“Petta”… A smashing tribute to Rajinikanth that transports you to the ’90s!
Ever considered an outsider’s idea of a quintessential Rajinikanth film? Especially of the strata that generalize ‘South movies’ based on the ones they see dubbed on Hindi satellite channels. According to them, the superstar’s film contains flips (cigarettes, sunglasses and pretty much everything that he gets hold of), slow-motion action, fire-spitting dialogues, gravity-defying stunts plus that trademark walk. Many would not be aware that times have changed for good and the superstar himself has begun to reassess his standing as an actor as well as a public figure. Rajinikanth’s films in the past decade or so have digressed slowly into VFX spectacles and political thrillers with spasmodic success and not-so-occasional failures. The latter can also be attributed to filmmakers and their never-ending dilemma on where to draw the line between the superstar and his screen characters. It is from this puzzling maze that director Karthik Subbaraj’s Petta emerges.
Say hello to a film that epitomizes every Rajinikanth meme, every hackneyed Thalaivar joke that has circulated on the internet from the beginning of time. The memes do not make any more sense but the film, sincerely, does. Subbaraj pays a glowing tribute to the superstar himself with his own unique take on the classic revenge saga with the actor himself in the epicenter. Petta which introduces the superstar as a temporary college hostel warden named Kaali is abundant with Rajini nostalgia – beginning with his screen name (and those of the people around him), the songs that he listens to on his radio and the dialogues to name a few. There is no reason why even a non-fan also would not hoot with glee when a character goes, “Paakradhukku chinnapayyan mathiri stylea irukeenga” (You look as stylish as a young boy)” which not only is a nod to the actor’s ego but also a quick throwback to Padayappa. There is also a solo action sequence towards the mid-point that he delivers with so much pizzazz that all we can do is to sit back, gasp and applaud.
The first half of Petta is set in a Main Hoon Na-like setup where Rajni is seen to be protecting a young man with absolutely no agency. There are bundles of the aforementioned Rajni quirks and some genuine fun moments sprinkled throughout. Honestly, it has been a while since we saw the superstar have as much fun on screen – smiling, laughing (not-so-creepily) and basically celebrating life. Canvassed perfectly with the ambiance of the locality, there is an element of mystery that shrouds his character as, for once, we are fully aware that he is indeed a man on a mission.
It is at the interval point that all the fun and frolic ends and the film begins to introduce new characters with larger stakes in the story. Film has politics, religion, honour killing, saffron terrorism, equal rights for LGBTQ and multitudes of other issues finding references – some trumpeted aloud, some subtly whispered. The superstar’s political standpoints stay asserted with certain telling dialogues here and there. Plus, it is also not unobvious on why a good part of the latter half is set in Uttar Pradesh, out of all places. You also don’t necessarily get why Nawazuddin Siddiqui is cast as the villain Singaaram here. Neither is his lip-sync in place nor does he look like an active participant in the chaos. Often seen in his room taking treatment for what appears to be asthma, Siddiqui is as out of place as the elderly nurse who looks after him. This is further aggravated when Rajinikanth shows up in his den all guns blazing, and literally so.
However, lending Petta freshness and oodles of organic charm is the current toast of Kollywood, Vijay Sethupathi. He might not be the best looker amongst his peers but Sethupathi’s brooding presence and tremendous acting chops define everything that the likes of Vijay, Ajith and Suriya lack in – at least, on this date. So much so that his scenes with the superstar are not only the film’s best but are also surreal in various ways. Here you witness two gentlemen who can give their respective contemporaries a run for their bucks purely for being original. The cigarette tossing moment and the subsequent dialogue by Rajinikanth is almost a token to his own stardom, which is at a point where there’s no successor to pass the baton to. Hints anyone?
With a handful of exciting new characters and time transitions, the story does take off for good in the latter half. That said, Petta also gets excessively violent in the final two acts. It is no longer the cheerful, bubble-gum frothy action-comedy from the first half. There are action sequences one too many and each of them follow the same format – Rajini is the one-man army and the villains take turns to get thrashed. It is amusing and homage-like in the lighter segments but as the film takes serious turns with the protagonist dealing with actual goons, the setup looks heavily made-up. I would have bought all of it had the volume been lighter but the editor-cinematographer duo gives us no respite. Now, to give the DOP his credit, Petta’s colour palette is striking with white and green abounding the first half and transitioning slowly to saffron, gold, yellow and red shades eventually. The flashback portions, too, steer clear of stereotype excesses.
Among other bits, I wasn’t particularly impressed how the women in Petta stood largely neglected which wasn’t the case with Rajini’s recent films, if we discount the Enthiran series. While it is Malavika Mohanan who gets some material to emote, Simran, Trisha and Megha Akash are mere ornamental catalysts. The only breather is the absence of instances where they are objectified or eye-candied upon. I also thoroughly enjoyed his chemistry and brief romance with Mangalam (a delightful Simran, criminally wasted in a role that barely merits her mettle). The original score and songs (Anirudh Ravichander) largely emerge out of the classic Rajini scheme of things and they work wonders in eliciting good amounts of positive nostalgia. The production design is, at times, crackling and otherwise outright hilarious. Where else would you spot a boys’ hostel lit up with candles as if it were a Jewish prayer hall?
To top the experience, Petta ends on a high-note with director Subbaraj throwing a shade of his own trademark flair. The climactic twist hits you like a thunderbolt and given the powerful presence of the actors on screen, you get no choice but to lap it all up. Rajinikanth breathes fire into a part that is tailor-made for him and firmly shoulders the film that is a celebration of his momentous star aura. You exit the cinema hall applauding the filmmaker’s conviction to pull this off on today’s date and also of the superstar’s ability to render his superhuman screen persona as awe-inspiring as ever. Talk about people, things and skillsets that are timeless and how!
Rating: ★★★ 1/2 (3.5 out of 5)