Friday 12 May 2023

Succession: "Ponniyin Selvan - Part 2"

The business of
Ponniyin Selvan - Part 1 - first half of Mani Ratnam's adaptation of Kalki's historical novels, and one of the grandest cinematic spectacles of 2022 - was that dread word worldbuilding. But it was worldbuilding in a very specific, very distinctive way: worldbuilding by circulation, dropping the viewer into the middle of a kingdom thrown into renewed turmoil by news that its beloved Emperor had not long for this world. Unexpectedly, PS-1 felt like the kind of movie Robert Altman might have made had he troubled to make a movie set in the India of the 10th century - all overlapping plots, ambitions and desires, more mosaic than drably monolithic monument. Such was the immense skill with which Part 1 was constructed - such was the care taken over each of its constituent elements - that I must confess to a little trepidation heading into Ponniyin Selvan - Part 2. What if Ratnam had screwed up his conclusion in the race to deliver a sequel barely six months on from a crowning success? Worry not: almost everything within PS-2 connects with its predecessor, and often it connects so sublimely you're reminded how lucky we are that such a project should have fallen into the hands of one of the movieworld's great storytellers.

There is, granted, some admin to get through. After a brisk recap of the events of Part 1, the first half of Part 2 is chiefly concerned with the appointment of the Emperor's brother Madhurantakan (Rahman) as interim successor, when we all know that actual heir Arulmozhi (Jayam Ravi) is (just about) alive, having survived the shipwreck with which PS-1 concluded. Yet Ratnam's showmanship reasserts itself long before the elephant-based assassination attempt that precedes the new film's interval. (Cutting nimbly to an operatic pitch, the director here resembles another 1970s movie brat: Coppola gone wild.) From there on out, it's a full-on cavalry charge to the grand finale: the revelation of just who, among these approximately 1,001 characters, is going to inherit the Emperor's throne, set to a drumroll played by what looks and sounds like half of India. PS-1, you soon realise, was merely setting a considerable stage. PS-2 has the temerity to introduce new players - because more than grand design, more than CGI, Ratnam loves people and is fascinated by people. The risk, of course, is narrative overload, and a movie that becomes unfathomable. Yet like any artist worthy of the term, Ratnam takes the gamble, and not only gets away with it, but triumphs.

It's a triumph of structure above all else: boy, did they get this script right. Every unit in this story has or attains its own weight, and is set down in exactly the right place; as a result, Ratnam starts to find pleasing rhymes in his material and draw rewarding parallels between events. (Once more, Karthi's gadabout knight Vanthiyathevan is dispatched on a mission by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan's scheming Nandini.) The end result is a sequel that doesn't just finish what PS-1 started, but actively complements it; that finds the characters retracing their steps (and, crucially, revisiting a painful shared past) with a life-and-death urgency befitting the newly elevated stakes. The Emperor has even less time to play with now, and the comet that soared over his deathbed serves to cast an unflattering light on the darker corners of this particular history. It's all now back in play, in other words, which is why every strand comes to feel like a source of perilous cliffhangers; our affections are split between characters who represent whole philosophies, worlds in themselves. The obvious fan favourite - and Ratnam was characteristically wise to deploy him as an entry point - remains Vanthiyathevan, very much the Pete Davidson of this universe, able to win any woman's affections simply by virtue of being the kind of horny goofball it might be fun to hang with for a while. (The rigour of his swordsmanship is but an added bonus.)

The surprise this time round is how closely this universe aligns with our own; it's not just the serendipity of the film's release coinciding with another coronation, and Ratnam's worldbuilding never feels hermetic, the way the worldbuilding in, say, Denis Villeneuve's Dune: Part One did. Even before the Emperor departs, a vacuum of power is created, and it's rapidly filled by suspicion, hostility and conspiracy theories, obliging each of the throne's main contenders to restate their position. (In what sounds a boldly loaded line for an Indian film released in 2023 to advance, the cuddly centrist Arulmozhi insists "Rulers who do not trust the people cannot rule over them.") Yet the PS films' struggles aren't just political but emotional: the war between and within kingdoms has often felt secondary to a far older conflict between the sexes. The strongest scenes in PS-2 aren't those involving military muscle, but those where Ratnam and his leads try to reconcile the two halves of a broken heart - and thereby seek to prevent past traumas from being perpetuated in the present. Having spent the first movie tossing his locks and angrily stomping his feet, Arulmozhi's warrior brother Aditha (Vikram, channelling peak-era Mel Gibson) is more closely - and tragically - defined here as a man who knows there may only be one cure for the poison agitating his blood; alongside him, Rai Bachchan is little short of extraordinary as one of those villains who's all the more compelling for having more going on than mere villainy.

The conclusion of their strand is where Ponniyin Selvan gets a bit too Lord of the Rings/Game of Thrones-ish, in that Ratnam suddenly seems a tad unsure how best to end it all. (Maybe there is no best way to end it, because so much of it - the love, the war, the jockeying for power - continues today.) And though PS-2 gives us the priceless image of Vanthiyathevan undertaking one mission while disguised as a tigerskin rug, you might - as I did - miss the appealing levity and looseness of PS-1, essentially an amply budgeted getting-to-know-you session. PS-2's business, ultimately, is tightening up - it's a vision coming into sharper and more immediate dramatic focus. (That's why A.R. Rahman's songs are high-calibre incidental music this time out: there's no time for a setpiece as majestic as the first film's "Chola Chola".) It is a vision, nevertheless, and spectacularly well-realised with it. Several major filmmakers have taken big swings since the cinema reopened its doors post-Covid, but few have seemed quite this big, and fewer still have connected so completely with the ideal of how a mass movie should look, sound and - most importantly of all - move this far into the 21st century. The relentless churn of post-lockdown output means the movies may already be moving on - after a two-week run, PS-2 loses most of its screens from today - but a bar has been raised here, along with a thousand banners. Over to you, Fast X.

Ponniyin Selvan - Part 2 is now playing in selected cinemas; Part 1 is available to stream via Prime Video.

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