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 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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Karuppan (2017)

Karuppan

After recently watching Rekka, Karuppan feels rather familiar with another foray into ‘mass’ territory for Vijay Sethupathi. R. Panneerselvam’s film is a standard plod through family relationships in a village near Madurai that fails to bring anything new into the genre, despite a few good ideas that unfortunately fizzle out midway through. Vijay Sethupathi, Tanya and Bobby Simha all do justice to their roles, but unfortunately the film lacks the fire it needed to make this a more compelling watch.

The story is set around the time of Jalikkattu and features a number of scenes involving bull wrestling. I really hope that the opening credits had the usual advice that ‘no animals were harmed during the making of this film’ but since everything was in Tamil with no translation I really couldn’t be sure (although these scenes did mainly seem to be CGI). I’m aware that Jalikkattu is a big thing in Tamil Nadu, but from the footage shown here the whole thing seems rather pointless to me and wasn’t at all enjoyable to watch. The reason for including Jalikkattu is that Maayi (Pasupathy) has a bull in the competition and decides that it would be a good idea to wager his sister’s hand in marriage to the man who manages to win the contest. Naturally the hero of the hour is Karuppan (Vijay Sethupathi) who wins the wrestling medal and the hand of Anbuselvi (Tanya) when he manages to make Maayi’s bull fall over.

Needless to say Anbu is not happy about her prospective groom and the method her brother has used to decide on the match, but like any good Tamil girl she threatens to kill herself if Maayi forces her into marriage. By this point I was ready to walk out – surely not even Vijay Sethupathi was going to be able to salvage this one, but then there was a twist to the story and it started to get more interesting. (Mild spoilers ahead)

Maayi had previously matched Anbu and Karuppan’s horoscopes and had already decided that he would be the perfect husband for Anbu, while Anbu had seen Karuppan take a stand against a seller of blue films and liked him for his values. And possibly also for his rather impressive moustache – sadly no subtitles for the songs means I may have made that part up, but it seems just as plausible (it is a magnificent moustache)! So, after a brief song and dance to introduce the prospective bride and groom, Anbu declares that she is ready to marry Karuppan just as soon as he can be convinced that the wedding is not solely due to his winning of a wager. Karuppan has the previously mentioned values you see and doesn’t take the wager seriously.

Unfortunately for the future happiness of the couple, there is a potential cloud on the horizon. Kathir (Bobby Simha), Maayi’s brother-in-law, had his heart set on marrying Anbu and when he can’t persuade Maayi that the whole wager idea is wrong, he decides to break the couple up by any means he can. Kathir is a sneaky villain and rather than gathering a gang of men to beat Karuppan into submission straight away, he goes for subtle and insidious goading of Maayi and the other villagers. This is done well with the odd piece of gossip dropped into the conversation, a nudge on one of the villager’s shoulders during a town meeting to get him to say his (obviously pre-prepared) piece and plenty of slanderous hints dropped around the village. Kathir is sweetly two-faced too, supporting Karuppan and speaking well of him to his face, but back-stabbing him as much as possible behind the scenes, and Bobby Simha does an excellent job of making this all seem very plausible.

Karuppan doesn’t help the situation by falling into Kathir’s traps which include getting outrageously drunk and insulting his in-laws at a temple function for his marriage. Kathir ensures that one of the people insulted by Karuppan is local gangster Varusanadu Sadha (Sharath Lohitashwa), setting Karuppan up to be dealt with by the gang if Kathir’s other plans fail to break up the marriage. Bobby Simha is very good here and he ensures his character has no redeeming characteristics. He keeps the characterisation low-key but effective to deliver a rather less physical but no less nasty villain.

Anbu is frustrated by her new husband’s failure to keep on the straight and narrow and when an estrangement occurs between her brother and her husband, she’s back to trying to kill herself without making any attempt at reconciliation. Sigh. Thankfully, apart from her suicide attempts, Anbu is a sensible and down to earth character, so there is hope that the whole situation can be resolved – after a major fight scene of course.

What works well here is the relationship between Karuppan and Anbu which quickly develops despite the unconventional betrothal. Vijay and Tanya have good chemistry together, while the mix of love scenes and quarrelling is typical of any couple trying to make a life together. One of the standout scenes is when Karuppan learns that Anbu is pregnant and his joy and happiness are perfectly portrayed. Vijay Sethupathi fits well into the role of a blustering but good-hearted farmer who adores his mother and his new wife, and he ensures the emotional scenes are effective without being too over the top.

Also good are the interactions between Karuppan and his uncle (Singampuli), particularly as they indulge in old Tamil film song karaoke together when drunk. They enact the different male and female roles, mouth the words and generally amuse the crowd with their antics in a couple of sequences that are very well put together.

Anbu is an interesting and generally strong character, although I couldn’t understand why her first impulse was to kill herself every time she ran into a bit of bother. Unlike most film heroines, Anbu isn’t afraid to let her husband know that she finds him attractive and she has enough confidence in their relationship to handle the ups and downs of Karuppan’s drinking. She’s decisive and doesn’t shy away from difficult conversations in her marital relationship and in effect she is a much better ‘bull-tamer’ than Karuppan could ever be, particularly since the bull she is taming is Karuppan himself. So, it doesn’t make sense that she isn’t able to deal with the issues between Karuppan and Maayi and effectively discourages the two from talking to each other. Or that she doesn’t confront Karuppan more directly in the second half of the film and slap some sense into him, as she does in the first half.

The film starts badly, gets steadily better throughout the first half, but loses its way in the second before an unexciting and overly contrived finale. The songs from D. Imman are good and mainly well placed, although the lack of subtitles made them less effective for me given that at least two were used to move the narrative forwards. The best are pictured on Vijay Sethupathi and Tanya, although Vijay does some inspired uncle dancing which is definitely a highlight!

Karuppan has an interesting heroine, a more complicated than usual villain and a charming hero, so it should work better than it does. Despite the good characterisations, the story itself is pedestrian with everyone tending to behave quite traditionally despite the set-up suggesting more unconventional approaches. However, still worth watching for the chemistry between Vijay and Tanya, an excellent take on a sneaky villain and those uncle dances.

Iraivi (2016)

Iraivi

Karthik Subbaraj’s third film is rather darker than his previous two, with less comedy and a serious theme about women who have to endure the poor decisions of weak men. It’s a film where the female characters are defined by the men, and the story is told through male eyes although the women generally are stronger and less flawed than their husbands. While the relationships are the core of the film, there is an overlying story that involves theft, murder and deception and although it’s another excellent film from Karthik, I kept thinking throughout that this would have been more powerful if he had shown more of the women’s viewpoint. However, highlighting the flaws in his male characters and ensuring that they don’t appear heroic is in itself a departure from the norm in Indian cinema, as is focusing on the plight of the women trapped in realistically troubled relationships. In Iraivi, Karthik has made another film that is not easy to define but one which will hopefully start conversations and make audiences think a little harder about the definition of abuse.

The film starts and ends with the women, even beginning and finishing with the same image of a hand outstretched in the rain. The rain is used throughout as a metaphor for freedom, with each of the women expressing a wish to stand in the rain and get ‘drenched’. In the images and dialogue shown over the opening credits, Ponni (Anjali) is a schoolgirl, with the acknowledged somewhat old-fashioned dream of making a good marriage and living the rest of her life in domestic bliss. Vazhini (Kamalinee Mukherjee) is shown to be a strong and confident woman who has defied her family to marry the man she loves while Meenakshi (Vadivukkarasi) is upset by her husband’s demeaning attitude towards her, which has been an unceasing constant throughout their life together.

When we next see Yazhini and Meenakshi, each has been changed by the men around them, while we get to see Ponni’s transformation during the story. Meenakshi has had some kind of fall and/or stroke. She is reaction-less in a bed in hospital and her two sons, Arul (S.J. Surya) and Jagan (Bobby Simha) blame their father Dass (Radha Ravi). He admits to being the cause of his wife’s hospitalisation, but despite the fact that she never moves and never speaks, Meenakshi has become their focus for any of the problems Arul and Jagan face. No matter that she cannot communicate, she is still their mother and that bond is as strong as always.

Yazhini is married to Arul, a film director whose last film is being held hostage by his producer after the two had a falling out. Arul is living in limbo until he can secure his film’s and has become an alcoholic as a result. He gets into fights in bars when drunk but is not physically abusive to his wife and daughter, but instead subjects them to his mood swings and depression, and the general uncertainty of living with an alcoholic. S.J. Surya is excellent in his portrayal of a weak and selfish man who cannot cope with his loss and has become bitter and completely self-absorbed in his misery. Kamalini too is very good in a role that captures well how many women become trapped by their circumstances. She threatens Arul with divorce but at the same time still loves her husband and tries very hard to be as supportive as she can. However, Arul’s alcoholism and refusal to move beyond his own self-pity makes it difficult to Yazhini to see any other recourse other than to leave, taking their daughter with her. The dialogues between the two are excellent, and the sense of frustration and despair from both Arul and Yazhini underpins every scene. As the story unfolds, it’s Yazhini who emerges as the winner, able to change and adapt she moves on with her life while Arul is stuck in the same self-destructive pattern. Even after going to rehab, his selfish nature has not changed and everything is still about getting his film released – even losing his wife isn’t enough of a jolt to dislodge him from the familiar rut of self-pity and single-minded focus on his film above all else.

Michael (Vijay Sethupathi) grown up with Arul and Jagan and considers them as family with Arul as his best friend. He is in love with a young widow Malar (Pooja Dewariya) but she has no interest in anything other than a physical relationship and rejects his proposals of marriage. Malar is an interesting character – she is a woman who knows what she wants and is not bothered about societies perception of her behaviour, but I felt that there was something rather contrived about her character and despite Pooja’s best efforts, Malar didn’t quite ring true for me compared to the other characters.

When Michael’s parents arrange a marriage with Ponni he callously informs her on their wedding night that he has been forced into the marriage and can never be the man of her dreams. Her female relatives advise her that this is usually the case, but that Michael will change with marriage, however when Ponni tries to engage with Michael he shuts her out at every opportunity. In almost every scene with Michael or Ponni there are background details or snippets of dialogue which seem to foreshadow their relationship. When it seems that Ponni’s preganancy might be the turning point in their relationship, Michael is arrested and sent to prison, leaving Ponni to deliver and bring up her baby by herself. It’s again brilliantly written to illustrate the effect on Ponni as the happy-go-lucky school girl is transformed into a weary and accepting mother, managing to cope as best she can. Anjali is fantastic throughout and the dialogue again is perfectly written to illustrate the difficulties of women in what is a fairly typical relationship, no matter where in the world or whatever the cultural background. Vijay Sethupathi is on top form too as a man who is easily led by his friends and finds it difficult to admit to mistakes, even though at heart he isn’t a bad person.

The third character in the story is less successful, and Bobby Simha never quite manages to make his Jagan as believable as the other two. Jagan is jealous of Michael as he loves Ponni himself and decides to do something about it when he sees her distress when Michael goes to jail. Ponni’s reaction is certainly not what I expected in a film, but it is what could happen in real life, whereas Jegan’s monologues about the oppression of women and the evils of society seem more filmi and contrived than likely to occur in reality. However, Jagan does give an interesting contrast to the other two men, and is a more typical film character while providing the overlying story of artefact theft and deception against which the various relationships are all developed.

The story meanders about haphazardly while establishing the main characters and displaying their motivations. There are repeated themes and foreshadowing of events to come, but the final outcome is difficult to predict and the twists along the way are unexpected and genuinely surprising. What stands out are the individual performances from S.J Surya, Vijay Sethupathi, Kamalinee Murkharjee and Anjali, all of whom are superb. There is able support from all the other actors including a restrained appearance from Karunakaran as Arul’s friend Ramesh. The background music from Santhosh Narayanan is effective and the songs good, although in general these don’t add anything to the film. Sivakumar Vijayan’s cinematography is outstanding, often using the lighting to heighten the drama while ensuring that every scene is perfectly arranged for maximum impact.

Karthik has payed exquisite attention to detail, and the set-up and execution of every scene is beautifully planned to deliver maximum impact. On repeated watching, the small details start to emerge and the links between events become clearer. It’s a film that actually becomes better the second and third time around and I suspect that every time I watch Iraivi there will be another detail I missed the first time. It’s not perfect however; the film is long and some of the diversions taken don’t add anything worthwhile to the story, while despite starting off well, the female characters start to lose some of their definition and eventually only react to the actions of the men. It’s still an intriguing film and one I highly recommend for a different look at relationships between men and women. 4½ stars.