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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Theri (2016)

 

Theri Poster

After taking on the plight of farmers in Kaththi, Vijay tackles the topical issues of rape and violence against women in Atlee’s latest film Theri. The dash of social awareness is added in to a familiar story where a once tough and capable man is forced to live a quiet and peaceful existence after suffering a great loss, before being forced to take up the reins of his old life again. Sure, it’s predictable, but Atlee breathes a modicum of life into the well worn storyline and adds enough seasoning to ensure Theri is an engaging and entertaining enough watch.

The film opens with a nerdy Joseph Kuruvilla (Vijay) running a bakery in Kerala while looking after his young daughter Nivi (Baby Nainika). Rather incongruously he’s helped in his endeavours by Rajendran (Rajendran) who looks nothing at all like a baker, while Joseph’s unassuming persona seems very un-Vijay-like. However all is soon explained when the film moves into flashback mode to detail Joseph’s previous life as ruthless and efficient cop DCP Vijay Kumar and Rajendran as his driver.

Some years previously Vijay Kumar investigated the case of a gang-rape victim and took the law into his own hands when he found the culprit – the son of minister Vanamaamalai (J. Mahendran). In revenge, Vanamaamalai kills Vijay’s wife Mithra (Samantha) and his mother (Raadhika Sarathkumar), and believes he has killed Vijay and his daughter as well. However Vanamaamalai doesn’t follow the maxim that if you want something done properly you should do it yourself and Vijay escapes with his daughter to a life of anonymity in Kerala. Living as meek and mild-mannered Joseph Kuruvilla though doesn’t come naturally, so it’s no surprise that Vijay’s cover is blown and Vanamaamalai discovers the truth, leading to the inevitable final showdown between the two.

There is a lot that works well in Theri, but there are also a few aspects that don’t. Atlee has done a good job of revitalising the story, but there are few surprises and each step along the way is almost exactly as expected. However, there is a sweet romance between Vijay and Mithra which is well developed and doesn’t quite follow the usual conventions. Samantha too has a better role than most Tamil heroines, Mithra is more than just a decorative love interest and has an important part to play in the story. She has strong opinions of her own, and also commands her husband’s respect since it’s at her request that Vijay buries his desire for revenge and concentrates on ensuring his daughter’s well-being. One of my favourite scenes in the film is when Mithra has a conversation with Vijay’s mother which doesn’t involve the hero, or her wish to be a good wife/mother/daughter-in-law.  Although the content is overly emotional and it’s a very filmi moment, I like the way this scene makes Mithra her own person and not simply an extension of the hero. Samantha is excellent in her role, convincing even when she practically comes back from the dead to make her final plea to Vijay and as always she looks gorgeous throughout.

My biggest problem with the flashback sequence, and in fact the film in general, is the songs. They are particularly frustrating in the first half when they suddenly appear from nowhere and add no real value to the storyline. Not that the songs always have to move the story forward to be worthwhile, but here they have little impact other than to pause the action and don’t even have the benefit of a catchy tune or outstanding choreography to make their inclusion palatable. About the best thing I can say is that they are very colourful – very, very colourful in some cases, and Vijay is competent even if he doesn’t get the chance to bust out too many impressive moves. Eena Meena Teeka is a little better as Baby Nainika is very cute and along with Vijay she hams it up for the camera nicely, but I expect better from a Vijay film!

I have long suspected that Vijay has access to a time machine since as he is as young-looking as ever, even when gleefully bashing goons heads into various parts of a building, and impressively athletic in the action scenes. As Vijay Kumar he appears strong, confident and powerful, but allows a softer side to show during the romance scenes. However, he’s a little less successful as Joseph Kuruvilla, perhaps because docile Vijay seem to be against the natural order of things. He is good in the scenes with Baby Nainika and plays the part of a devoted father well, but very awkward with Amy Jackson in her role as Nivi’s school teacher. That may be because Amy herself looks incredibly ill at ease in a dreadful wig, while her character is so under-developed it takes some time to realise that there is actually a romance developing between the two! I can’t decide if Amy Jackson is just incredibly wooden here, or if her terrible portrayal is due to inadequate writing of her character, but whatever the reason this is the worst performance I’ve seen from her so far.

The support cast are all good. Baby Nainika is cute and appealing, without being too bratty when she demonstrates that she has a tough side too. Mahendran is great on the other side of the camera and is a credible adversary for Vijay, mainly because he is so very normal in every aspect. Like many rich men in politics, he has a sense of privilege and a belief that his wealth gives him a right to power and to do whatever he wants. He has no affectations or megalomaniacal schemes which makes him all the more chilling and a very plausible villain. I always feel a film is improved with the addition of some Rajendran and along with Vijay he provides most of the comedy in the film.

Although the story of Theri isn’t particularly original and Vijay as a cop is also nothing that hasn’t been seen many times before, there is enough action and drama to make the film an entertaining watch. The addition of a stronger female role in Mithra is a bonus and Atlee deserves praise for adding in a child actor without making her cloyingly sweet and too good to be true. The action scenes are all well shot and choreographed, and the film comes together well with a satisfying conclusion and well executed revenge. I would have preferred better songs and no romance with Nivi’s teacher but otherwise I enjoyed Theri and recommend watching for Vijay, Samantha and Mahendran.