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!

2.0

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Shankar’s 2.0 is an amazing visual spectacle with incredible special effects and jaw-dropping action, but despite all the thousands of Rajinikanths, clouds of flying mobile phones and an unusually charismatic Akshay Kumar as the villain of the piece, it fails to fully impress due to a garbled and, at times, dull story. Not that the lack of a credible story really matters for a large-scale Superstar movie, but the transition between one incredible VFX scene to another really needed some sort of rationale to develop a relationship with the characters and bring in some suspense. And 2.0 just doesn’t have that connection. No matter how good Rajinikanth and Akshay Kumar are in their roles, or how truly magnificent the visual effects are, at the end of the day for me the film needs a little more soul.

The film opens with mobile phones suddenly gaining a life of their own and zooming off into the sky all over Tamil Nadu. These opening sequences are excellent as Shankar shows just how pervasive mobile phone use is, including the moment when we see an entire family all staring at their phones just as the father announces that of course he spends quality time with his family. Everyone is here – those obsessed with taking selfies, people using their phone for work, for family connections, even one man using a mobile phone as a plaything for his child, and it for a time it seems that Shankar might be making a statement about overuse of mobile phones. But it’s not that simple.

Naturally Chennai is thrown into total chaos by the “great mobile phone disappearance” but the problems are only just beginning. A massive cloud of mobile phones transforms into a bird’s talons and starts ripping cell towers out of the ground, prominent mobile carrier company owners are attacked and a gigantic bird, formed out of mobile phones starts attacking people in the streets. This is seriously inventive stuff, and Shankar has allowed his imagination free rein to create magnificent visuals that really are spectacular, while the fast-paced action just never stops.

Dr Vaseegaran (Rajinikanth) is aided this time round by an android called Nila (Amy Jackson) whose body proportions are reminiscent of a Barbie doll, but who does at least get the chance to show off her superhuman skills in the battle against the villain, Pakshi Rajan (Akshay Kumar). Pakshi Rajan is an eminent ornithologist who ends up suiciding after he fails in his attempts to stop the radiation from mobile phones killing off his beloved birds. Thanks to ‘negative energy’ and all those dead birds, he somehow transforms into an entity capable of animating mobile phones, and sets out to destroy the humans who have caused all the problems in the first place. There is a flashback sequence that paints Pakshi Rajan as an environmental hero with Akshay Kumar playing him as an old, broken man who wears baggy cardigans and weeps for a dead sparrow – so naturally he’s a more sympathetic character than the self-absorbed Dr Vaseegaran. And that’s part of the problem I have with the entire film. Dr Vaseegaran seems to simply want to bring Chitti back to life, and show off his new-fangled invention to save the day, while Pakshi Rajan has a legitimate issue and a real crusade that’s easy to support. So, when Chitti arrives on the scene, it actually appears that he’s fighting on the wrong side since Pakshi Rajan doesn’t come across as a bad guy until much later.

Thankfully when the 2.0 reboot Chitti takes over, his swagger and snappy dialogue helps lift the second half, ably helped by the excellent visuals and inventive ways that a cell phone can be used to kill. Pakshi Rajan develops a villain-worthy sneer and his casual disregard for the thousands of people who end up having to dodge bullets and large pieces of football stadium during the finale does start to make him seem a least a bit nastier. Team Chitti though has an equal disregard for bystanders and finally pulls a stunt with pigeons that’s even more vicious than all of Pakshi Rajan’s gory killings. That has the effect of making Pakshi Rajan actually seem more moral than Team Chitti despite his murderous tendencies. To try and compensate, the last scene makes some attempt to promote Pakshi Rajan’s cause while still chastising him for killing so many people, but it just doesn’t work, although the final action sequences are brilliantly done.

I’m not usually a fan of Akshay Kumar, but he is impressive here and he does an excellent job of humanising Pakshi Rajan and giving him an almost plausible reason to attack mobile phones. I also appreciated his bird-like mannerisms when he transforms into a giant birdman and his dedication to the role by using feathers for eyebrows. For the most part he simply screams at the camera in bird form, but during the flashback sequence he does display the demeanour and despair of a broken man very well.

Rajinikanth is on screen for most of the film in one or more of his different characters – Dr Vaseegaran, Chitti or 2.0. He is as charismatic as ever in every appearance, although Dr Vaseegaran is even more annoyingly self-absorbed here than he was in Endhiran. Despite playing a robot, as Chitti and his alter ego 2.0, Rajinikanth gets to display plenty of personality and each time he appears he brings life and energy to the screen. Thankfully the annoying Sana only appears as a whingey voice over the phone this time round, while the rest of the cast only appear briefly, either to be killed by Pakshi Rajan or as part of the government trying to cope with the crisis. Sudhanshu Pandey appears as Dhinendra Bohra, the son of Bohra from Endhiran, but this seems to be a real wasted opportunity and his character isn’t well utilised despite a promising start.

I’m not sure exactly what Shankar was trying to say here – if indeed he was trying to say anything at all. Could this be a film against mobile phones and the way they have come to take over our lives? Is there really an environmental message here about radiation and the dangers purportedly associated with cell towers? It’s all rather muddled and the emotional back-story for the villain doesn’t help matters either. However, as an all-out action adventure 2.0 works well enough. A.R. Rahman’s music is used sparingly throughout the film, although there is one montage song and a dance track over the end titles, which is fun. Thanks to Rekhs for the excellent subtitles (in yellow too, so very readable) and kudos to cinematographer Nirav Shah for making the regular shots just as good as the VFX. Yes, most of the money has been spent on the effects in this film, and little on the screenplay, but given the end result I’d say overall it’s money well spent. I didn’t see the 3-D version, but even in 2-D the effects are simply superb and for that alone the film really does need to be seen in the cinema. For the rest, Rajinikanth is excellent, Akshay Kumar totally nails being a murderous birdman, Amy Jackson does well as an animated robot, and best of all with this plot, no-one was using their cell-phone during the show. That’s definitely a win!

Kaala (2018)

Kaala

As with his previous film Madras, Pa. Ranjith is out to deliver a message and the fact that he has Superstar Rajinikanth on board is almost irrelevant. The film is all about the politics of land clearance in the slums of Mumbai and the population of Dharavi who rise in revolt against unscrupulous developers. Where Pa Ranjith does make use of Rajinikanth’s star power is to emphasise Kaala’s role as ‘King of Dharavi’ (presumably only the Tamil-speaking part) and he adds just enough slow-motion walking and villain tossing to keep fans happy. But for the most part this is a story about people power and that makes it rather more interesting than the usual Superstar-centric flick. Best of all Rajinikanth plays an age-appropriate character who has a touching romance with his (relatively) age-appropriate wife, Selvi (Eswari Rao) while reminding us just how good Rajinikanth is as an actor.

Karikaalan (Rajinikanth) aka Kaala is the ageing leader of the slums who is pushed to defend his area from developers out to make Mumbai ‘Pure’ and beautiful. Once a gangster, he’s now a family man, and his introduction shows him playing cricket with his grandchildren and enjoying life at home. There are many domestic touches; Kaala’s relationship with his wife, the pet dog that follows him everywhere, and the rather more problematic relationship be has with his youngest son, but when it counts, Kaala still has the power to stop the bulldozers in their tracks when they show up to develop the dhobi ghat. He’s ably assisted by his eldest son Selvam (Dileepan) who dives straight into action and never lets dialogue get in the way of a good scrap, and his many loyal followers who believe that Kaala is still the ultimate authority in the area. On the other hand, his son Lenin (Manikandan) is an activist who prefers demonstration and petitions to direct action along with his girlfriend Charumathi (Anjali Patil). Manikandan is excellent and his portrayal of the frustrations with trying to fight a legal but slow and difficult battle against the background of his father and brother’s illegal but successful campaigns is brilliantly done. Anjali Patil stands out too as a force to be reckoned with, and her scrappy Charumathi is passionate and vibrant in her defence of the local community.

Opposing Kaala at every turn is corrupt politician Hari Dhadha (Nana Patekar) who is behind the developers plans to clear the land. He’s also a man with incredibly squeaky sandals. I’m not sure if India has the same superstition, but in Ireland squeaky shoes are a sign that they haven’t been paid for, with the implication that the wearer is someone who cannot be trusted. It fits Hari perfectly so I really hope this was intentional and not just a wardrobe glitch!

Dharavi sits on prime real estate and the developers want to rehouse only a small portion of the current residents, while saving the bulk of their redevelopment for the rich who will pay above the odds to live in such a convenient location. Hari and Kaala have a history, which makes their clashes personal, and Pa Ranjith ties their rivalry into the story of Rama and Raavana, but with a twist. Hari may always wear white and live in a house painted white with all white furnishings, but his Rama is a villain with no respect for the common man. Kaala wears black, lives in a house shrouded in shadows with a black settee, but this Raavana is the hero, fighting selflessly for the poor and oppressed who cannot stand up for themselves.

Rajinikanth steps easily into the role of the people’s defender, but what makes his Kaala so impressive is the relatability of the character. Despite his god-like status in the area he is a family man at heart and is simply trying to do his best for everyone. He is still in love with his wife and the scenes with Eswari Rao are brilliantly written to show the depth of their relationship while still allowing the couple to bicker continuously – typical of any long-term couple. The arrival of Kaala’s previous lover Zareena (Huma Qureshi) as a housing development specialist adds spice to the mix and the conflict of emotions from all involved is well worked into the narrative. However, Huma Qureshi’s character isn’t as well developed as that of Selvi and towards the end she’s side-lined just when I was expecting her to take a more prominent role. Zareena is a single mother and there is also an unfinished thread about her daughter which starts and then peters out into nothing, as if Pa Ranjith was so involved with everything else that he forgot to come back and tie off this part of the story.

Kaala also has support from his drunkard brother-in-law Vaaliyappan (Samuthirakani) who has some excellent lines in the second half when Hari successfully enlists police chief Pankaj Patil (Pankaj Tripathi) to burn down part of the slums. Ramesh Thilak also pops up as a reporter who has a more important role to play than first appears, while Sayaji Shinde, Ravi Kale and Sampath Raj are all good in minor roles. One of the best scenes though belongs to Lenin when he visits Charumathi in her building. He’s been campaigning for this type of development to replace the chawls but is dismayed by the endless stairs to climb when the lift is out of order and the over-crowding and lack of personal space in each small flat. It’s an excellent way to show the issues associated with rehousing schemes and the problems caused by squeezing people together into such tiny spaces, although it takes more drastic events before Lenin returns to his father’s side of the argument.

There are some excellent fight scenes although these don’t all feature Rajinikanth. However, the best (and my favourite) involves Kaala with an umbrella in a flyover in the rain. The final showdown in Dharavi is also well shot with excellent use of colour and plenty of symbolism for those who like to spot such stuff. I enjoyed the songs too, although there are a group of rap artists who keep popping up and look rather out of place. Rajinikanth keeps his moves basic and simple in keeping with his character, but he does look well and the choreography generally fits into the ambiance of the movie.

Nana Patekar makes a fantastic villain and is a suitable mix of wily politician and nasty thug throughout. His first scene with Zareena is very well written to portray the misogynistic behaviour so typical of politicians, but this time Pa Ranjith makes a point of letting the audience see exactly how petty and small-minded Hari appears as a result. Unfortunately, Nana’s dubbing isn’t always well done and the timing is out in a few scenes which is distracting. Along the same lines, the subtitles seem to be rather strict translations, which doesn’t always make sense in English and a few scenes suffer as a result.

Kaala is the film I wanted to see from the pairing of Pa Ranjith and Rajinikanth, and I enjoyed this much more than Kabali. There are strong female characters, a good support cast with well realised roles and an excellent performance from the superstar. There are a few glitches but for the most part the story is engaging with a simple message that translates well onto the big screen. Ranjith may prefer to use a wide brush for his political statements, but it’s the small details that work best here along with good use of the support characters. Highly recommended.