Bollywood had five years to capitalise on the audience desire for epic historical-mythological drama revealed by SS Rajamouli's Baahubali diptych, and they blew it on narrow-minded, politically oriented flagwaving. It fell to the South to step up and fill the gap, first with Rajamouli's immediate follow-up RRR, which eventually became white people's favourite Indian film, partly because it met a demand not currently being met by the American cinema, and now what's become the #1 Tamil film of the year, the first part of revered director Mani Ratnam's long-gestating two-part adaptation of a series of Kalki Krishnamurthy novels centred on a power struggle in the 11th century Chola kingdom. Ponniyin Selvan - Part 1 redefines that oft-clutched critical descriptor "grandiose"; its generosity of spirit is such that it can afford to bill itself as "an A.R. Rahman musical" before the words "a Mani Ratnam film" appear on screen. (It's a twofer, and in this economy, that counts as an easy sell.)
The wildly tangled tale of pillaging and politicking that follows has been constructed out of the following moving parts: an ailing Emperor (Prakash Raj); two princes, Adithya and Arulmozhi (Vikram and Jayam Ravi); their boyishly upright chief lieutenant Vandiyathevan (Karthi); a third, hidden prince with his own claim to the throne (Rahman); a scheming Aishwarya Rai Bachchan; a horse that makes off with ladies' clothing (perhaps it's a clothes horse); castles with secret passageways; scrolls written in invisible ink; a mysterious elderly woman who sees off bands of assassins while on the back of an elephant; and a beachfront battle scene, all but tossed away at the very beginning of the second half, which multiplies Lawrence of Arabia by Saving Private Ryan before signing off with an aerial shot of the casualties that rivals the conclusion of the Battle of Atlanta sequence in Gone with the Wind. This movie is big and then some: just on a basic narrative level, it's as though Ratnam spent lockdown powering through previously sealed boxsets of House of Cards and Game of Thrones and concluded he wanted some of that, six or eight times over.
Yet unlike RRR, with its broad-strokes, easily grasped characterisation, this is not Indian Cinema 101. The screen rapidly floods with a multitude of major and minor players, often interchangeably beardy men with florid, octo- or decasyllabic names who, with their long hair and jerkins, resemble Motörhead roadies or WWE wrestlers; as established by an early debate that turns into a dust-up, who they are is closely attached to the gods they worship. If you're anything like me, you'll spend the first hour of Ponniyin Selvan worried that you're only ever a scene or two away from being irretrievably lost. You may start to relax once you realise Part 1's business is positioning - or, more specifically, jockeying for position. (If you've kept abreast of events in the British Conservative Party these past few years, it should be a breeze.) The Emperor is not so unwell that his succession becomes a matter of urgency, and so this self-evidently big movie breaks down into a succession of sidebars, sidequests and sidehustles. With the possible exception of Vandiyathevan - characterised as a horny boy scout, upstanding in every department including his sword, and thus doing all he can to penetrate Aish's saris - everybody's busy plotting against everyone else.
I'm still not entirely sure whether it's a point of weakness or a source of fascination that PS - 1 has no immediately identifiable centre, because amid the mild panic it induces, it means every inch of Chola territory, and thus every inch of the screen, is up for grabs from the word go; your eyes and ears tend to go towards whoever the most charismatic performer is at any given moment. All I can say for certain is that when one longhair plants his flag and boomingly declares victory around the hour mark, the mind flashes back to George W. Bush's ill-starred "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED" banner; the identity of the title character (literally "son of Ponni") is only revealed three-quarters of the way through a 160-minute movie. Denis Villeneuve's Dune: Part One - for better or worse, the pre-eminent American worldbuilder of the past twelve months - dumped impenetrable concrete blocks of exposition (sorry, "vision") on its audience, and invited us either to like it or lump it. Ratnam's approach is greatly more playful and engaging: he says allow these characters to run rings round one another - let them run rings around you - because the really important ones will come back around soon enough. (In the meantime: enjoy the grand tour of well-appointed 11th century palaces and the characterful company.) It's a big picture of a kingdom in a state of constant flux; it's never boring, and often highly exciting.
It comes together as it does - and, crucially, leaves you wanting even more - because the film hasn't been directed so much as insistently redirected: Ratnam knows full well that he risks losing us amid such tumult, but he's also seasoned enough to know the value of returning us to a familiar face whenever we start to look nervous or skittish. A few weeks back, I had dinner with a friend who told me Ratnam inspires such devotion in his employees - many of whom have gone on to enjoy prominent directorial careers in their own right - that they regularly return to serve under him as assistant and second-unit directors. You can clearly see how that arrangement pays off here: even when I wasn't 100% certain how a scene or sequence related to the overall structure, I could feel how important the film and its makers think it is. Everything matters on some level, all the subplots have been overseen by someone who cares, and the extent of the coverage - as in the closing naval battle, which expands outwards from small details (the first grappling hooks landing on a ship's bow) into a thunderous study of one vessel sinking to the ocean floor - is frequently jawdropping.
And everything is fully integrated: where the boysy RRR left its pan-Indian ambassador Alia Bhatt on the sidelines, looking sad in a field, the women have far more to do in this world, not least wrap the men around their fingers. It's megastar Rai Bachchan, crafty and cunning in patrolling her corridors of the film, and lit so attentively that certain scenes succeed in stopping time; it's the way the warriors are sincerely haunted by memories of the loved ones they've left behind, like their predecessors in Greek myth. Men and women, beauty and bloodshed: their fates intertwine decisively in the operatic pre-intermission sequence, cued by a Rahman composition ("Chola Chola") that may well end up serving double duty as the year's best love song and its loudest battle cry. I think one could fairly argue that, in going for such scope, Ratnam has sacrificed some of his usual intimacy: it does feel weird that, at the end of Part 1, we come away knowing more about the princes' sister Kundavai (Trisha) than we do about the princes themselves. (There may still be armour to peel away, more secret passageways to explore.) But no director in the post-lockdown era has exhibited a stronger sense of what the big screen can be used for. Early on, when asked which kingdom he represents, Vandiyathevan shrugs "the sky above, the earth below". Where all this worldbuilding is leading will only be fully revealed next year, but for the time being, Ratnam has given us all that and a comet to light the way.
Ponniyin Selvan - Part 1 is now playing in cinemas nationwide.