When last we saw the title character of Mani Ratnam’s epic “Ponniyin Selvan” saga, the real-life prince who would expand the Chola empire from South India all the way to the Ganges in the north was drowning as he crossed from Lanka to India. Instead of picking up at that cliffhanger, the action-packed second installment rewinds a few decades to focus on different characters, before circling back to reveal the fate of Jayam Ravi’s title character, also known as Arunmozhi Varman.
“Ponniyin Selvan: Part Two” starts by filling in the backstory of how Arunmozhi’s older brother, Crown Prince Aditha Karikalan (Vikram), fell for Nandini (Aishwariya Rai Bachchan), an orphaned girl living with a priest family at the local temple. The royal family disapproved of him marrying a girl whose antecedents weren’t known, and so she was chased off. The story then picks up to when reports reach town that the younger prince has drowned.
For the sequel, which was reportedly shot concurrently with the first part during COVID, Ratnam and co-writers Jaymohan and Kumaravel take considerable license with Kalki Krishnamurthy’s original books. Whereas in the five-volume novels that were serialized in the magazine Kalki, the second book centers around Nandini and two other characters, but in the film the scheming takes centerstage. Poonguzhali (Aishwarya Lekshmi) and Azwarkiadevan Nambi (Jayaram) reprise their roles from part one but don’t have as much to do.
Krishnamurthy’s serialized story covered several characters in the 12th century Chola dynasty and in “Part Two,” the ailing emperor Sundara Chozha (Prakash Raj) is kept almost captive in his palace by Nandini’s husband, commander Chinna Pazhuvettariyar (R. Parthiban), and his brother.
Battling the Cholas are their enemies, the Pandyas, trying to avenge their defeat some years earlier and banding with other smaller kingdoms, as well as the emperor’s nephew, Madurantakam (Rahman), who has been ruling while his uncle has been ill, and who shows aspirations to the crown.
The Pandyas eventually discover what audiences have already assumed: that Arunmozhi didn’t drown. Instead, he and his faithful sidekick Vallavaraiyan Vandiyadevan (Karthi) were rescued by a gray-haired woman (also Rai Bachchan) called Oomai Rani or Mute Queen.
Avoiding the Pandyas’ attempts to finish the job of eliminating Arunmozhi, his rescuers – Nambi and Poonguzhali – take him to a Buddhist monastery to recover while Vandiyadevan diverts the Pandyas and heads out to let the royal family know the prince is alive. His faithful ally brings both the crown prince Aditha and princess Kundavai to the monastery, and as Arunmozhi attempts to depart, the Pandyans descend on the town leading to a well-choreographed fight scene involving an elephant, townsfolk, a bazaar and lots of flying produce.
Exchanging fight scenes for song and dance, “Part Two” packs a lot of story into its 164-minute running time, with plenty of scheming as Nandini tries to have the emperor and his two sons killed the same night so that they won’t have time to be alerted. Her backstory is expanded to explain her actions, but some of the women from Part One, such as Princess Kundavai (Trisha Krishnan), get short shrift.
Two features spanning five and a half hours may sound like ample time to adapt “Ponniyin Selvan,” and yet, Ratnam might have been better off making this a trilogy, since the books leave so much more that he wasn’t able to include. And even though it’s billed as an A.R. Rahman musical, the song sequences are missing.
The acting is strong across the board, while costumes, production design and cinematography all serve to tell the tale fittingly. Indian artisans prove themselves to be as good as any Hollywood has to offer. A coda at the end explains how and when Arunmozhi takes over the Chola empire and builds palaces and temples, including the mighty Thanjavur temple that still stands. He moved the capital to Gangaikonda Cholapuram, named for the fact that he conquered all the way north to the Ganges.