Ponniyin Selvan 1

I did manage to catch PS1 in the cinema (definitely the best way to watch the film), but wanted to watch it again before posting this review. I loved the epic scale, the fantastic costumes and found the story to be relatively easy to follow, despite the large number of characters and location shifts. There is action, intrigue, double-crosses, mystery and suspense as well as the amazing costumes and jewellery – all well worth the 2 hour 47 minute run time and I can’t wait for Part 2!

The story is an adaptation by Mani Ratnam and Elango Kumaravel of the novel Ponniyin Selvan by Kalki Krishnamurthy. As I haven’t read the book, I can’t comment on whether the plot has been changed much, but I suspect that the story has been simplified to make it fit into 2 parts. It’s still pretty clear what’s going on and who’s who, thanks to the defining performances from the stellar cast line-up. The story starts with a quick overview of the Chola dynasty, their defeat of the Pandyas and the appearance of a shooting star in the sky, which apparently signals bad news for the current royal family. After winning his latest battle, the crown prince, Aditha Karikalan (Vikram) sends Vallavaraiyan Vanthiyathevan (Karthi) on a mission to spy on officials meeting at Kadambur palace and report back to the emperor Sundara Chola (Prakash Raj) and Aditha’s sister, the princess Kundavai Devi (Trisha). Vallavaraiyan discovers the chancellor of the Chola kingdom Periya Pazhuvettarayar (R. Sarathkumar) is involved in a conspiracy to overthrow Sundar and crown his cousin Madhurantakan (Rahman) emperor instead. That’s a lot of long names, but the characters are all so different, that keeping them all straight isn’t as difficult as it may seem!

Pazhuvettarayar is married to Nandini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), an acclaimed beauty who was previously in love with Aditha. Nandini has her own motives and plans to overthrow the Chola empire, but these are much more convoluted than those of her husband and she has allies such as Ravidasan (Kishore), the leader of the exiled Pandya’s. Also involved is Pazhuvettarayar’s brother Chinna Pazhuvettarayar (R. Parthiban), who is in charge of the fort in Thanjavur and who tries to capture Vallavaraiyan when he meets with the king.

Vallavaraiyan is entranced by Kundavai Devi, but she immediately sends him off to Lanka to bring the younger prince Arulmozhi Varman (Jayam Ravi) aka Ponniyin Selvan back to Thanjavur. This involves Vallavaraiyan hitching a ride with Poonguzhali (Aishwarya Lekshmi) across the sea and then fighting with the prince before finally  helping Arulmozhi as he evades Pandya assassins to reach the boat sent by his father to bring Arulmozhi home. Along the way Vallavaraiyan is helped by a poet and temple flower seller, Sendhan (Ashwin Kakumanu) and the rather eccentric Thirumalaiappan (Jayaram). There are various other minor characters who add yet more detail and background into the plot, including chieftains, fiancées, defeated princes and various soldiers, servants, government officials and friends of the main characters. It does take a second watch to sort out exactly who everyone is, but Aditha, Arulmozhi, Vallavaraiyan, Kundavai and Nandini are the main players in this first part of the story.

What I really liked about PS1 is how real everything appears. Unlike the fairytale landscapes of Baahubali or sanitised forts in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s films, here everything seems plausible and historical rather than imagined. The battles are sweaty and bloody, while the fortifications look as if they were made to withstand armies and sieges. It’s more Aragorn in LOTR than Ranveer Singh in Bajirao Mastani. The costumes though are detailed and intricate with plenty of shine and shimmer as you’d expect from a story about kings and their empire. The jewellery in particular is outstanding and just gorgeous. At times I wondered just how Aishwarya and Trisha were managing to walk with all that hardware, but it does give them both a very regal appearance. The hairstyles too are amazing and even the men get in on the costume action with their fancy armour and weaponry.

What really stands out though are the performances, especially the two main female leads and Karthi. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan is always good with the right director, and here she is perfect as a woman in conflict with herself. It’s clear that she is suffering and that when she says she has deep wounds, we can see that these are with her all the time. The conflict between her previous love for Aditha, her marriage to Pazhuvettarayar and her commitment to the Pandya’s seems impossible to resolve and Aishwarya ensures this is always present as a shadow across her face every time she is on screen. Her eyes show she is a woman in pain, internally conflicted and caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. When Aishwarya is good, she’s very, very good, and here she delivers in every scene. Trisha too is excellent as Kundavai Devi. She’s regal but still able to unbend when speaking to her friends, and conveys the right amount of political savvy that makes her vitally important to the kingdom. There is a wonderful scene when Kundavai returns to Thanjavur and meets Nandini, where the power play between the two in just a few moments ensures we all know who is really in control of the empire, albeit working behind the scene.

I expect Karthi to be good, but here he is outstanding as the rather irreverent friend trying to help Aditha but enjoying himself along the way. He has a great relationship with his horse, and the comedy between Vallavaraiyan, his horse Semba and chance met Thirumalaiappan provides excellent contrast to the more serious scenes with Aditha, his close friend Parthibendran (Vikram Prabhu) and Arulmozhi. Karthi is great in the action scenes but even better in his interactions with Kundavai and Arulmozhi and also with Nandini. He hits just the right mix of action, sarcasm, comedy and quick witted political savvy making sure that Vallavaraiyan is an intriguing character, and in many ways more interesting than the two princes. Although Jayam Ravi is good as Arulmozhi, it’s a more serious role and he doesn’t have quite the same impact as Karthi here. I am expecting more in Part 2, given the film bears his name. As Aditha, Vikram on the other hand vacillates between berserker warrior and manically depressed jilted lover as he thinks about Nandini and their broken relationship. At times he’s brilliant, but then he starts chewing the scenery again, and it’s hard to take Aditha’s pain as seriously as that of Nandini. Vikram is still very good, just a little too OTT at times, and hopefully will be more retrained in the second half – or just stick to the action!

The action sequences are exhilarating and mostly a lot of fun. Battles are fought between armies but also on board ships, in chase sequences and on elephant and horseback. There are loads of actions scenes too, so Mani Ratnam seems to have thrown in every kind of battle you can think of, and almost every single weapon as well. The choreography is well done to keep the action exciting, even though we expect the good guys to win. But there is still plenty of tension and the outcome isn’t always quite as expected.

I also really liked A.R. Rahman’s music, mostly the songs but the background music was also good and effective throughout the film. This is probably my favourite.

When you start with a good story, it should make a good film, but not everyone can manage to take such a complex tale and turn it into a blockbuster. Mani Ratnam can and every aspect of this film shows his skill. The story moves on at a fast pace, the characters are all clear with well described motivations, and even the intrigue is dealt with appropriately so that not everything is revealed by the end of the film. I loved every aspect of the film and I hope part 2 is just as exciting. 4½ stars

Bombay

Bombay is the second of Mani Ratnam’s ‘terrorist trilogy’, and is the one that I find the most disturbing. I remember the news reports from the real-life events that happened in Bombay in 1992 which are recreated here in authentic detail, and I find the violence here more confronting and realistic, despite a rather romanticised ending. In Bombay, Mani Ratnam juxtaposes a ‘forbidden’ romance between a Hindu man and a Muslim woman with the Bombay riots to create a compelling and disturbing look at the religious divide in India. The film shows how prejudice can drive extreme acts of hatred but also includes the counter ideals of selflessness and acceptance with an almost fairy-tale spin on good and evil. It’s another stunning film from Mani Ratnam that still makes an impact to-day and along with A.R. Rahman’s soundtrack deserves all the awards and recognition that it has achieved over the years since its 1995 release.

The story starts with Shekhar (Arvind Swami) returning home to visit his family in a river-side village in Tamil Nadu. Just as Shekhar arrives he sees Shaila Banu (Manisha Koirala) and instantly he falls in love. Luckily the attraction is mutual and despite their different religions, a romance begins to grow between the two. Shekhar has been studying journalism in Bombay, which gives him a city sophistication and an intolerance for his father’s prejudiced views. Narayanan Pillai (Nassar) is a devout Hindu whose worst fear seems to be that his son will marry a bride from the North of India, since he is unable to imagine the horror of a daughter-in-law from a different religion. Shaila’s family is just as appalled by the thought of Shekhar and her father Basheer (Kitty) quickly arranges a marriage for his wayward daughter when he finds out about the affair. The clandestine nature of the romance allows for some beautiful camera work from Rajiv Menon and we also get the beautiful Kannalanae as Shaila spots Shekhar at a wedding.

I’ve read that Mani Ratnam wanted these scenes to be beautiful as a contrast to events in the second half, and I find it interesting that his idea of beauty is in the wind and rain that are a constant presence in the village. For me, accustomed to the weather in Ireland, I’d thought that this was supposed to represent the cold attitude of the two families to the romance until I read Baradwaj Rangan’s interview with Mani Ratnam. In Ireland, wind and rain is always cold and miserable, but since visiting Tamil Nadu I can appreciate why gusts of wind and showers of rain would be beautiful in a hot and often dry landscape. Despite knowing this, I still feel chilled when I see the wind whipping Shaila’s veil and skirt around, while the crashing waves and constant rain strike me as cold and gloomy even though I can appreciate the beauty of the landscape.

At the same time, coming from Northern Ireland, where it was just as taboo for a Catholic and a Protestant to start a relationship, I can really relate to the problem faced by Shekhar and Shaila; another reason why I find this film so confronting. The attitudes and expectations of society resonate closely to my own experiences growing up surrounded by religious intolerance and I am always thankful that my own family had a more progressive attitude. It does mean that I can understand their predicament here, and to some extent why their families are so worried as well. Beyond their own antipathy to the relationship there is the worry that society will condemn both Shaila and Shekhar, leading to ostracism and a continual risk to their safety.

With their families at loggerheads, Shekhar and Shaila elope to Bombay. They quickly get married and before long have two twin boys Kabir Narayan (Master Harsha) and Kamal Basheer (Master Hriday). The boys are named for their respective grandfathers but are brought up in both religions, while Shekhar and Shaila are easily accepted in their neighbourhood despite their ‘mixed’ marriage. But when the Babri Masjid is demolished and riots break out across Bombay, the boys are lost in the city alone. They are caught by a gang of men who terrorise the children, pouring petrol over them and starting to set them alight in a shocking scene full of religious intolerance and hatred. These are two young boys with no idea what religion is, let alone the differences between Hindus and Muslims, and with their brutalisation, Mani Ratnam exposes the full horror of the riots and the absolute inhumanity of the rioters.

While relations between the communities in Bombay are breaking down, Narayanan and Basheer have gradually turned their enmity into a guarded tolerance, so when both travel to Bombay in the wake of the December riots, they are able to live with Shekhar and Shaila without too much trouble. As the violence continues in the city, their relationship continues to improve as they realise the extremism and intolerance doesn’t reflect either of their own beliefs.

Some of the most powerful scenes here show Shekhar interviewing the religious and political leaders and asking them when the riots will stop, but no-one seems able or even willing to try and bring peace. As riots again grip the city and neighbourhoods are set on fire, the family is torn apart once more with Shekhar and Shaila left to tour the hospitals and mortuaries in their search for Kabir and Kamal. Meanwhile the boys find kindness from unlikely places as Bombay slowly begins to return to normal.

The film has graphic scenes of the violence and does not spare the audience any of the horror associated with the riots and the aftermath. The scene of bodies in the morgue is particularly bleak, even though Mani Ratnam doesn’t explicitly show grieving families – he doesn’t need to. The anguish and despair come through clearly as Shekhar staggers through room after room of bodies, men women and children, Hindu and Muslim, all mixed together, in a terrible reminder that this is the real cost of the riots. Although some of the scenes here do feel rather contrived, such as when Shekhar confronts two of his friends who are fighting on opposite sides, many more appear authentic, painting a picture of neighbour against neighbour with the main casualties being the innocent bystanders. When the police enter the picture (including Prakash Raj as Inspector Kumar) the level of violence seems to jump yet again, and the images of Kabir and Kamal hiding from the authorities are powerful reminders of the political aspects to these events.

The romance is beautifully told with plenty of symbolism in the images of sheets of rain separating Shekhar from his family, and Shaila losing her abaya as she runs towards Shekhar and freedom. The second half is brutally realistic but still has beautiful scenes of the family together and the developing relationship between Narayanan and Basheer. Rajiv Menon’s cinematography is excellent and A.R. Rahman’s soundtrack perfectly complements the visuals while Raju Sundaram and Prabhu Deva ensure that the dance numbers are equally spectacular.

Arvind Swami is excellent in a role that requires him to switch from a love-struck young man to a desperate and terrified one as he searches the streets for his children. His emotions are clear and easy to read, particularly in the second half when he begins to realise the political manipulations that are behind the riots. His fear and desperation as he searches for his children are frighteningly realistic while his disgust at the politicians, religious leaders and the rioters themselves also comes across well. Manisha Koirala too is wonderful in her role, and brings plenty of emotion to her character at every stage. Although she looks fragile, her character has plenty of determination and a fierce capacity to fight back when necessary. I love her performance here as she conveys so much without words, letting her expression say everything instead. The support cast are all good too, and Nassar and Kitty steal the show whenever they are on screen together. Their initial animosity and then gradual acceptance help to ground the film and stop it becoming too overly emotional as well as providing some mild comedy that also helps to lighten the atmosphere.

Overall, Bombay is a beautifully made film that takes on both a societal issue and a horrific subject to make strong and compelling political and social statements. Mani Ratnam does hammer home the manipulation message rather forcefully, and the final scenes are a little too simplistic, especially after all the drama that has come before, but despite these few issues, the film still delivers a powerful message that continues to resonate, even all these years later. It’s a disturbing film but that’s what makes it such essential viewing. Highly recommended. 4 ½ stars.

Dil Se..

Dil Se..

Dil Se is the third film in Mani Ratnam’s terrorist trilogy following on from Roja and Bombay. This was actually the first of these that I watched, mainly due to the presence of Shah Rukh Khan who was the major draw for me at the time, but also because the film is in Hindi, which I was trying to learn. It’s remained one of my favourite Mani Ratnam movies though and I find it hard to believe that it’s now 20 years since its release in 1998. I love this film for so many reasons, the amazing music, wonderful choreography and stunning scenery but also because the story grabs hold and remains captivating – every single time. Dil Se wasn’t a hit in India, despite winning awards at festivals and doing well in the USA and UK, but it now has a deservedly classic status and is well worth watching or revisiting if you haven’t seen it for a while.

Dil Se is the story of a Dehli-based radio journalist who falls in love with a mysterious woman he sees on a deserted railway platform one night. Amar (Shah Rukh Khan) describes it as “the shortest love story ever” when she leaves on the next train after sending him off to get a cup of hot tea. What I love here is the contrast between them, even in these first few minutes. She doesn’t say a word except for ‘a cup of hot tea’ while Amar never stops talking. It’s an early clue that these two aren’t likely partners but also raises questions about why Amar becomes just so obsessed by this woman based on this one brief meeting.

Amar’s assignment for All India Radio takes him to the north of the country where insurgents have been engaged in terrorist activity and Amar wants to speak to them as well as garner regional thoughts on the 50thAnniversary of Indian Independence. When he does finally reach his destination, after the wonderful Chaiyya Chaiyya on the train, he spots the same woman in the crowd and immediately runs after her. While Meghna (Manisha Koirala) is perfectly plain that she wants absolutely nothing to do with him, Amar refuses to take no for an answer and pesters her persistently until her friends take matters into their own hands and beat him up.

This starts out as the usual stalking = love trope seen in so many Indian films. It is really annoying that Amar fails to take no for an answer and is completely relentless in his pursuit. What I do like though is that Meghna is brutally clear, trying everything from ignoring Amar, to telling him that she is married, just to get away from him. All my sympathies are with her at this point, and I really don’t like Amar who just seems to be selfish and frankly obnoxious. But this seems more than just stalking. Amar is completely obsessed with this girl who won’t even give him her name and even the beating fails to dampen his desire.

Amar follows Meghna on a bus, walking with her when the bus breaks down and even attempting to force her to kiss him. Meghna has a panic attack at this point and hints that she has had experiences in the past that may have contributed to her determined refusal of Amar. She also continually tells him that she isn’t what he thinks she is, and finally we learn that she is part of the terrorist organisation. Manisha Koirala is completely amazing here. She appears ethereal and wraith-like, as if a strong gust of wind would blow her away, but also shows such incredible mental strength demonstrated by her continual refusal to yield to Amar. It’s clear as the story develops that she does have feeling for him, but her allegiance to her cause is deeper, possibly just more entrenched, and her emotional turmoil fleetingly moves across her face each time she has to interact with Amar. It’s a brilliant performance, particularly in the scenes where she reveals what has happened to her and tries to explain to Amar why she has turned to terrorism.

Gradually rapport develops between the couple, but Amar is left devastated when Meghna leaves him during the night and he ends up returning to Delhi alone to prepare for his upcoming wedding to Preeti (Preity Zinta). Preita is wonderful here in her début role portraying a confidently independent but still innocent girl from Kerala. Ok, the Malayali bit is a tad strange, but the rest is brilliant! I love how she refers to sex as “honka bonka bonks”, and her directness is refreshing after all the mystery and secrets surrounding Meghna. She also gets a cool song in Jiya Jale, which has some of my favourite picturisations in the whole film.

I’ve read a number of times that the film depicts the seven stages of love from Arabic literature comprising attraction, infatuation, love, reverence, worship, obsession and death. Using this theme, Amar’s obsession makes more sense and it helps to explain why he continually follows Meghna despite her apparent disinterest. There is the moment of attraction when he glimpses her face on the railway station. Infatuation where he sees her everywhere and thinks about the mystery woman before this deepens into love. Reverence and worship are pretty much covered in Satrangi Re where Meghna appears in all seven colours of the song. Like most of the songs this seems to be another fantasy sequence, although it’s not clear if this is Amar or Meghna’s dream.

Throughout, the contrast between Meghna and Amar is stark. Meghna is at home in the mountains and dresses in all enveloping costumes that hide her identity just as much as her refusal to speak. When she does talk, she is clear and articulate – she knows exactly what she is doing and why, and has little time for anything that will take her away from her mission. Amar is a city boy whose father was in the Army and he has little understanding of the world outside Delhi. In an interview with one of the terrorist leaders, the questions he asks and his comments make it clear that he has no understanding of the issues faced by minority groups or why they feel so betrayed by the government. This makes his refusal to leave Meghna even more poignant as he will stand with her even though he cannot believe in her view of the world.

There is so much detail in this film too. Right from the start there is the threat of violence with soldiers stopping and searching Amar’s taxi on the way to the train station. In Assam there are army checkpoints and barbed wire barricades, some of which even make an appearance in the song picturisation for Dil Se. The scenery the north of India here is beautiful and stunning with the first sequences set in Assam and then later in Ladakh. Cinematographer Santosh Sivan does a fantastic job and brings surrealness to the scenes shot in Ladakh where Meghna and Amar are alone and able to talk to each other without the pressures of his family and her responsibilities. Back in the city the contrasts between Meghna and Preeti are emphasised by clever camerawork including a memorable scene where Amar’s mother (Sheeba Chaddha) asks Meghna to be a stand-in model for Preeti’s bridal jewellery. Added in to the wonderful visuals is the superb soundtrack, one of A.R. Rahman’s best, and I love every single song. Farah Khan’s choreography is spectacular too, and it’s hard to believe that there could ever be a better dance routine on top of a moving train. This is also one of SRK’s best ever performances where he moves between joy and despair at the drop of a hat and really nails the role. He throws himself into the choreography too, and his facial expressions are brilliantly expressive, particularly when he is trying to understand Meghna’s actions.

Dil Se is simply a great film. The subject matter is tragic but there is a lot of joy in the film too and the combination of stunning scenery with a good story and excellent music means there really is something for everyone. The cast are all fantastic and with so much detail to the story there always seems to be something new to pick up on with every viewing. This is a film I rewatch regularly and I highly recommend it if you’ve never seen it before. 4 ½ stars.