By Pankaj Sachdeva

In Ponniyin Selvan: I, Mani Ratnam brings to life the epic 1955 novel of Kalki Krishnamurthy. The story revolves around the succession battle in the Chola kingdom and the ensuing threat from the Pandyan rebels who want revenge against the Cholas. Vandiyathevan (Karthi), a young soldier, sets out across the Chola land to deliver a message from the Crown Prince, Aditya Karikalan (Vikram), to his father, Emperor Sundara Chola (Prakash Raj), and his sister, Princess Kundavai Devi (Trisha), about a conspiracy. The other son of Sundara Chola, Arulmozhi Varman (Jayam Ravi), also known as Ponniyin Selvan, is fighting a battle in Lanka. There is Nandini (Aishwarya Rai), Aditya’s ex-lover and the wife of Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar (R. Sarathkumar), the chancellor of the Chola Empire who is conspiring against Sundara Chola to install Prince Madhurantakan (Rahman) as the king.
Ponniyin Selvan: I has its fair share of politics, war, violence, palace intrigue, and mystery, but what stands out in the film is its wonderful women characters. Women in the film are protectors, nurturers, rescuers, manipulators, conspirators, and strategists. They have a role and, more importantly, a voice. They are beautiful, and they are intelligent. And the most interesting aspect of these wonder women is that they enter and thrive in spaces that are dominated by men. They rule those spaces and do a better job than the men themselves. It is worth looking at these women in more detail.

Nandini is the wife of Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar, the chancellor of the Chola Empire. She was earlier in love with Aditya, but things did not work out between them, as his family did not want an orphan like her to become the queen of the Chola kingdom. She then disappears from his life and eventually marries Pazhuvettaraiyar, a man much older than her.
The first time we see Nandini is in her palanquin when Vandiyathevan tries to meet her thinking there is Madhurantakan in it. Her luminous face partially bows out from behind the curtains. This luminosity and this mystery become the hallmark of Nandini throughout the film. When Vandiyathevan visits Nandini in the palace, light falls on her face making her shine like a diamond. Nandini then guides him through a secret passage and asks him not to be tempted by the treasure inside. “I stand before a shining diamond,” he replies, mesmerized by her beauty. Nandini was indeed the shining diamond. Likewise, in the same scene, the closing of the door gradually hides her face, reminiscent of the earlier scene in the palanquin. Later, a similar scene appears again when Aditya talks about his past, where he met her taking care of his enemy Veerapandiyan. Her face gradually appears from behind the door, adding to her mystery.
I stand before a shining diamond.

Nandini is the most fascinating character in the film. Her husband might be one the most powerful men in the kingdom, but she controls him through her beauty and intelligence. She is the mind behind her husband’s strategic maneuvers. She advises him on political matters leading to consternation among the other chieftains that he is following his wife’s orders. She has strong political instincts and strategizes for the future. She is the only woman in the film who dreams of herself on the throne. She has a manipulative streak in her. When her husband is angry with things not going as planned, she uses her charm to disarm his anger and manipulates him into agreeing to a risky idea for breaking the unity of the Chola princes. All she has to do is to turn around and ask him to take off her jewelry. In another similar moment, she tries to entice Vandiyathevan to think about getting back his kingdom as if trying to bring him to her side.
Nandini is in complete control of her emotions and does not let anything come to her. When she is threatened by Ravidasan (Kishore), a Pandya rebel, with a knife, she does not feel scared. He accuses her of forgetting the promise to destroy the Cholas and becoming enchanted with her luxurious life. She shuts him down by saying she carries deep wounds and does not forget anything. The men in the film are praised for their external scars. Her husband, Pazhuvettaraiyar, is described as someone with sixty-four battle scars. There are scars on Aditya as well. Nandini is the one who is battling her inner scars to get her wishes to come true. The only time she shows vulnerability is when she is in her past, requesting Aditya not to kill Veerapandiyan (Nassar).
Nandini exerts control not only over her husband but also over her past lover Aditya. He does not want to return to Thanjavur because he will see her there. She still controls his life even in her absence. He says he has become a walking corpse as he has died multiple times because of her. All the wars that he is fighting are a reflection of his struggle to forget her. She has turned him into this monster, and he became indifferent to her tears. Since then, day and night, she has continued to haunt him. In the film’s beginning moments, Aditya spares the life of a king he defeated in war, saying he did not want to kill an unarmed man again. It is later revealed that he had killed an incapacitated Veerapandiyan when he saw her with Nandini. The man was unwell, and in a fit of rage, Aditya simply killed him mercilessly, even when Nandini begged him to not harm him.
The inability of Aditya to be with Nandini is reminiscent of the forbidden love of Veera (Vikram) for Ragini (Aishwarya Rai) in Mani Ratnam’s Raavanan, again played by the same actors. Both these men have feelings for the wife of another man. They know they are breaking societal mores even by entertaining the very thought. In one particular moment in Raavanan, Ragini prays to the broken statue of Lord Vishnu, asking not to make her weak by showing the goodness of the villagers. The statue is a stand-in for her husband Dev (Prithviraj)—her Ram. Veera asks Ragini about her husband. She tells him that Dev is like bhagwaan. Veera feels jealous of her husband because he gets to be with Ragini and has also fallen in love with her. Jealousy makes him feel like Dev’s equal. He acknowledges his human and emotional side. The background music when Aditya talks about Nandini in Ponniyin Selvan: I is also reminiscent of the one in the statute scene from Raavanan.
Kundavai Devi
Kundavai Devi is the daughter of Sundara Chola. She is the second child of the king and has two brothers, one elder and the other younger. The two brothers are busy fighting wars for the kingdom, and she becomes the kingdom’s protector. Like Nandini, Kundavai is a fascinating character. Her understanding of politics is better than both of her brothers. Her brothers trust her. Her father trusts her. In a telling scene, she becomes the crutch of her ailing father. She is also shrewd and manipulative, but these characteristics come from a place of care for her family. In a superb scene, she barges into the secret meeting of the local chieftains who are plotting the downfall of Sundara Chola. She arrives without prior notice causing nervousness among the chieftains. All these men get scared by this woman. When she arrives, she positions herself in the center, becoming the cynosure of all eyes. She then tries to put a wedge between these men by bringing up the subject of raising taxes to fund the wedding of her two brothers. She knew these chieftains would want their daughters to marry the two princes. With this trick, she simply took the wind out of the plans of the Pazhuvettarayar brothers, who are tongue-tied. In this scene, she is the only woman, surrounded by men, and comes out as the most powerful.
Kundavai reads people very well. She can sense when people are hiding something. It is also the reason she is sent by her father to bring some sense to Aditya and convince him to return to Thanjavur. It is then revealed by Aditya that Kundavai was the one who convinced their mother to take Nandini out of his life. Kundavai believes that an orphan like Nandini cannot be the Chola queen; therefore, she opposes her brother’s relationship. Here again, she displays a penchant for realpolitik. It might be unfair to Nandini and Aditya, but she plays the role of a princess instead of a sister. She understands that people won’t accept Nandini. She knows the pulse of the people. Notice the question she asks the prime minister when she arrives at Thanjavur is again about the people. She asks, “What concerns the people these days?
The meeting between Kundavai and Vandiyathevan is absolutely charming. He tells her that his life belongs to her. If Aditya had shades of Veera from Raavanan, Vandiyathevan was like Karthik (Madhavan) from Mani Ratnam’s Alaipayuthey. Kundavai then asks Vandiyathevan to jump into the river, just as Shakthi (Shalini) asked Karthik to jump from the moving train in Alaipayuthey.

Poonguzhali (Aishwarya Lekshmi) is the boat woman who guides Vandiyathevan to Lanka. She gets a fantastic dramatic entry scene where she comes out of the sea while Vandiyathevan looks mesmerized by her. It is again worth noting her unconventional profession as a boater, something which has been dominated by men. All the other boaters in the film are men. She is also the one who hunts for fish while Vandiyathevan, the warrior, remains in the boat, feeling afraid as his horoscope said that he will have a grave in water. She then takes out a sharp weapon when he tries to flirt with her. Later, when the Pandyan rebels come to Lanka, she can sense something is wrong. Like Kundavai, she also goes to a meeting of the men of the Chola Kingdom, who were discussing war strategy among themselves. She reveals to them the plan of the Chola soldiers to arrest Arulmozhi. She speaks before the men without hesitation and agrees to help Arulmozhi even if the other commanders were asking her not to do it. In the final moments, she again plays a critical role in the confrontation between Arulmozhi and the Pandyan rebels.

Oomai Rani
Oomai Rani (Aishwarya Rai) is the mysterious woman who rescues Arulmozhi and Vandiyathevan when ambushed by the Pandyan rebels. She uses the might of the elephant to force the rebels to retreat. It is again worth noting that she is the only woman in the scene who comes to rescue the men signifying a sense of power in her. Arulmozhi realizes that he has seen this mysterious woman before in his life. She was the one who saved him when he fell into the river Ponni when he was a kid. Legend was that it was mother Ponni who saved him, but in reality, it was Oomai Rani. In the film’s final moments, Oomai Rani reprises her role as a rescuer when she jumps into the sea to again save Arulmozhi and Vandiyathevan.
The other women in the film might have a small role, but they also make their presence felt. There is Vaanathi (Sobhita Dhuilpala), the princess of Kodumbalur. She has feelings for Arulmozhi and expects to marry him. In the gorgeous Ratchasa Maamaney, she plays the role of Lord Krishna and battles Vandiyathevan, who plays Kansa Mama. The song is a rare one as it does not show Radha-Krishna as seen in other similar songs but focuses on the Krishna-Kansa battle. Then, there is also Sembiyaan Mahadevi (Jayachitra), the mother of Madhurantakan, who opposes his plan to ascend the throne. She refuses to give her consent to him to become the king. And, of course, the film is titled after the son of mother Ponni—Ponniyin Selvan. It is about the son but also about the mother. The film’s opening song Ponni Nadhi pays a beautiful tribute to River Cauvery. In the stunning meeting between Nandini and Kundavai, the song in the background says, “Can thunder and lightning coexist together?” It is a perfect description of not only these two amazing women but all the other women who light up the film with their charm, beauty, and intelligence.

1. The film mentions Lord Krishna and his 108 wives along including Bhama and Rukmini.

2. Parallels between Raavanan and Ponniyin Selvan: I.

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