Starring: Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Vikram, Karthi, Jayam Ravi, Trisha Krishnan, Sobhita Dhulipala, Prakash Raj
Director: Mani Ratnam
There is a certain magic that comes with any Mani Ratnam film and when it is an epic of this grand scale based on a novel about a famed Chola King from southern India, the expectations of sumptuousness associated with a period classic are heightened further.
It is 10th century Thanjavur, modern day Tamil Nadu, and the Chola dynasty has a stronghold over the empire under King Sundara Chola (Raj). While the ailing king recuperates in his palace, his two sons – crown prince and heir Aditha Karikalan (Vikram) and his younger brother Arulmozhi Varman a.k.a. Ponniyan Selvan (Ravi) – are dispersed across different territories to defend against invasions and also conquer new territory.
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Aditha’s reasons for being on the war path turn out to be associated with an unrequited love story with the alluring beauty Nandini (Rai Bachchan), now married to a rival aging king who is equally spellbound by her.
Ponniyan Selvan, meanwhile, seems the more level-headed of the two princes and is celebrated for his valour and even offered the Lanka crown, which he modestly turns down. Vaanathi (Dhulipala), a close friend of the princes’ intelligent and politically astute sister Princess Kundavai (Krishnan), is promised to this brave younger prince and is pining away for him in the Chola palace.
Will Nandini’s pledge for revenge and conniving manoeuvres against Prince Aditha pay off in the end or will Ponniyan Selvan and the princes’ friend Vallavaraiyan Vandiyadevan (Karthi) come in the way?
This complex web of intrigue and political machinations is just as convoluted to follow as it sounds but eventually all the pieces fall into place as the characters come to life. There are times when following each minute detail doesn’t even seem as important as simply immersing in the sheer beauty and scale of this larger than life epic. A.R. Rahman’s haunting melodies only add to that mesmerising appeal and the effect is one of being transported to the world of the Cholas, as luxuriously reimagined by Mani Ratnam.
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Aishwarya Rai Bachchan has never looked more stunning and seems to relish her role as a plotting and influential queen. While the men get most of the scenes of bravado and heroism, the female characters are refreshingly not relegated to playing side roles but very much front and centre with their own game plays.
Why this epic required multiple parts becomes clear soon enough and audiences will no doubt keenly await the second instalment that will acquaint the world with the legendary Chola king who became known in history books as Rajaraja I.
The big cinema screen is no doubt the best canvas for something as lavish as this film but now that it is on Amazon Prime, the streaming option will be welcomed by all who enjoy Tamil cinema.