Mani Ratnam has credited SS Rajamouli several times as the reason he was able to finally make Ponniyin Selvan: the mega-success of the Bahubali films made it possible for other creators to think of stories in terms of two-parters. And,
together, what these two filmmakers have demonstrated is that these two-part, larger-than-life stories can exist at either end of the cinematic spectrum. They can be thunder. They can also be a whisper. There are hardly any raised voices in Ponniyin Selvan 2, and save for a couple of action/battle scenes, this may be the quietest epic I've seen. The zingers are quiet, like Nandini's whiplash-retort to Ravidasan that he can never hope to accomplish something that she herself is unable to. The confrontations are quiet, like when Aditha Karikalan keeps mocking Periya Pazhuvettarayar as "thatha" and "paatta", as if to rub in the age difference between the senior man and his wife, Nandini.
The humour is quiet, like when the young Nandini's guardian tells the young Kundavai, "Ini aval aranmanai-kul kaal eduthu vaikka maattaal." I smiled thinking of the grown-up Nandini, who became the queenliest of queens. The stunning set pieces are quiet, whether it's a sea of Buddhist monks surrounding Arunmozhi or a group of Pandiyas pouring into the Chola palace through an air vent. The emotional moments are quiet, like when the three Chola siblings are reunited – it's one of many fabulous pieces of choreography with close-ups in a film filled with close-ups. With his superb cinematographer Ravi Varman, Mani Ratnam amps down the aural drama and amps up the visual drama. Even by this director's legendary standards, the staging is something else… or should I speak Twitter-ese and say "vera level". Ponniyin Selvan 2 is an intimate movie, both literally (all those close-ups) and figuratively. After the thunderous end to the first part, where Vandhiyathevan and Arunmozhi sank in the sea, some might expect PS-2 to pick up right there. We do open with an image of water, but this water is still, quiet, and this visual takes us someplace else, to someone else's story.
As for the film's story, it revolves around the plot hatched by the Pandiya rebels in PS-1. They want revenge for the murder of their king, and they decide to eliminate all the top Cholas. Around this, the various sub-threads kickstarted in Part 1 are tied together – say, Maduranthakan's dream of becoming emperor, or who the Oomai Rani is and how she is connected to all these goings-on. Several scenes are so good – like the one where Vandhiyathevan meets Kundavai again – that you wish for separate spin-off films with just these characters alone. The big show-down between Aditha Karikalan and Nandini is another stunner, though at the other end of the emotional spectrum. If that was playful romance, this is painful – and again, it's shot mostly in tight close-ups. This is a narrative filled with talk, and Mani Ratnam keeps finding ways to film these conversations in diversely dramatic ways, with the camera rarely fixed. (Some visuals even seem like callbacks to Raavanan's boat collision or Iruvar's scene of Prakash Raj lying down and talking about romance.)
Inevitably, with the same highlights-reel approach as Part 1, there are things I missed. I wished for more of the Laurel-Hardy interplay between Vandhiyathevan and Nambi. But like I said, each character is so well-etched by Kalki that a series of spin-off films – or a PS Cinematic Universe – may not be a bad idea at all. Unlike Part-1, this is heavier, sadder – it's more of a Shakespearean drama, with failings and failures. (Even the scheming Nandini falters.) AR Rahman's songs are aptly fitted into the background, and I especially loved how a bunch of them were used over the childhood romance of Nandini and Aditha Karikalan, and how Chinnanjiru nilave reappears as a small sarangi piece in the midst of the operatic score behind the operatic scene between these characters as grown-ups. Vikram and Aishwarya Rai are both brilliant throughout – as are Karthi, Trisha, Jayam Ravi, and Jayaram, and this time, I was happy to see Lal and Prabhu register as stronger presences.
About Part 1, I said that Mani Ratnam and his fantastic team beautifully capture the essence of Kalki's characters, and that the film infuses a period story with a sense of lived-in reality. It's the same here. The writing – by Mani Ratnam, Elango Kumaravel and Jeyamohan – is a model of concision without confusion. The emotional bonds are strongly reinforced within minimal screen space. Nothing feels stagey. There's no forced rhetoric. But for the time period, these people could be us – only, our lives aren't exquisitely edited by Sreekar Prasad and set-designed by Thotta Tharani. The two films' design alone is worth a review. Look at how the pure and peace-loving Arunmozhi is always shown in shades of white, as opposed to the darker hues that define his tortured brother. Mani Ratnam released his first movie on January 7, 1983. Forty years on, he continues to challenge himself and his viewers. Sometimes he fails, but he is on a roll now, and the Ponniyin Selvan films are easily among his grandest achievements.