If PS-1 is our "Infinity War", please bring us our "Endgame" soon.

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If PS-1 is our "Infinity War", please bring us our "Endgame" soon.

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"Ponniyin Selvan: Part 1" made me draw parallels to another Tamil blockbuster released earlier this year for an odd reason. While most of our "commercial/ mass" cinema relies heavily on how the titular hero is portrayed, we have now had two big-scale movies in which the titular hero is physically absent in the first half. Yes, I am indeed talking about Lokesh Kanagaraj’s "Vikram", which followed the search for the protagonist approach. Akin to Fahad Fazil’s Amar character in the film above, here, too, the story unravels from the point of view of another star, an exemplary Karthi’s Vallavarayan Vanthiyathevan.  

Like "Vikram", we keep hearing the mention of the hero quite a few times, yet, we don’t get to see Jayam Ravi’s “Ponniyin Selvan” in full glory for the entirety of the first half. And when we do finally see him, it’s a build-up shot, all right, but it is still relatively low-key for a hero we know will become one of the most celebrated real-life kings in Tamil history. This, not to mention, is the most heroic entry scene among the three stars in the film, and yet it feels too underplayed compared to all the chutzpah that we are recently used to in these extravagant films of late.  This is not a criticism but a welcome breath of fresh air. 

Maniratnam, who is known for contemporising epic mythology (see "Thalapathy" and "Raavanan") in "PS: 1", retells the story of a classic period novel by utilising contemporary filmmaking techniques instead. He and writers Elango Kumaravel and B. Jeyamohan have woven a screenplay that concentrates solely on the critical moving aspects of Kalki Krishnamurthy’s sprawling five-volume novel. When shot with Ravi Varman’s aesthetic camera work that firmly roots the film, this screenplay provides a new immersive experience that we don’t usually associate with these films. Period dramas are always about the wide shots and the grander, while here, even the wonderfully staged set-pieces feel intimate as there is not even one static frame to cover the full scale of the battlefields. It is as if you jump right into the thick of the action like you are in the middle of the fight yourself. Even the elaborate sets erected by Thotta Tharani are detailed so that they appear grounded, despite being huge in scale.

This contemporary style of making is even evident in the choice of soundtracks composed by A.R. Rahman. The songs, which feel too fresh and too vibrant for a film of this genre, do wonders in moving the story forward. A movie with so many characters needs much exposition and prolonged set-up, but the songs are used as intelligent storytelling devices that help in advancing the plot further. The way "Devaralan Aatam" is shot and choreographed deserves special mention, but the song placement of "Ratchasa Maamaney" to set up a fun chase sequence worked exceptionally well. While on the music, the background music in several instances, like when Trisha’s Kudhavai and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s Nandhini meet or when Vikram’s Aditha Karikalan reflects on his tragic past, is some of the best screen elevations that add to the overall experience.  

The story is about succession and power struggle, so even if you are unfamiliar with the books, these are relevant and very often shown on-screen. For example, the Nandhini character feels like the inspiration for Andrea’s excellent Chandra in "Vada Chennai", while Prakash Raj as the ailing father and his three children for succession plot is strangely the same as in Maniratnam’s own "Chekka Chevandha Vaanam". And we can also see that the director has carried over some of the styles he handled for that film to manage a multi-star cast here. The style often feels like a "highlights reel" where we keep jumping from one revelation to another story-defining moment. Thankfully, despite the constant plot progression, the film never gets too overstuffed and remains engaging throughout without a dull moment. 

The cast’s performances are brilliant as even if they have just one or two high moments in the film, everyone at least manages to stay in memory while you leave the theatre. Karthi can go about flirting with beautiful women and do nothing more, and I can watch it all day. He oozes a joyfulness that we usually don’t see in our macho lead men and vibrates as the heart piece of the entire film. His few interactions with Jayaram’s Azhwarkadiyan Nambi add much-needed humour to the story of blood and vengeance.  

Vikram plays a role that he is very well used to – that of a mentally hurt yet physically solid and imposing man and easily conveys the pain and the wrath of the eldest prince. Ravi is a revelation of sorts, as he carries the royalty of Arunmozhi Varman with grace and calmness. But, the women manage to steal the show in the brief moments they tend to get – both Aishwarya Rai and Trisha are convincing as the cold-war-like feuding Nandhini and Kundhavai, and they also appear like a million dollars when on screen. All the other cast members leave a mark here or there, as such is the source material where every character feels necessary for the plot to function. 

The best part of the film is the ending. Compressing a dense multiple-volume novel into a two-part movie throws an interesting question about where to split the films. This has to function in such a way that the movie itself serves as a standalone story but still manages to develop intrigue for the part that is coming later. The writers not only work to find a midpoint that works both ways but also add a twist that is sure to click well with the audience. If this is our "Infinity War", please bring us our "Endgame" soon.

- Arunachalam Senthilnathan

Arunachalam Senthilnathan
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