Ponniyin Selvan I (PSI) was a novelty when it came out, a cultural revelation about the Cholas and medieval Tamil Nadu. Ponniyin Selvan II (PS2) fills in the gaps which were left unexplained in PSI. As a result, PSII is less of a history and more of a story, where fact meets fiction seamlessly. PS2 is an aesthetic delight, where Mani Ratnam the artist is at his directorial best.
In PSI, we met Aditha Karikalan and Arulmozhi Varman (Ponniyin Selvan, later Rajaraja Chola), the sons of Sundara Chola. But the circumstances behind the killing of Aditya Karikalan were unknown. PSII is all about the plot hatched by Nandini to avenge the death of King Veerapandiyan, who was killed by Aditha Karikalan. A group of Pandyan soldiers led by Nandini scheme against Adithan. She is described as the foster sister of Azhwarkadiyan Nambi, a Veera Vaishnava spy who works for the Cholas. The main antagonist and the hero of PSII is Nandini, who grew up in Pazhayarai, the ancient capital of the Cholas. Aditha Karikalan is assassinated by Nandini, the foster daughter of Veerapandiyan and his childhood love interest, in revenge for his killing of her foster father. PSII is all about the plot and its consequences, and the death of Aditha Karikalan.
Nandini is a creation of Kalki’s imagination, so it is appropriate that Mani Rathnam chose the glamorous Aishwarya Rai for the role. But there is a twist in the tale, for it is Nandini’s mother Mandakini who saved Ponniyin Selvan from death by drowning, first in the Ponni (Kaveri) river and then in the sea between the Tamil country and Lanka. Nandini and Aditha Karikalan were childhood lovers but, as the association was disliked by the Queen Mother Sembiyan Mahadevi, Nandini fled the Chola kingdom and went to live in Madurai where she was adopted by Veera Pandiyan. After Aditha Karikalan beheads Veera Pandiyan, Nandini joins the Pandya conspirators, vows to take revenge on Adithan and destroy the Chola dynasty. She marries Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar, the Chola treasurer and minister of finance, to destroy the Cholas from within. Nandini persuades the Pandyas that Sundara Chola and Aditha Karikalan must be killed on the same day. She invites Aditha Karikalan to Kadambur Fort on the pretext of cutting a deal with Madhuraanthakan, who is fostering a rebellion to claim the Chola throne. Meanwhile, Arulmozhi Varman, after being rescued from the ocean, is now very ill. He is taken to a Buddhist monastery to be cured. Aishwarya is in a double role in this movie: firstly, as the beautiful Nandini, courted by many men, and secondly as Nandini’s mother, the deglamourised Mandakini, with streaming white hair and little or no make-up.
But the hero of Kalki’s story is Vallavarayan Vandhiyadhevan, one of the key characters of the novel, played by the charming young actor Karthi. The author introduces most of the characters through him. He is blindfolded and put on a tiny island, where he is interrogated by Kundhavai, sister of Ponniyin Selvan. It is a beautiful sequence of subtle lovemaking through touch and sound. Nothing crass at all. Historically, he was the husband of Kundavai, sister of the two Chola brothers, according to an inscription in the Brihadishwara temple, Thanjavur.
Mani Rathnam introduced and established the epic in PSI, using lavish song sequences. In PSII, he deviates from Kalki’s epic. This is Mani Ratnam the great craftsman, who makes a film faithful to his art of cinematography. The scenes on the River Kaveri, with its lush green forests were filmed in Mysore, where the thick forests alongside the Kaveri are reminiscent of a lost age and environment. He is the ultimate aesthete. AR Rehman’s music, with Adi Shankara’s Nirvana Shatakam providing the background lyrics in one scene, is breath-taking. However, the scenes of war are deadly, and I wonder whether the horses could have escaped unharmed. The costumes are based on the drawings in Kalki’s novel, which were based on the Chola temple sculptures. They look impossibly glamorous, but that’s how costumes of the Chola period were depicted on temple walls.
Ponniyin Selvan is not a conventional film because it has so many parallel storylines. It is about several people: Aditha Karikalan, Vandhiyadhevan and Nandini, not to mention Uttama Madurantaka Chola, Kundavai and Ponniyan Selvan himself. Ratnam recreates each character in a few short scenes. Finally, Ponniyin Selvan or Arulmozhi Varman comes forward to show himself as the great statesman to be—Rajaraja Chola. When there is an attempt to kill him in the Buddhist monastery, he does not run away. He goes forward to meet his assassins. He is not a tough warrior like his brother Aditha Karikalan, but he is a true leader of men, who knows the right course of action on every occasion. Finally, he gives up the position of heir to the throne to his father’s cousin Madurantaka Uttama Cholan. His actions are far more heroic and dignified than sword-fighting, and that’s why Mani Ratnam makes Arulmozhi Varaman’s depiction that of a restrained and great leader.
The most remarkable learning from Ponniyin Selvan I and II is the number of young people who are going to see these movies. I was amazed to see that most of the viewers in the theatre were either college students or young middle-class families. I spoke to a young college student who loved the movie. He liked PSI, but PSII filled up the gaps in his comprehension, he said. I could not have imagined such a reply a few years ago. Mani Ratnam has done the impossible—created a love for history and historical fiction in a new generation. Ponniyin Selvam I and II are his magnum opus.