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Ponniyin Selvan I: Mani Ratnam’s magnum opus is a crash course in overcomplicating a straightforward story

It’s quite normal that the highest-grossing Indian movies every year tend to be bad stinkers, but is 2022 the first year in recent memory where people have been tricked into believing that the biggest movies are really good? Or is it simply because they’re so starved for big-screen entertainment that they feel it’s their civic duty to praise anything that pretends to be large-scale?

KGF: Chapter 2 was practically unwatchable, as was Brahmastra. RRR has been given way more credit than it really deserves, and Vikram was so devoid of personality that I forgot large parts of it before I was even done. The less said about The Kashmir Files, the better. Each of these films was offensive in different ways; while some endorsed a problematic worldview, others proved that money can buy visual effects and big stars, but not storytelling skills. The historical epic Ponniyin Selvan: I by director Mani Ratnam belongs to the latter category.

After watching the film for three endless sittings after its streaming debut on Prime Video, I’ve come to this conclusion: PS: I’m a case study on how to overcomplicate a wafer-thin plot with irrelevant nonsense. It’s loosely structured, riddled with plot twists that wouldn’t fool a five-year-old, and tends to drown its own themes in gallons of pointless exposition.

Based on Kalki Krishnamurthy’s epic series of historical fiction novels—which I must admit, I haven’t read—Ponniyin Selvan has been described as the Tamil Game of Thrones. But actually it has more in common with that show’s recently released spin-off, House of the Dragon. While feeling the power vacuum likely to arise in the event of the death of the ailing King Sundara Chola, a conspiracy is concocted to overthrow Crown Prince Aditha Karikalan (Vikram) by a close aide. The central conflict, at least on the surface, is very similar to Alicent and Rhaenyra’s argument in House of the Dragon about who will succeed the ailing Viserys.

But at no point in this movie do you get a clue as to why these people are fighting in the first place. The challenger for the crown, Madhurantakan (Rahman), is introduced an hour into the film and only makes two or three forgettable appearances in total. The reason behind his quarrel with the Chola rulers is ignored – however, there is vague talk of Madhurantakan being ripped off from his birthright – robbing the film of vital personal drama. The central conflict in House of the Dragon didn’t work because of the political stuff — there’s a lot of that in PS:I, too — but because we knew every step of the way that two childhood best friends with a shared past, two young girls in a male-dominated world. , were on a collision course toward self-destruction.

In PS: I, you don’t care who wins in the end, and that’s because the movie lacks perspective and doesn’t spend nearly enough time developing characters. Everything should have a grand purpose, every scene should end with a flourish and not with finesse; movies have forgotten what it’s like to communicate through mood, atmosphere and tone. To be clear, this is an indication of what directors think of the public these days. Make no mistake about that. They are convinced that we constantly need to be explained what is going on.

Ponniyin Selvan: I – a title that has the aura of a thinly disguised threat – is busier than the insides of a Chennai tiffin house at breakfast, features action so poorly directed it reminds you of Steven Seagal movies from the 90s, and has so many speaking roles that you’d wish Isha of Brahmastra was imported for the sole purpose of shouting out characters’ names every time they appear on screen.

Aditha Karikalan is ostensibly the main character, even though his brother (Jayam Ravi) is the titular character. It is Aditha who sets the plot in motion by sending his trusted assistant Vallavaraiyan Vanthiyathevan (Karthi) to the kingdom of Kadamboor to spy on the chieftains (before disappearing completely for an hour). And it’s a sign of how poorly constructed this film is, that the moment Vallavaraiyan arrives in Kadamboor, he handily overhears a conspiracy to overthrow his friend. Wasn’t there a better way to do this?

How many times can a movie get away with coincidences by shrugging its shoulders and suggesting that a character happened to be in the right place at the right time? In PS:I, it turns out that pretty much every major plot development is made by coming up with a scene for just that purpose. How else can you tell the existence of a character like Nambi, who is introduced almost exclusively to tell primary antagonist Nandini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), to the right person, at exactly the right time.

Getting worse. Aditha had instructed Vallavaraiyan to pass on his findings to his sister, the princess Kundavai (Trisha). That means we follow the semi-comedic Vallavaraiyan for over an hour as he travels to Kadamboor to gather some information, and then travels a little more to pass that information on to someone else. A full hour, in which the man we thought was the main character has been completely removed from the picture. I am convinced that all of this could have been accomplished in a montage, or better yet, off screen.

That the film spends nearly half of its running time on what is essentially an incendiary incident is an outrageously bad story. But more tragically, creative decisions like this come with a price. Rather than reduce the source material, which is impractical in every way, to its essentials – themes of jealousy, betrayal, revenge – the film prefers to introduce dozens of characters who do nothing but create even more confusion, and in one way or another way still find the time to record the most hilarious monologue of the year. But that deserves its own article. Maybe one day…

It seems Mani Ratnam is not familiar with the concept of composite characters; they would have come in handy in a movie like this. But there are indications that even he was overwhelmed by the sheer density of the source material. Maybe that could explain a scene that comes in about an hour and a half into the movie, when Kundavai basically sums up everything we’ve seen of her father so far. And almost as if she wants to prove my point, she is able to do it in minutes. At that point, I almost threw a shoe at the screen. The movie could have literally started with this (post-interval) scene, and we wouldn’t have been the wiser.

Going on tangents is actually a good thing; the dullest way for a filmmaker to tell a story is by being committed to a plot. But fantasies, like the Karthi-focused sequences that “float” throughout the first half of the film, should always be in the service of tone, character, or themes. They must have a purpose, however abstract. If PS: I had achieved this, it wouldn’t have had to routinely rely on exposition to fill in the gaps. But that’s what inevitably happens.

Ultimately, PS:I is the cinematic equivalent of a business off-site trip that could have been an email. It has all the intrigue of a manual. It’s a thrilling experience at times, but only because it feels like an exam you should have studied for, but didn’t.

Post Credits Scene is a column in which we dissect new releases every week, with a special focus on context, craft and characters. Because there is always something to fixate on once the dust settles.

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