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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Tashan

tashan_poster

Tashan is not really a good film. I am at best indifferent to the cast. And yet I have a fondness for the movie that surprises me. Maybe it’s nostalgia for the total masala style, maybe the excellent work by the costume department, or the spectacular locations. But if you need to see a colourful movie that makes you throw popcorn at the screen and at your friends, this could be quite rewarding.

Vijay Krishna Acharya opens his film with Jimmy (Saif Ali Khan) in a car, underwater, and at gunpoint. How he got there takes up the first half. Most of the fun seeing this was the “surely they’re not…oh yes, they did!” moments and laughing at the shenanigans as the cast justify the next big set piece. There is a heavy use of flashbacks and characters speaking directly to the viewer so it heightens the unrealistic and fantastical mood, as do the songs. Jimmy and Pooja (Kareena Kapoor Khan) meet when Bhaiyyaji (Anil Kapoor) hires Jimmy as his English tutor. As Bhaiyyaji mangles every language he knows, Jimmy and Pooja fall in love. There is the matter of Pooja’s debt to Bhaiyajji, but there are also cases full of cash coming to the office every month. Bachchan Pande (Akshay Kumar), is an unhinged hitman hired by Bhaiyyaji. He is told to get Jimmy and Pooja and all manner of double crosses and shenanigans ensue. Who is what they seem, and who can you trust, especially when large sums of money are at stake? Things get complicated. And then everything blows up.

Saif Ali Khan used to be quite appealing when he was the second lead. As a leading man, he is inexplicable. It’s not that he doesn’t try to act, and it’s not just the porno moustache, it seems that his charisma has the depth of a teaspoon. And what is with the red belt he wears for the whole film? He is almost completely superfluous to the second half, yet he clearly refused to go home and just hung around whining until they promised him a big heroic Dhoom style action scene. Jimmy is not heroic though. He is self-serving most of the time, and a sleaze. He didn’t so much evolve as have a character transplant for a few minutes. I think one of the biggest issues is that the only person Saif seemed to have chemistry with was himself. He had a gleam in his eye when talking to himself or direct to camera, which was lacking in ensemble scenes.

Kareena has total commitment to the trout pout but Pooja is an interesting character who does more than pose. She does seem to have a polarising effect on the wardrobe team, or maybe it’s just their special way of showing love. Pooja is manipulative, and she has a clear goal in mind. Her romantic scenes with Jimmy have no spark to speak of, where her crackling chemistry with Bachchan is evident as is their knockabout friendship. Unlike Jimmy, Pooja has lots of layers to her character to reveal. Her contribution to the final fight scene is quite something, and I may have cheered out loud. Nice to see a lady causing the distress and staying ahead of the game.

I feel I ought to like Akshay Kumar more. But I have flashbacks to Tees Maar Khan (one of only two films I have walked out on) and I retrospectively dislike his films I may once have been more tolerant towards. And there is the established Youtube Poker rule that Akshay and a body of water will result in something hideously disturbing. But his Bachchan Pande is the saving grace of this film in so many ways. He is overwhelmingly self-confident, handy in a fight, and not overly complex intellectually or emotionally. And he has an excellent intro scene. Bachchan is also the one character with real principles, so I found myself caring more about what happened to him. Akshay gets lots of action scenes (by Peter Hein so you know, it’s pretty cool) as well as some discombobulated hick comedy, and it suits him down to the ground. And the shoe department agreed his grounding is important – he gets some excellent and flamboyant footwear.

God, I feel for the team that had to remove Anil Kapoor’s pelt. You know there would have been hedge trimmers first, then electric clippers, then waxing. I reckon we’re talking at least a full day of hard labour. My friend interviewed Anil a few years ago and told me ” One of my opening remarks was: “Anil, you have a lot of hair for your age. Is it hair weaving?” He pulled up his jacket like this and I quickly told him I got the drift…” I’m haunted by that anecdote. Anyway, his performance is fun and so over the top it all kind of makes sense. Unlike his outfits. Bhaiyyaji is determined to make it to the big league of dons and never averse to a bit of killing and mayhem along the way. His mangled Hinglish is hilarious and a bit sad as he worships Jimmy’s ability to speak like George Bush or Prince Charlie. Starting out as an urbane businessman he deteriorates into a snarling (shaved) beast, and Anil Kapoor goes all out.

The Vishal-Sekhar songs are what they need to be for a film, and the picturisations range from WTF to delicately lovely, making the most of their spectacular locations. Nothing can really explain “Dil Dance Maare” though. Kareena is more of a gyrate on the spot kind of dancer, and Saif does uncle stomping with a bit of flailing so I didn’t see much value added by Vaibhavi Merchant there, although the backing dancers earn their money.

Tashan is the kind of film that takes off and doesn’t stop until it stops. It’s high on visual impact and the pace never drags. See it if you need a rattling masala timepass, and don’t mind characters breaking laws of the land, laws of logic, and laws of physics. 3 ½ stars!

Son of Satyamurthy

Son of Satyamurthy

After their previous success with Julayi, Allu Arjun and Trivikram are back together again with Son of Satyamurthy. The film features appearances from Ali, Brahmi and most of the Telugu film industry stalwarts, but despite the plethora of comedy uncles, it strives for a more serious tone and is a more traditional family drama. Bunny puts in a restrained performance compared to his earlier films, and it appears that Trivikram has concentrated on character development rather than glitzy glamour and full-on action of most Telugu cinema. The storyline has plenty of potential and I loved the inclusion of villains who are not wholly evil but have the capacity for reformation, but there are a few misses. The film is undermined by the inclusion of a few unnecessary characters that reduce the overall impact and at times the sheer number of protagonists threatens to drown the main storyline. However the central theme of a young man determined to stick to his father’s principles stands strong and Bunny does a fantastic job in a more serious role than usual.

S/o Satyamurthy

Prakash Raj is Satyamurthy; a rich man who is happy to lend money to all and sundry without judgement or seemingly any expectation of repayment. He has strong principles and his values have been absorbed by his family even if they don’t always agree with his open-handed policies. And perhaps they had a point, since Satyamurthy’s sudden death reveals a large amount of debt. The family lose their affluent lifestyle and downsize their house, possessions and expectations when Satyamurthy’s son, Viraj Anand (Allu Arjun), refuses to default on the loans and insists on doing the right thing – as his father would have wanted.

In an odd addition, Vennela Kishore plays Viraj’s older brother who is incapacitated by his father’s death, but as his character is played mainly for laughs (which are never very funny and don’t add anything to the story), there doesn’t seem to be any real need for his inclusion. Similarly, Ali appears as Parandhamayya, some sort of assistant to Viraj in his new job, who is another character who could have been omitted without losing too much from the story. I rarely find Ali’s brand of comedy funny but here he is less slapstick than usual and generally rather muted, so while I can’t see much point to his character at least he is tolerable and occasionally amusing.

Although businessman Sambasiva Rao (Rajendra Prasad) blackballs Viraj, a friend helps by giving Viraj a job as a wedding event manager. Viraj is dumped by his own fiancée when loss of his fortune makes him less desirable as a husband, and naturally his first event is the marriage of his ex, Pallavi (Adah Sharma). This makes Viraj deal with his loss of wealth and prestige fairly early on in the film and also reinforces the contrast between his own morals and those of Pallavi’s rich but dishonest father (Rao Ramesh). In classic filmi style, Viraj manages to reconcile the various family members and in the course of events falls in love with one of the wedding guests. M.S. Narayana appears in his final film appearance here, and it is bitter-sweet to see him in one of his classic drunken uncle roles, especially when his role fits well into the storyline.

Bunny’s Viraj is a sensible and responsible young man and he does a great job of making his character principled without becoming preachy or overly moralistic. The only misstep is his tendency to invoke stories of Hindu Gods that sounds a little odd coming from someone who hadn’t previously demonstrated any evidence of a virtuous attitude. It would have made more sense to me if he’d quoted his father instead, but perhaps that is due to my lack of Telugu and reliance on the subtitles which may not have been too accurate – going by the atrocious spelling as a general guide to overall quality!

Subbalakshmi, aka Sameera (Samantha) is the wedding guest that Viraj takes a fancy to, and to her credit she immediately realises that Viraj is a keeper. In a move away from standard filmi heroines, Sameera is introduced holding a drink and a cigarette, and for some reason she is also a diabetic, although there didn’t seem to be any particular point to this other than as a brief comedy scene. I generally like Trivikram’s approach to his heroines, but he seems to lose interest once he moves on to the action and sadly Samantha disappears for much of the second half. However she is excellent in her role and has great onscreen chemistry with Arjun.  The couple look good together in the songs too, which pepper the first half and allow Bunny to demonstrate why he truly is the ‘stylish star’. There is some annoying hair discontinuity, but since the worst bouffy hair only appears in the songs it’s actually no bad thing that Bunny’s hair length is shorter for the rest of the film.

Rajendra Prasad and Upendra are the other standout performers and they both help bring the film to life. Much of the comedy is between Rajendra and Bunny, and is much funnier than the specific comedy threads with Brahmi and Ali. The two bounce lines off each other to good effect and are really much better than any of the assorted comedy uncles who fall flat in comparison. Upendra appears as the villain of the piece, and is as vicious and violent as required (per Telugu standard bad guy guidelines) but shows a different side when dealing with his wife and sister. He’s an interesting character and Upendra is excellent in the role, switching from demonic goggle-eyed evil one moment to concerned husband the next, but with so much else going on his role isn’t developed as much as I would like. Sneha is also very good as his sweet and serene wife, but Nithya Menen seems a little wasted in her role as a rival for Viraj’s affections. That’s a shame too as her character starts off well with an interesting plan of attack but it’s lost in the hodge-podge of action and Brahmi comedy that makes up the rest of the film.

There is a lot going on in Son of Satyamurthy and it does evoke films of yesteryear with the convoluted storyline, sheer number of characters and focus on honour, values and moral principles. The songs from Devi Sri Prasad aren’t too memorable, but they are well choreographed and smoothly flow into the storyline. Bunny dances better than ever and also looks amazing with Peter Hein’s fight choreography. Interestingly the fights aren’t as brutal and violent as usual (there is a hose as a weapon for instance), but the wirework and acrobatics are outstanding and very effective. I really enjoyed Son of Satyamurthy and although it would have benefitted from fewer characters and less formulaic comedy it’s an entertaining story with some excellent performances. Well worth seeing on the big screen to really appreciate Bunny’s dancing if you can.