Yes, there is a but. But before we get to that, let’s talk about why Petta works. In fact, it doesn’t just work. It is as the film’s marketing campaign suggested for months, a gift for Rajini fans by Rajini fans (literally everybody working on the project, from the director, the cinematographer, music composer, right down to the dude who serves chai on set during break and the dude who cleans up the empty chai cups after break are all fervent and frenzied Rajini fans). Rajini veriyans as they say. And it shows. (I am a Rajini veriyan too. Superstar Rajinikanth is one of the biggest influencers in shaping my unshaken love for cinema.)
Only a red-blooded Rajini fan would’ve been able to craft a film of this magnitude. Petta is a glorious celebration of Thalaivar’s legacy. A gratifying festival commemorating the man who, together with directors Mani Ratnam, Suresh Krissna and K.S. Ravikumar redefined the term MASS in the early to late 90s. And yesterday, I experienced this celebration with a theatre packed to the brim with fans who have been salivating in anticipation for a vintage Rajini film FOR YEARS. It was a different kind of energy. The kind of extraordinary atmosphere you hear stories about. The kind where you feel the excitement and tension and joy and anxiousness in the air even as the pre-movie commercials roll and people are still pouring into the cinema hall.
Then darkness, followed by silence…
And when Rajinikanth’s iconic opening title card popped up, it was nothing if not legendary (see clip below).
And for that, I have to thank director Karthik Subbaraj.
Thank you for providing me with one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
Thank you for showcasing Rajini in this light. Rajini, whose talent is unparalleled. Rajini, who is not just a man, but an enigma and an embodiment of charisma. At 69 years old and 165 films, Rajinikanth still rocks as hard as he did 25 years ago. Over the past decade and a half, a lot of other actors have come into their own and become bonafide stars. Vijay, Ajith and my personal favourite next to Rajini, Dhanush. But the nearing 70-year-old man shows us why he’s still THE SUPERSTAR. There’s a regalness and charm to Rajinikanth that is unexplainable and irreplicable. Not to mention his excellent comedic timing and acting chops. Here, once again he fires on all cylinders.
Thank you for the references and nods to Rajini’s previous films. Petta truly is an easter-egg heavy greatest hits collection. The Rajini character here is named Kaali, similar to his character in one of his classic 70s film, Mullum Malarum. There’s a recreation of the iconic gate opening scene from his debut film, Apoorva Raagangal. There’s a slight nod to Thalapathi. There a young mother abandons her baby on a train. Here, Kaali’s nephew is birthed on a train. Kaali’s nephew, whose name is Anwar, the same as Manickam’s best friend in Baashha. Speaking of, in Baashha’s most hair raising moment, Rajini turns to his brother and roars “Go inside!” Here, he looks to a bunch of college kids and says, “guys, go inside!”
THANK YOU for including a scene where Rajini flips a cigarette into his mouth. It’s been so long — since 2002, in fact — that Rajini has stylistically taken a puff. When it happened, it did not disappoint. The crowd burst into cheers and claps. He’s still got it! As Abbas’ character in Padayappa would say, “what a man!” There are also references to songs from his yesteryears wonderfully interweaved within the narrative, sometimes for comedic effect.
I also have to thank cinematographer Tirru for helping Karthik Subbaraj bring his vision to life; for putting care and love into every single frame you lensed. The saying every frame a painting has never rung truer. This is the most aesthetically pleasing Rajini movie since Thalapathi… which means it is the most aesthetically pleasing Rajini movie period. Rajinikanth has never been lit and captured so magnificently.
There are silhouette shots of him, shots of Rajini’s shadow looming, shots of him approaching from the darkness and into the light. At one point, an outline of Rajini is seen walking by a bunch of burning candles that extinguish in his presence. It is that kinda film! The gloriously crafted opening action block that intercuts with the opening credits alone is worth the ticket price if you’re a Rajini fan. Notice the way the camera moves gracefully through the college campus. We wait… we wait and we wait… until finally, SUPERSTAR shows up. Just thinking about it brings tears to my eyes.
Thank you also to composer Anirudh for an outstanding OST. I think Maari is still my favourite album of yours, but you have outdone yourself as far as background scores and soundtracks go. I love the exciting nature of Petta Paraak and Kaali’s Theme as much as I do the subtleness and uniqueness of Jithu’s Theme. And film composers are going to find it tough to beat Ullaallaa as 2019’s party anthem. This song is infinitely repeatable. Though, Thala fans would argue that D. Imman’s Adichi Thooku from Viswasam is better.
Petta made me feel like a kid again. And every time a film manages to do that, I consider it a success, regardless of its flaws.
But… there are flaws. Major ones. Flaws that prevent Petta from transcending the exciting and well-made fan film nature that it is, into a piece of pure cinema. It appears that in his fanboy-ish excitement and utter state of Rajini intoxication (to be fair, who can blame him), Karthik Subbaraj forgot to be a filmmaker (and scriptwriter) first and foremost. Or maybe he didn’t forget. Maybe this time around, he purposely just wasn’t focused on that.
Karthik Subbaraj, by the way, is a phenomenal helmer. His previous films, Iraivi and Jiggarthanda are almost flawlessly crafted, while Pizza and Mercury are bold and inspiring experiments. The former two especially is a fantastic showing of controlled escalating tension and conflict by a director who clearly has his finger on the pulse. With each passing scene, the noose tightens. Unfortunately with Petta, especially in the first half, Karthik Subbaraj seems to only be interested in Rajini-isms.
We call Petta a vintage 90s Rajini film. But is it really? Because while Subbaraj has brought back the Rajini swag and mannerisms full swing, he completely ignores a key element that made those films such fucking classics.
In Annamalai (1992), Rajini’s best friend betrays him and breaks his house — his father’s last dying gift to his mom. We teared up.
In Baashha (1995), Rajini is tied to a pole and beaten to a bloody pulp by gangsters, as Vairamuthu’s emotionally poignant lyrics accompany the scene. Baashha paaru, baashha paaru, paal vadiyum mugatha paaru, pasuva pola gunatha paaru….
We emptied our tear ducts and clenched our fists tightly. We were angry. Furiously fuming!
In Padayappa (1999), the Ramya Krishnan character, Nilamberi, makes a fool out of Rajini and for the first time in the film, his shawl falls on the ground as he walks away with his head down. Our heart bled for him.
As a kid, I cried, cringed and hid behind a pillow watching these scenes. I was angry. I was unhappy. I was shaken. Heck, who am I kidding? I still feel that way watching those scenes now, as an adult. It’s uncomfortable to watch, but it is these harrowing moments that make those films masterstrokes. It is these unforgiving and heartbreaking sequences that make Thalaivar’s retaliation and veritanam in the second half emotionally powerful, hair raising events. Here, the audience’s cheers throughout the film aren’t rage-filled and emotionally driven; they’re purely celebratory.
And that, perhaps, is the problem that arises when a fanboy makes a movie starring his childhood, teenhood and adulthood idol. Subbaraj respects and adores Rajini so much, that he’s unwilling to bring Kaali/Petta to his knees and humiliate him. But a hero, especially in a larger than life mass-masala needs to fall before he/she can rise. Or else, what are we rooting for? Here, Kaali is flawless and always 10 steps ahead of everybody. He’s always cool and rarely ever misses a beat. He’s great at fighting, great at mind games and for whatever reason, great at cooking too. He destroys his enemies with ease right from the get-go and continues vanquishing them without breaking a sweat all throughout until the end.
I’m not saying all MASS movies need broad or poignant emotional beats (see Maari which is plain old fun all the way), but I think it is necessary in a 3 hour long sprawling narrative in which the first half is purely an introduction and has almost nothing to do with the second half. But Petta plays like a less interesting version of Baashha (the basic structure of Petta is similar to the 1995 classic) where “Manickam” has three extra fight blocks and seven more slow-mo scenes even before the interval lamp-post fight scene and flashback.
In one moment Rajini actually takes out a nunchuck and starts doing fancy moves with it. I imagine a 10-year-old Karthik Subbaraj watching Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon and thinking, “imagine how cool it would be if my Thalaivar did that?!” and then writing it down on a piece of paper with a crayon. It’s kinda ridiculous, but that about sums up the fun, bizarre and complete Rajini mania world that is Petta. I’m not gonna lie, it made me smile. But when every shot is a hero glorification shot, it starts to lose its lustre, even if, dare I say, the hero is the infectious Superstar Rajinikanth.
There’s a saying that goes, a hero is only as good as his villain.
Both Vijay Sethupathi and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who play villains in the film, are some of the most convincing ACTORS in world cinema today. Don’t believe me? Watch Vikram Vedha and Sacred Games. All they needed was a tapestry to showcase their immense talent. But Karthik Subbaraj doesn’t give them a tapestry, only a loincloth. They’re great in the scenes that they’re in — Nawazuddin Siddiqui slithering around a pile of corpses calling out “Petta!” and Vijay Sethupathi asking Kaali for a puff is awesome — but the character writing is a letdown, simply because they never have the upper hand.
Given the talent, we should have had two more iconic villains in Rajini’s Rogues Gallery — Raghuvaran and Ramya Krishnan currently occupy top spots, with Sarath Babu, Suman and Nana Patekar sitting with them at the table. Remember the scene where Nilamberi sits in front of Rajini and salutes him? We don’t get anything akin to that here. There is no back and forth tit for tat one-liners. Rajini is always on top.
The film improves dramatically towards the latter part of the second half when Karthik Subbaraj slowly stops focusing on making a Rajini movie and starts making a Karthik Subbaraj padam and the morality of the protagonist and the universe he resides in switches from binary to grey. There are also plenty of typical Karthik Subbaraj twists and turns and THE TWIST in the riveting third act is a fantastic one that is sure to appease his fans (it sure as hell satisfied me). It would have been a much more compelling moment, though, had we been given a chance to be emotionally connected to the non-Rajini characters.
But Petta is a one-man show through and through. For all the pre-release hype, Trisha and Simran have absolutely nothing to do. They’re loosu ponnus minus the sexy dance sequences… which means they’re just ponnus that are kinda there (only cast for their legacy and star power). At one point Simran randomly breaks into dance. It’s a weird scene, made funny by Rajinikanth’s facial expressions. Another easter egg. Simran, during her heyday, was known for kicking it on the dance floor. So, of course, she would randomly start dancing in this bizarre tribute film.
The film’s unofficial tagline is ‘get Rajinified’. Here’s the thing. I don’t know if this movie offers much to anyone who isn’t already Rajinified to their bones. But like I said, despite its obvious and major flaws, there’s also no denying the amount of fun I had. The stage — or should I say, theatre — was set. We screamed our hearts out and whistled our lungs dry. The world heard our fiery roars. And most importantly, we made the walls of Coliseum Cinema KL vibrate like it’s 1995 (yes, I’m exaggerating a little. The crowd during Baashha is the stuff of legends).
And with that, I also think it’s the perfect time for Rajinikanth to hang his proverbial boots, or shall I say hang his “SUPERSTAR” title card. No, I don’t mean he should stop acting. Never! Rather that he transitions fully into grandfather-esque serious, gritty roles. Roles that are masala without being overly mass-y. Roles that challenge him more as an actor, because he is a damn fine actor. Rajini’s magnum opuses, as far as mass hero is concerned are Baashha, Annamalai and Padayappa. And year by year it’s becoming clearer to me that he’s never going to top that. So why not, do more Kaalas. Why not play a character akin to Prakash Raj’s in Chekka Chivantha Vaanam or Ameer’s in Vada Chennai? After all, Clint Eastwood and Amitabh Bachchan did the same. Just a thought…