Raja, rani, senapati, guptchar, sautela bhai, rajkumar, rajkumari, rajkumari ki saheli - All of these and more came together in Rajkumar Kohli's ensemble affair set around kings and their kingdoms back in 1984.
A masala potboiler, the film has managed a superbly impressive ensemble of Dharmendra, Raaj Kumar, Sunil Dutt, Hema Malini, Kamal Haasan, Reena Roy, Pran, Ranjeet and Ajit amongst others in principal roles. Released almost four decades back, the film was perhaps the last such big Bollywood film with this kind of stage, setting and arena that worked at the box office.
In south though, this genre is still popular and time and again filmmakers do go back in time to make such period dramas set around kingdoms. Mani Ratnam has attempted that with this two part film Ponniyin Selvan, simply put as PS. PS 1 has released now and after almost three hour of (an uneven) narrative, it is announced that PS2 would release in 2023.
The film, as it turns out, is rather inconsistent in its storytelling and one ends up wondering that is it because of lack of knowledge around Chola kingdom history or whether the storytelling is actually all over the place. Considering the fact that a solid A team has come together to create this magnum opus, be it director Mani Ratnam, editor Sreekar Prasad, cinematographer Ravi Verman or the man who keeps it all together, A. R. Rahman, you are kes to believe that there was a solid idea in place which enticed them all. However the execution leaves a lot to be desired.
The film starts off rather suddenly with a battle sequence and Anil Kapoor's voiceover (in the Hindi version) tries to familiarise audience with the core premise. An attempt is certainly been made but then the story is so rooted in south history that the names, places and events turn out to be very unfamiliar. In fact this is how things stay right through the length of the film since that the premise is lost for the non-south audience.
Even otherwise, the execution has a lot of ups and downs. So at times you are excited especially around sequences which revolve around politics coming into place and coups being planned. On the other hand there are many forced comic sequences that are not just non-contextual but also lengthy. Moreover, at times you are totally lost on the intentions and the actions of some of the principle characters.
One expected Vikram to lead the show right through but he is there primarily at the beginning, interval point and then some parts of the second half. In fact, it's Karthi who takes over the mantle as the leading man and it's nice to see him in a light hearted avtar after I caught him last in Kaithi. He is easy and breezy with his performance that works for the film. What also works is the grace that Aishwarya Rai Bachchan brings to screen. She has a very meaty role too which justifies her comeback in a part that also goes well with her age. Trisha is also likewise with her grace, though somehow her characterisation is unidimensional, when one would have expected a better range. Jayam Ravi makes a late entry but then holds the screen well with a promise of bringing a lot more in PS2.
One can sense that from the core storyline perspective, PS1 had a good base to it which could have been explored to the fullest. However somehow it's the visuals and the sound which stay with you more than the script. Action sequences are nice with satisfactory VFX coming into play. Cinematography is glossy. Production design is lavish with budget showing on screen. Background score is good though songs are way too many and also not the popular kind.
From the popularity standpoint, the film is primarily for the south market where Tamil audience would be able to relate to it far better. No wonder, it has taken a good start at the box office there. In Hindi too, it has actually taken a fair opening though it has to be seen how do things go over the weekend and then beyond that. For those who want to catch a movie solely for the purpose of big screen entertainment without worrying much about the context and the history per se, PS1 makes for a fair watch. As for those looking forward to pure masala with a narrative that's more straight forward, catch Raaj Tilak.