Many thanks to regular readers Violet and KB for suggesting Padayappa (1999) when I asked for Ramya Krishnan film recommendations. I believe that director K.S. Ravikumar cast her after seeing Ammoru, and I understand why. Padayappa has an amazing cast, an often incredible story, and all the trappings of a revenge drama custom built for superstar hero Rajinikanth. It also has a strong female antagonist that was perfect for Ramya Krishnan, who won the Tamil Filmfare Best Actress for the role. The support cast includes such talented actors as Sivaji Ganesan and Soundarya, along with Manivannan, Lakshmi, Nasser and even a brief appearance by Prakash Raj.
Padayappa (Rajinikanth) comes home to attend a family wedding. He falls in love with poor but honest Vasundhara (Soundarya) however overseas educated rich girl Nilambari (Ramya Krishnan) decides she must have him for herself. Her branch of the family is riddled with self-serving weaklings and their machinations help hasten the death of Padayappa’s father, played by legendary actor Sivaji Ganesan. Padayappa stays in the village to support his mother and sister, sort out the cheating relatives, and also to try and woo Vasundhara. The conflict between Nilambari and everyone who gets in her way is the main focus, although there are the obligatory comedy tracks and lots of rousing speeches.
In Padayappa Rajinikanth is Superstar Rajni the Hero rather than using his considerable acting skills for a fully developed character that required any subtlety. The thing I always find admirable about Rajni is that he commits to the role and to the style of film he is in, and that conviction makes even the most preposterous shenanigans seem somehow right.
Padayappa is moral, righteous and has absolutely no self-doubt. He has all the trademark Rajni mannerisms from the snappy salute with whooshing sound effects, the cigar trick, the ability to force his enemies to attack him one by one and at a pace that allows him to win, the power to make multiple cars explode just by looking at them. There is some light and shade as Padayappa gets all silly and tongue-tied around Vasundhara, or as he grieves for his family’s losses but he is less a character and more a personification of Heroic Values.
Confession – I am so fond of Rajni that I really don’t care that his fight scenes are implausible or his ‘dancing’ quite terrible. But I could have done without the shirtless flexing.
I rarely take issue with the (usually considerable) age gap between Rajni and his heroines. Maybe it’s because I discovered him comparatively recently so to me he has always been an elder statesman of film. And to some extent his reputation overshadows any character he plays. He’s Rajinikanth!
Nilambari is compelling yet totally unlikeable. A spoilt girl who never took no for an answer, Nilambari often does things more likely to be done by the hero – she stalks the hero, she grabs him and kisses him in front of everyone at a wedding then saunters off casually, she torments her rival (the lowly Vasundhara) and threatens anyone who tries to obstruct her.
Ramya Krishnan gave Nilambari a beautiful façade over a twisted and arrogant core. It is great to see an actress capable of such expression and subtlety and who is not afraid to reveal the ugliness of a character’s dark side. She took it up to Rajinikanth and more than held her own in their confrontational scenes.
Nilambari’s outfits improved but her attitude never did.
There is a village tradition that couples should only marry when both want to, either through love or mutual agreement. Padayappa rebukes Nilambari saying a good woman should be well-mannered and demure, so it’s not exactly progressive but I liked seeing girls get a voice too.
Vasundhara (Soundarya) is Padayappa’s ideal woman. She is a servant in Nilambari’s household, but her family used to be wealthy. Devout and domesticated as well as very pretty, Vasundhara obviously likes Padayappa too. She and Rajni seem to have nice rapport and the courtship is more about shy conversations and sideways glances. It’s quite cute if predictable. Soundarya does well to build up a character that is only lightly sketched out by the screenplay and dialogue. I did yell at Vasundhara a couple of times to STOP TRUSTING NILAMBARI. Luckily her devotion earns her some snake assisted escapes from near certain death.
Soundarya also does an excellent job of dancing around Rajni in their songs together. She often has a cheeky smile on her face, so Vasundhara might have a colourful fantasy life to balance her dutiful side.
The dynamic between Padayappa and Nilambari was interesting as this is an instance where the hero is quite passive. Padayappa doesn’t do anything to torment or punish Nilambari other than be happily married to the one he loves. She is insignificant to him, and that is what drives her insane.
The song picturisations have all the colour and excitement I expected. AR Rahman’s music is a good fit and his use of recurring motifs helps express the characters inner lives.
Minsara Poove sees Nilambari dancing her feelings for Padayappa as he sings for Vasundhara. It’s very pretty, apart from the bits that are happening in Nilambari’s fantasy. She really needed a better dream wardrobe designer. Suthi Suthi is colourful, with giant puppets and lots of costume changes for Soundarya and Rajni. Kikku Yerudhey is a little out of place in terms of the story and I think it was only there to get Rajni prancing about with lots of young girls (Padayappa’s daughter’s school friends) and drunk uncles. Or maybe just to let the director make his trademark cameo appearance.
There are fight scenes, cars stunts, a murderous cow (not a euphemisism for Nilambari) and all manner of excitement as well as the revenge and drama.
Padayappa’s friends are largely there to provide comic interruptions but they also do an excellent line in relationship advice and support (and hiding behind trees).
The legendary Sivaji Ganesan had a small but pivotal role as Padayappa’s father and was still quite magnetic. Lakshmi made the most of her big scenes as the surprisingly fierce mother. The always excellent Manivannan made his character despicable and yet pitiful while Nasser was just despicable.
And a quite svelte Prakash Raj was a nice bonus as a police officer. The casting budget for this film must have been enormous.
At almost 3 hours Padayappa does drag occasionally but just as I was thinking that surely things must settle down, K.S. Ravikumar would ramp up the action. See it for a classic village family revenge masala style story with a first class cast and loads of colour and movement. 4 stars!