Petta (2019)

petta

Karthik Subbaraj is a self-confessed Rajinikanth fan (he even mentions this in the movie credits) and his latest film can best be described as a fan’s ode to the Superstar. Petta is a step back in time to the classic Rajinikanth of the nineties with punch dialogues, trademark poses and bucket loads of swagger and attitude. The mass style brings the superstar persona to the forefront and, particularly in the first half, relies heavily on Rajni’s charisma and screen presence to deliver an action-packed masala adventure. Although there are still plenty of twists and turns, the first half of Petta is a departure from the previous style of film making from Karthik Subbaraj and the characterisations and detail of the story suffer as a result. But with Petta being such a marvellous return to form for Rajinikanth, the film is still an absolute treat for fans.

The film follows the exploits of Petta (Rajinikanth), a man who comes to take up the position of hostel warden at a boarding school on the recommendation of the local minister. He gives his name as Kaali and immediately goes about restoring law and order in the hostel by evicting a group of bullies terrorising new students. Chief of these is Michael (Bobby Simha), the son of a local rowdy (Aadukalam Naren) who is also involved in various black-market schemes in the area. Petta brings order and structure to the hostel while at the same time assisting one of his students Anwar (Sananth Reddy) with his love affair. The results in a brief romance with Mangalam (Simran) and elicits some excellent advice – when faced with a problem, first play your favourite music and dance before making any decisions. The perfect maxim to live by!

The first half of the film sets up the character of Petta as a righteous man who is willing to do what it takes to win, but who is ultimately on the side of good. Classic Tamil hero stuff and Rajni plays the tough hero persona with his usual flair. Along the way he plays old Tamil movie songs on an ancient radio and indulges in trademark Rajni antics with cigarettes, sunglasses and various other props. Many of his poses recall his earlier blockbuster films while the dialogue is sharp and on point, raising plenty of cheers from the audience in Melbourne. Karthik Subbaraj has written the character to recreate the perfect storm that is SuperStar Rajinikanth, but this means that the other characters have little back story and even less time in front of the camera. Petta is front and centre of every frame – beating up bad guys, making the perfect dinner and setting the world to rights – just as we want him to do, but the lack of a build-up or real motivation for Petta makes some of these scenes just a bit too predictable.

Petta has a mysterious past and eventually it catches up to him in the second half necessitating a move to Uttar Pradesh. Here the plot starts to thicken and Karthik Subbaraj remembers to add his signature twists to the storyline. Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays Singaaram, a long time enemy of Petta who is out for blood and determined to get rid of Petta once and for all. His son Jithu (Vijay Sethupathi) is well placed to take on the task as he’s the chief rowdy in charge of Singaraam’s various dubious enterprises and has no issues at all with either murder or mayhem.

While he’s a fantastic actor, Nawazuddin Siddiqui seems a bit too pathetic and weedy to be an effective villain in a Tamil movie. Although his personality is bitter and twisted, his lack of physicality doesn’t play well, and his reliance on guns and explosives rather than his bare fists somehow seems to be cheating. Or maybe I just watch too many mass films! Vijay Sethupathi on the other hand is excellent and his entrance provoked just as many cheers from the audience in Melbourne as did Rajinikanth. He is perfect as a vicious thug who is still able to think on his feet and the scenes between Vijay and Rajinikanth are simply superb. The various twists and turns add more interest to the story and it helps that Jithu and Singaraam get more backstory with a flashback sequence and some good dialogues.

Rajinikanth looks amazing in this film and he moves more freely here in the dance and fight sequences than in his other recent films. S. Thirunavukarasu’s (Thiru) lighting and cinematography is beautifully done to maximise the different settings, particularly when the action moves north and the characters are surrounded by a festival in the streets. Peter Hein’s action sequences work well and the various locations too. The different areas of the hostel, a street market and a warehouse full of chairs allow him to create some novel situations and moves while a sequence with Petta practising with nunchucks in front of a fire is brilliant. Anirudh’s music fits well into the style of the film, especially with the wonderfully upbeat Aaha Kalyanam and SP Balasubrahmanyam appearing on the track Marana Mass. Sadly there was no credit given for the subtitles, but these were generally OK, although again very much of the literal translation type, so didn’t;t always make sense. Also in white which was frequently made illegible by the background. However at least the subtitler made the effort to identify the various classic songs used so that was a win – and as always, I’m very grateful for subtitles, full stop.

Unlike Karthik’s earlier movies like the excellent Iraivi, the female roles here are all of the ‘blink and you’ll miss them’ variety and despite the additions of a couple of romances they are totally superfluous to the plot. Malavika Mohanan has the best realised role while Trisha, Simran and Megha Akash have very little to do. The flashback sequence has a brief appearance by Sasikumar and J. Mahendran and the usual ensemble of support actors make up the various gang members on one side or other of the conflict.

What really works about Petta is the interplay between Rajinikanth and the various characters in the second half. The mixture of violence, punch dialogues and occasional comedy all fit perfectly into a plot that keeps changing tack. Singaraam may not be the best chief villain, but his nasty weaselly ways are novel and Nawazuddin Siddiqui has some great expressions as he flits between giving orders to kill and worrying about where Petta will pop up next. While it’s fantastic to see Rajni in such good form, it’s in this part of the film where everything comes together – star, story and support cast, to produce an almost perfect whole. This probably is a film that has something for everyone, with enough old-school Rajni to please his fans, a good character driven story in the second half for those who prefer his later incarnations in films such as Kaala and some characteristic Karthik Subbaraj storytelling for fans of the director. All this and Vijay Sethupathi too – highly recommended!

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Vivegam

Vivegam

What is it with Siva and bad opening sequences? Vedalam started off with a dodgy assassination, and Siva tries to do something similar here with equally disastrous results. Vivegram sees Ajith’s character take out two generic bad guys in a forest somewhere in Serbia with plenty of improbable action sequences and pre-placed explosives. The dubbing is bad, the set-up too over the top to be believable and the final moments are absurd. Unlike Vedalam however, Vivegam (Prudence) doesn’t morph into a decent action film after the first act. Instead Siva continues with a series of fast-paced fight sequences, loud declarative speeches delivered through gritted teeth and incredibly loud music. Which isn’t to say that its bad, just that Vivegam is a completely mass film produced solely for Thala fans where logic and story take a very big second place to showcasing Ajith as an all-out action hero.

The plot here revolves around a secret government agency somewhere in Europe, where everyone apparently speaks Tamil. There may have been some disclaimer about this in the opening credits, but since these weren’t subtitled I can’t tell and to be honest, it’s not the most implausible part of the film. The Counter Terrorism Squad have a very flash looking control room with lots of cool holographics, but nothing that a competent 007 hasn’t achieved before with a laptop and pen drive. Bizarrely a number of agents sit around calling out incredibly obvious observations from street surveillance cameras and wireless earpieces while it seems that any basic blocking tactic shuts off their contact with the outside world. Technologically advanced they may be, but little thought seems to have gone into the HQ apart from making it look snazzy.

Ajith is Ajay Kumar (aka AK), an agent who is presumed by his bosses to be dead, but who remerges to upset the agency when he takes out the head of the Russian mafia and the chief of Europol in the action at the start of the film.

The agency thinks that AJ has gone rogue and brings in his old colleagues to help hunt him down. Chief of these is Aryan (Vivek Oberoi) who is better than expected in a role that requires him to constantly extol the praises of his nemesis as he tries to track him down. Also on AK’s old team are Sean (Aarav Chowdhary), Rachael (Amila Terzimehic) and Mike (Serge Crozon-Cazin), who join in the hunt for their old partner.

However, all is not as it seems, and a flashback sequence traces the group’s last mission where they were trying to neutralise a weapon that was used to trigger earthquakes. A top hacker Natasha (Akshara Haasan) holds the key and the team, along with almost everyone else in Eastern Europe, are attempting to find her to gain control of the weapons. The action here involves a gang fight in an apartment block, where the bad guys get flung out of windows and down stairwells, and a couple of sniper attacks where we learn how it is actually possible to shoot through bullet proof glass. But while each individual fight scene is good, they just keep coming with faceless villains that last less than a second before being shot, blown up or defenestrated depending on location.

There is also a total lack of logic – when AK is left for dead on the snow-covered mountains of Europe, it’s just plausible that he might manage to survive and keep training, but his acquisition of tons of explosives and automatic weapons is amazing given that he doesn’t appear to have any backing.  His ability to drive halfway across Europe in a few hours is just as miraculous, as his amazing talent in avoiding being shot despite being one man against literally thousands of bullets. But then, he is a suviva!

Kajal Aggarwal shows up as Yazhini, AK’s long-suffering wife who runs a restaurant and musical school somewhere in Europe. Again, the staff all speak excellent Tamil, to the extent of being able to sing Tamil songs, while Yazhini seems to have no problem with her husband vanishing for a few months on various missions. At least Siva gives his female cast something to do – Akshara Haasan is excellent as the hacker who ends up out of her depth and Yazhini is way more vengeful than expected, but there isn’t a lot of chemistry between her and Ajith which lets the romance side of the story down.

The problem I have with Vivegam is that it never comes together as a complete story. Everything is peripheral to ensuring Ajith is front and centre all the time. All the action revolves around him, the speeches are all either Ajith declaring ‘never give up’ or his opponents discussing how amazingly wonderful he is. Everything comes so fast that it’s hard to keep track of which particular group Ajith is fighting next and the loud soundtrack and frenetic pace end up leaving the audience behind.

It’s a shame as there is a lot that is good here too. Ajith is excellent and carries the weight of the film well. Vivek Oberoi gets to do plenty of strutting around and pontificating in a grand manner (which suits him well!) and both Kajal Aggarwal and Akshara Haasan are good in their respective roles. The music from Anirudh is excellent and there is a good mix of heavy and light tones, or there would have been if the volume had been just a tad lower! The fight sequences are all beautifully sequenced too, with slow-mo bullets and some clever ideas, but there is just so much of everything that the screenplay gets a bit lost in all the sound and fury.

Vivegam is what happens when Siva tries to make a Hollywood style action film, keeping a mass approach and sacrificing screenplay for effects. Sure, it’s great to see Thala dodge bullets and smash villains into the ground but a little more light and shade to his character would have made for a more approachable story. One for fans.

Thanga Magan (2015)

Thanga magan

I was rather apprehensive about watching Velraj’s new film, given that VIP was such a huge hit, and follow-up films from new directors can be rather hit and miss. However with Dhanush on board again surely things couldn’t go too badly wrong? Well, no, at least not completely. Thankfully Velraj doesn’t simply try for a VIP 2, but instead starts with a rather different atmosphere and a more mature and responsible hero, although he does venture back into more familiar territory as the story reaches resolution. He’s also enlisted a generally excellent cast who keep the film entertaining even if the story does falter somewhat in the second half. Still, for a follow up film it’s not a bad attempt and Dhanush is as good as always ensuring Thanga Magan is worth a watch.

The opening scene is possibly one of the best in the film, and works well to raise questions and draw the audience into the story. As the rain pelts down, Thamizh (Dhanush) shepherds his pregnant wife Yamuna (Samantha) and his mother (Raadhika Sarathkumar) into a small and rather grimy house, ably assisted by his friend Kumaran (Sathish). By everyone’s depressed and miserable faces, it’s clear that something terrible has happened and that this is a major step downwards for the family, reinforced by Thamizh immediately setting out to look for a job.  That’s the cue for an extended flash back sequence that explains why Thamizh is unemployed and his family have had to relocate and downsize into such an undesirable location.

The flash back starts with a young Thamizh roaming around Chennai with his two friends Kumaran and Aravindh (Adith Arun). The three students spend all their time together until the day Thamizh sees a girl at the temple and instantly falls in love. Hema D’Souza (Amy Jackson) is an apparently intelligent, modern Tamil woman who has some very definite ideas about what she wants from life. She’s a student too, studying architecture, and isn’t afraid to berate Thamizh when she thinks he is following her. But after such a strong beginning, Hema becomes more of a caricature, drinking beer and allowing a mildly physical intimacy that ensures she isn’t going to be the one leaving with the guy – Hema is much too liberated to get a happy ending in a Tamil film!

Dhanush does his usual thing of managing to appear much younger than he really is, and as the relationship between Thamizh and Hema is fairly typical of young and infatuated lovers he doesn’t have to stretch for the role. In comparison Amy Jackson seems rather out of place and despite all the physical intimacy she has little chemistry with Dhanush leading to a relationship that never appears realistic on her side. Amy looks older than Dhanush too, which doesn’t help, but at least when they do finally split it’s reasonably plausible with his immaturity at odds with her ambition finally leading to the separation.

After the break-up Thamizh falls in line with his mothers’ wishes, getting a job working in the tax office with his father and agreeing to an arranged marriage with Yamuna. Yamuna is the ideal traditional wife; quiet, shy and happy staying at home all day to help her mother-in-law. She’s a complete contrast from Hema, but in her own way Yamuna is just as much of a caricature, following the description of classic filmi wife to the letter. Samantha is a much better actress than the character of Yamuna requires, but she still manages to shine despite her rather one-dimensional role. At least she has plenty of chemistry with Dhanush and even if the relationship is an old-fashioned and clichéd version of marriage they do seem to have a mutual respect and a partnership that was lacking between Thamizh and Hema.

The first half works well and Dhanush is on top form as dutiful son, young lover, then husband and father-to-be. He transitions from one to the other very naturally and it’s good to see him have a happier relationship with his family than he usually portrays in his films. Samantha is also excellent here and both K.S. Ravikumar and Raadhika Sarathkumar provide solid support as Thamizh’s parents. The love stories are both sweet in their different ways and there is some good and funny dialogue too which ensures that all the drama doesn’t get too overpowering.

The second half is where things start to go a bit pear-shaped when the story moves on to the problems with Thamizh’s father (K.S. Ravikumar) and his boss Prakash Kumar (Jayaprakash). There is a missing file, possibly some missing money and the flimsy storyline has very little substance but plenty of artifice. It’s a credit to the actors involved that the film still entertains even though large parts of the story don’t make much sense and there are too many large plot holes. The villain of the story is Aravindh who was neglected and left out of everything while Thamizh and Satish were off romancing Hema and her friend – apparently that’s enough of a reason to make you a total jerk and a criminal to boot.  However Aravindh is an ineffectual adversary and suffers from his absence in the first half of the film, leaving him without any real depth to his character. Adith does as well as he can with a very sketchy role, but it’s not enough to make Aravindh a plausible opponent. On a plus note though, Amy Jackson reappears and is much better in this part of the film, while Dhanush is excellent at depicting Thamizh’s growth as a dependable husband and supportive son as he investigates what really happened with his father. Even though the story needs a large suspension of disbelief, there is still some good dialogue and the relationship between Thamizh and Yamuna is well developed and beautifully pictured.

The main problem I have with Thanga Magan is the end. Unfortunately after spending two hours establishing Thamizh as a kind and thoughtful son and husband, the climax suddenly sees him turn into the swaggering, mass-dialogue spouting fighting machine last seen at the end of VIP. Perhaps Velraj couldn’t think of how else Thamizh could win the day, but the abrupt transition is at odds with the rest of the film and seems unnecessary. Thamizh could have achieved the same result without all the posturing and fighting, particularly since the fight scenes aren’t particularly well choreographed and the dialogue is clunky and more suited to a battlefield than a discussion in an office. Dhanush still manages to carry the mass-hero dialogue and posturing well of course, but the film deserves a more satisfying climax that meshes better with the rest of the film.

Although Thanga Magan doesn’t deliver as well as VIP, particularly in regards to the storyline in the second half, the performances are very watchable and Dhanush is simply excellent. He has the ability to show his character’s growth and maturation throughout the film, while still telling the story and ably supporting the rest of the cast. He always appears very natural, whether he’s playing a young student or a more matured married man, and never seems to be obviously ‘acting’. Sathish too does a good job, fitting the role of Thamizh’s ‘side-kick’ while he shares a natural rapport with Dhanush which ensures the comedy between the two works well. Samantha is the other standout performer and even if her role of a submissive wife is rather clichéd, she still plays it with grace and dignity and a good sense of humour. Anirudh supplies the music and it works well for the songs although none are as instantly catchy as I’ve come to expect from his previous soundtracks. I was also a little disappointed by the lack of dancing in the picturisations, as most of the songs are montages to show the two romances. They are all appealingly shot and look good, but I do miss watching Dhanush dance! Worth watching at least once for Dhanush, Samantha and Sathish and an amusing and entertaining first half.