Ponniyin Selvan Review (SPOILERS): Read This Before You See the Movie If You Want a Cheat Sheet

When I was growing up, before we went to see a Shakespeare play, my Mom would always read the synopsis aloud to us. Because you don’t want to be distracted by trying to follow the guaranteed-to-be-complicated plot while enjoying the performances and everything else. This is very much that kind of a movie, super SUPER complicated plot and it’s gonna be easier to appreciate the experience if you can relax and know who everyone is without trying to follow things.

Whole plot:

Let’s start with the royal family. The Emperor Prakash Raj has 3 children, his oldest is Vikram, Crown Prince and great warrior. Next oldest is Trisha, genius politician. And youngest is sweet Jayam Ravi just now sent to war for the first time against Lanka. The Emperor’s nephew is being set up by his enemies as an alternative heir to his sons. At the same time, there are rebels within the kingdom trying to assassinate the whole royal family in revenge for Vikram killing their royal family, the Pandyas. In the midst of all of this, is dropped Karthi, a minor prince with no land or following who fights in Vikram’s army. Vikram sends him to find out what is happening back at the capital while he is fighting on the borders. Karthi tricks and schemes his way into the fort of the king’s Treasurer R. Sarathkumar and learns that he is gathering the chieftains to rebel and put the nephew on the throne. But what Karthi doesn’t know is that R. Sarathkumar is being controlled by his beautiful young wife Aishwarya Rai who is secretly a Pandya out for revenge. Karthi takes this information to Trisha, who gives him another assignment, to go to Lanka and bring back her brother Jayam Ravi to the safety of the capital city. Trisha herself goes to the border to try to bring back Vikram to the capital. But Vikram refuses, because he is afraid of Aishwarya. She was his girlfriend as a children, until Trisha arranged for her to be sent away. Vikram found her later as the lover of the Pandya king and killer her husband in front of her, when she reappeared married to R. Sarathkumar, Vikram knew it was in order to get entry to the palace and destroy his family. He avoids the capital city in order to avoid her and the pain of her memories. In Lanka, Karthi meets up with Jayam Ravi and they become friends. The emperor Prakash Raj has sent a prison ship to force Jayam Ravi to come home, but the Pandya rebels attack it and capture Karthi. Jayam Ravi risks his life to save Karthi, together they defeat the rebels and take the ship, just as a storm sinks it. End of Part 1.

I skipped the bits with mysterious wise women and funny priest/spies and fisher women, because that you can follow on your own as you watch. It’s only the complicated backstory and family stuff that I struggled with and I want to save you from that! Plus, it’s the stuff I assume the filmmakers wanted us to know. This is based on a super famous novel, which itself is based on a historical royal family, so it makes sense that we should know the basics of the characters already.

The characters and relationships really are special. I was going to say “the best part of the film is Karthi’s character” and then I thought “no, that’s not right, the best part is Trisha” and then I thought “no, it’s Vikram” and then “no, it’s Aish”. And so on and so forth, the characters are all so unique and interesting that it’s impossible to pick.

Karthi definitely has the heavy lifting in terms of carrying the film. He is onscreen almost every minute of film time. And his character is HARD. A trickster, a failure, unambitious and fun seeking. But also brilliant and brave and completely loyal to the Chola family dynasty (even if it doesn’t always look that way). He is supposed to be confused by the world around him, the divided loyalties and so on, and also confusing to us watching. It’s not until we see him meet with Trisha that we know, for sure, he is loyal to the Chola family and no one else. And also that he is fearless and willing to take on any task, even while he plays the coward.

Aish is a great foil character, perfect opposite in different ways for each of our “good” people. She is calculated and cold to Vikram’s uncontrolled emotion, she is a woman who has chosen to use her sexuality for power opposite Trisha’s choice to use intelligence, she is a trickster like Karthi, and she is filled with desire (for power, for vengeance, for love, for everything) unlike Jayam Ravi’s glorious freedom from desire.

Trisha is the one who is running the family and the palace, without being obvious about it. And without the film being obvious about it either. Karthi meets her one time and immediately is ready to do whatever she determines is best. Her father and brothers listen to her. There are some slight insults related to her being “old” and unmarried as well, some indication that it would be more “proper” for her to be used as marriage bait and not stay home controlling the kingdom. The balance of her still being female, still working within female space, while being so much more than just a “love interest” is impressive. The way the character was written originally in the novel, the way Mani Ratnam translated her to screen, and the way Trisha plays her, all coming together just right in exact harmony.

And then there is Vikram who is SO over the top! Especially compared to everyone else’s extremely mannered performances. And yet, it works. It doesn’t feel like he is in a different movie than everyone else, just that his character is way less balanced than everyone else. So charismatic too, sells us on the whole Great Warrior Crown Prince vibe. While also giving us the interpretation that he really REALLY shouldn’t be Crown Prince because he is super unstable. Of the 3 children, clearly Trisha followed by Jayam Ravi are most suited to rule and it is only age and gender which has put Vikram in this place. Another subtle theme, in this story of inheritance, that the strict rules of inheritance don’t necessarily lead to the “right” royal taking over.

It’s a story and characters I will be chewing over for quite a bit, and I almost want to read the novel just to know them better. Watching the movie was exhausting, but thinking about it over the next few days is going to be delightful. Like the aftertaste of a really good meal.

13 thoughts on “Ponniyin Selvan Review (SPOILERS): Read This Before You See the Movie If You Want a Cheat Sheet

  1. Just one correction….the pandyan king that Vikram kills is Aishwarya’s lover not husband. Also, it is Vikram who states that he is Aishwarya’s lover and not Aishwarya. This point is kinda important for part 2 (don’t wanna say anything more cuz spoilers). Great review 💯

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  2. How was Jayam Ravi in the movie? I usually don’t read your spoiler review but if I don’t I feel I will burst out crying in the theatre on how complicated it is.

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  3. Interesting to know that the book (though it is a fiction) was based on real characters

    There are wiki entries for these characters:

    For example: Uttama/Madurantaka chozhla who was the actual heir in waiting but was overtaken by the family of Aditha & RajaRaja chozhlas

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uttama_(Chola_dynasty)

    Uttama/Madurantaka Chola was suspected (by some historians) of being complicit in his nephew Aditha Karikalan’s death and this controversy inspired the book by Kalki

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aditya_Chola_II

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  4. One thing that I caught on my second watch is that Karthi’s character definitely has some sort of inner sadness about the fact that his kingdom was lost. I do think he’s definitely loyal to the Cholas but I wonder if this will factor into the second part.

    I fell in love with the characters and I do sort of wish that they would make spinoffs to focus on some of the relationships.

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  5. Saw it last week. Wasn’t too confused probably because I had looked up who the major characters are and how they’re related. I think even if I’d gone in blind and been confused, the acting and visuals would have kept me engaged. The characters are all memorable and I don’t know who my favorite is. I wished for more Vikram. Ash was majestic. The way she uses stillness and presence, only someone of her stature could do that. Her beauty obviously plays a big part in that, but it’s also talent and experience. The way she was lit was gorgeous, I kept thinking ‘does she have her own personal light?’ Karthi basically has chemistry with every woman he meets and also Jayam Ravi, I would believe he can end up with any one of them. Considering I’ve never seen him before, it’s impressive that he sells it so well. I thought I wouldn’t care for Jayam Ravi since he comes in late, but I did. And Trisha is such a badass, that scene where she walks into the room full of conspirators and offers her brothers up for marriage might be my favorite, so hilarious and cunning!

    I have to say the songs haven’t really blown me away. They’re better after having context, I have been listening to them since and they have grown on me, but not as much as I expected. Chola Chola and Raatchasa Maamaney might be the favorites.

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