominance in the Indian Ocean that was unheard of at the time.

Their conquests beyond the Indian mainland were instrumental in the spread of Indian culture far and wide. Interestingly, the Cholas even had envoys in China. That's how influential they were as rulers and understood well the importance of trade and diplomacy. Rajaraja Chola's empire included the erstwhile Pandya territory in southern Tamil Nadu, the erstwhile Chera country in central Kerala and western Tamil Nadu as well as northern Sri Lanka. He also captured the Lakshadweep and Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean.

Rajaraja’s successful military campaigns against Karnataka's ancient dynasty of Western Gangas as well as Chalukyas extended the Chola influence as far as the Tungabhadra River. On the eastern coast he battled with the Chalukyas for the possession of the Godavari districts.

The Chola Empire was greatly expanded during the reign of Rajaraja’s son Rajendra Chola. Other than his conquests in the Indian Ocean, he even succeeded in defeating the Palas (who ruled over the present-day Bengal and Bihar) and took the title of Gangaikondachola (as he became the first Chola king to conquer the kingdoms around the Ganges). It was such an unprecedented feat for a South Indian ruler to extend his influence beyond the Ganges that he even built a new capital city called Gangaikonda Cholapuram to commemorate his momentous achievement. The Cholas built great temples and cities as art, artists, and artisans flourished. India's merchant navy training ship TS Rajendra has been named in Rajendra Chola's honour.

But, Kalki’s novel merely focuses on the early days of Arulmozhivarman, long before he became Rajaraja Chola I. Mani Ratnam’s two-part film adaptation is completely faithful to the novel. In ‘Ponniyin Selvan: I,’ the story’s main focus is on the early days of the battle for succession to the Chola throne during the later years of the reign of the aging king Sundara Chola (Reign:  962 – 980 AD) whose two sons, Aditha Karikalan (played by Vikram) and Arulmozhi Varman, are mighty successful in their conquests for the Chola empire in Kanchi and Sri Lanka, respectively. Aditha Karikalan is the crown prince.

Unbeknownst to Sundara Chola (essayed by Prakash Raj), the Chola treasurer and minister of finance, Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar (portrayed by R. Sarathkumar), is conspiring with a group of royal chieftains to usurp the throne from Aditha for Aditha’s uncle Madurantakan. Sensing something fishy, Aditha sends his Vanthiyathevan (essayed by Karthi), a brave and adventurous warrior prince of Vaanar Clan, to alarm his farther about the impending danger.

On the other hand, a group of devoted Pandya soldiers scheme to avenge the Pandya King Veerapandiyan (played by Nassar) killed in a battle by Aditha Karikalan. What complicates the matter is Periya’s beautiful enigmatic wife Nandini (essayed by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) who actually happens to be Aditha’s first and only love. Nandini also shares a strange bond with Veerapandiyan. No one really knows with whom her truly loyalties lie. Battling deceit and deception while simultaneously coming to terms with the dangerous game of palace intrigue, the Chola princes have their task cut out. They must win the battle against the vengeful Pandyas while thwarting the betrayal of Pazhuvettaraiyar.

‘Ponniyin Selvan: I’ is replete with spectacular moments and wonderful performances with Aishwarya Rai Bachchan leading from the front. Evidently, the de-aging technology seems to have done wonders as we get to see the former Miss World in her element. Vikram, Karthi, Trisha, Prakash Raj and the rest are also brilliant in their respectively roles. However, if you are looking for a Baahubali type of film then you will be greatly disappointed. Here is a very different kind of a period piece that also serves as a lesson in history.

Murtaza Ali Khan reviews 'Ponniyin Selvan: I' on Mirror Now

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