While Ponniyin Selvan-I certainly revolves around men of the empire, women call the shots even though they seem harmless.
Lately, South Indian cinema has been merging with Bollywood because movies like RRR, Bahubali, Pushpa, Arjun Reddy, and others are attracting the Hindi audience. While this calls for celebration, in most of these movies, women have unimportant roles; they seem powerful but are one step behind men. Not that misogyny is brought to us by the South; it’s the active factor in most Bollywood movies. In most historical fiction, royal women dress up and sit beside the king but rarely contribute. We also seldom see women from the working class. Even when we do, their roles are limited to being romantic interests. One recent historical fiction that stands apart in its characterization of women is Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan-I based on the book of the same name written by the author, Kalki.
In Ponniyin Selvan-I, the Chola emperor’s Sundara Chozhar (Prakash Raj) is being betrayed by his empire’s chieftains. Meanwhile, his sons Aditha Karikalan (Vikram) and Arulmozhi Varman aka Ponniyin Selvan (Jayram Ravi), are expanding the kingdom. When Ponniyin Selvan is in danger, the Vaanar clan’s prince Vallavaraiyan Vandiyadevan (Karthi) takes upon the duty to fight along and save him. While the movie certainly revolves around men of the empire, women call the shots.
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Perhaps the most intriguing character in the movie is Nandini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), finance minister Periya Pazhuvettraraiya‘s (R. Sarath Kumar) wife, who is a mastermind. As fate would have it, everyone despises her. As a child, Aditha fell in love with her. However, being a poor orphan, she was banished from the kingdom to keep her away from him. Later, he killed King Veerapandiyan (Nasser) when he saw her with him. So, she married the much older Pazhuvettraraiya to take revenge on the Cholas. Other ministers believe he’s blinded by her and look down upon him for following a woman’s advice. However, Nandini is not bothered by this criticism; she focuses on vengeance. She gives political strategies to Pazhuvettraraiya while deviously charming him. When he gets angry, and she wants to “suggest” a strategy, she asks him to unhook her necklace. She is confident of her sexuality and is not afraid of using it to her advantage. However, he says, “My eyes see only your beauty. Your beauty veils your intelligence.” It aptly describes what women go through even now, doesn’t it? Women’s beauty is preferred over their intelligence because the latter threatens patriarchy. Nandini looks innocent, but she is pulling the strings. No one knows everything about her; you can’t guess her next move. And Ratnam captures her gracefully with little light amidst the dark symbolic of how she’s struggling yet shines while surrounded by the darkness.
Another woman, though on the opposite side but just as clever as Nandini, is Princess Kundavai (Trisha). A political strategist, she can derail the plans of even the most experienced chieftains. She is loyal to her family, but she is more loyal to the people of the kingdom. She will much rather cause heartbreak to her brother than upset the people of the kingdom. She maintains professionalism even when it costs her personally. She can sense the enemy’s next move and is trusted by her father to carry out a task as challenging as convincing the headstrong Aditha. She can also sweetly flirt with a man while guiding him to do a critical political job. The sharp banter between Nandini and Kundavai, which the two actresses played skilfully, is a treat to watch.
While these two use their minds, the woman using her labor and her heart is Pooguzhali (Aishwarya Lekshmi), the boatwoman who carries Vandiyadevan from India to Lanka amidst a roaring sea. We first see her coming out of the dark sea. Drenched, she sensually looks at the camera while it captures her body as sensual music plays. I don’t understand why Ratnam has used a sexual gaze here. The moment Vandiyadevan flirts with her, she threatens him with a weapon. He, too, backs off, unlike Baahubali’s Mahendra, who undresses Avanthi against her wishes. Pooguzhali is in love with Ponniyin Selvan and stands by him when he makes difficult but virtuous choices. She puts herself at risk to help him. Here is a working woman who is not at the mercy of anyone, who is strong enough to safeguard herself yet turns to mush when she sees her love interest.
Other women in Ponniyin Selvan-I have smaller but significant roles. Emperor Chozhar’s Queen Vaanavan Maadevi (Vidhya Subramanian) sits beside him and feels free to answer the questions meant for him; usually, it’s the other way around. Oomai Rani (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) saves Ponniyin Selvan every time he’s in danger. She arrives on an elephant and beats up Pandyas who try to capture Ponniyin Selvan by trying to kill him. Princess Vaanathi (Sobhita Dhulipala) isn’t shy of sending love letters to her to-be-husband, Ponniyin Selvan. She even speaks of her wish to marry him in front of elders. Madurantaka Chola’s mother Sembiyan Mahadevi (Jayachitra) is loyal to her late husband’s wish of making their son a devotee instead of a king. She will much rather go against her living son than betray her late husband’s wishes. Not to forget Goddess Kali who demands the blood of a royal man. She is mightier than all humans and kingdoms.
Women of Ponniyin Selvan-I are feminists in an era when the concept of feminism did not exist. They speak their minds and pull the strings even though they seem innocuous. They know and say the right thing at the right time. They’re driven by emotions – love, anger, vengeance, sense of duty, but they are not looked upon as emotional. They’re not Ms. goody two shoes like most other movies depict them to be. They have their aims and use appropriate means to gain those. They’re unrestricted by their conditions; they use them to their advantage. They’re loyal to their kingdoms, but more importantly, they are loyal to themselves. The best part is that, in the film, they are everywhere; you can’t ignore them.