Petta: Reprise Of Rajni’s Vintage Charm & Negligence Of Karthik Subbaraj’s Signature Brand of Filmmaking
Movie Review by Trijai Nerthi (Rocheston Certified Movie Critic)
What happens when a die-hard superstar fan is handed an opportunity to direct him? Petta is born. As the internet gods have correctly pointed out, Petta is undeniably a love letter Karthik Subbaraj has dotingly written, to his one and only Superstar, Rajnikanth. So, naturally, the Rajni fan in you will be satisfied after years of only misses. But the ‘pure cinema’ critic in you that thoroughly enjoys Karthik Subbaraj’s work might feel a little letdown. If you aren’t a fan of Rajni, chances are, you might find Petta to be your average entertainer, fluff et al. Just to pay an ode to the superstar and his legacy, looks like Karthik Subbaraj has decided to have his clarity and control as a unique story-teller take a back seat to give the audiences, what might be, his most commercial film till date.
Kaali (Rajnikanth), a mysterious stranger sends in a minister’s recommendation to procure the post of a temporary boys hostel warden at a boarding school in Kodaikanal. Upon his arrival, Kaali befriends the young boys by dismissing their bullies and improving their lifestyle. Soon, the peace in their hostel is disrupted when a ruthless incident on Valentine’s day triggers the attention of a few powerful people. This puts a target on the back of a student, Anwar, who Kaali is determined to protect. One day, two gangs of cold-blooded criminals break open the gates of the hostel to kill Anwar. During this chaos, the boys realize Kaali is here for some unfinished business. The unraveling of Kaali’s real identity and the success of the mission he is on forms the crux of this story.
Over the years, Rajni has tried time and again to revive his matchless yesteryear charisma by collaborating with many renowned directors in the Tamil film Industry. But be it K.S Ravikumar’s Linga or Pa.Ranjith’s Kaala, their efforts were in vain. Then, Karthik Subbaraj comes waltzing in with his Petta, giving Superstar his edge back by reinstating his signature brand of vintage charm. From the infamous cigarette toss to his commandeering ‘Ulle Po’, all those striking nuances one admires about Rajini is back in full form.
None of the action in Petta is mind-blowing. The idea behind them isn’t the greatest. But the mediocre idea in itself has been packaged in such a crowd-pleasing manner that it leaves you cheering for the star with utmost enthusiasm. Let’s take the introduction scene as an example; Kaali enters the gate and moves swiftly to dismiss the bullies. Soon after, he breaks into a stylish dance. It is the same, hero-always-wins formula. But this formula is complemented by multiple aspects of storytelling that are always on-point. Rajni’s dance in this film isn’t to impress, it is to express. The music isn’t jarringly loud but it is cheery and larger-than-life. So, to all the superstar’s fans who’ve been disappointed time and again in the past few years, this is Rajni’s way of saying that he’s back and so are his fast-paced moves. This is why the first sixty minutes of Petta feels like a celebration that has immersed the audience.
The first half of the film is a celebration of all that Rajni was, is and hopefully will be. The reason that Rajni’s heroism is so enjoyable in the first sixty minutes is that his antics aren’t over the top. Instead of merely building him up through dialogues, the director actually uses the star’s body language, comedy and sense of style to bring about applause. Since he puts in the basic work that is required, it works.
But after the first sixty minutes, the direction Petta’s screenplay takes becomes increasingly predictable. Sure, the flashback has style and swagger but the formulaic narrative isn’t something you haven’t already seen in Tamil cinema. Revenge to avenge the death of a loved one is a concept that you’ve already seen so much of in Rajni’s older films that this dish served to you is not only cold but feels quite stale too. The director does try to terminate this predictability by introducing a twist in the climax, but frankly, by then it feels too late. The plot twist though surprising isn’t powerful enough to shake off the film’s long run-time and the list of expectations that come with a Karthik Subbaraj film. You wish the director had chosen to take the center stage, rather than having the star’s presence take over the story.
In Petta too, the director uses music in an intriguing manner. After Jigarthanda, ‘Malarum Malaratha’ makes a reprise here as well. Many such classic songs play on right before something of importance takes place in the film. There are many references to the current political scenario too. From the Beef Ban and the practices of Shiv Sena to the Anti-Indian tag and Modi’s infamous ‘Mithron’, everything is used to drive the story ahead. This is quite a cathartic experience for those who are utterly unhappy with the ruling party and its decisions. Though these Karthik Subbaraj touches are present, they are never dominant enough to satisfy you. They hardly even scratch the surface. The way he presents you with a tightly knit screenplay that gradually builds tension is what you miss the most.
While it is understandable that one has to make compromises to accommodate Rajni’s star image, you can’t help but want more of grey shades in the characterizations and more of dialogues like “Nee Nallavana Iru, Romba Nallavana Irukatha”.
As Petta alias Kaali, the Rajni you once saw in Baasha is back. He is care-free, charming and can be seen simply having fun. As Jithu, Vijay Sethupathi is as brilliant as always. His scenes with Rajni are the best in the film. He steps into his character’s shoes with ease. His expressions in the climax are especially admirable. As Singaaram, Nawazuddin Siddiqui has limited scope to perform. He has a limited screen-time and his signature brand of psychopathic tendencies are completely under-utilized. His off-the-mark dubbing voice doesn’t help at all. Shockingly, this is the first Karthik Subbaraj film to have female characters who have almost no importance in the film. Be it Trisha or Simran, both their characters could be easily written off.
Tirru’s cinematography in Petta is good. But it could’ve been better. The varying color temperatures in the film that go from warm to cold somehow seems a bit artificial. The make-up and costumes department deserves a special mention for building Rajni a fresh new look that is pleasant and stylish. Anirudh’s soundtracks and background score completely steal the show. They are peppy, cheerful and truly ‘Marana Mass’.
On the whole, Petta is sure to satisfy Superstar’s clan of fans, but if you are a Karthik Subbaraj fan, you will be disappointed.