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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Thiruda Thiruda

thiruda thiruda poster

Thiruda Thiruda is a 1993 action film from Mani Ratnam that follows the exploits of two thieves when they inadvertently become involved in a major bank robbery. It’s a real ‘action’ film as almost every scene involves either a fight or a chase of some kind (using nearly every single kind of transport you can imagine), and the heroes are always on the move. At almost 3 hours, the film is rather long, but there is so much happening on screen that it’s an entertaining if not completely edge-of-your-seat watch. However the real reason to watch the film is the excellent music from A.R. Rahman which mixes opera, disco and electronic music with more traditional themes to give one of his best and most interesting movie soundtracks.

The film starts with the printing of new bank notes, destined to be sent all over India in specialised containers that require a computer card to gain access. For added security the containers also require a password, but since this is printed on the computer card, there may not be quite the level of protection the Finance Department think they’ve achieved. The card looks more like a plastic credit card than the key to a sophisticated locking system, but maybe it looked like modern technology back in 1993 and does mean it’s easily transferred between the various thieves. The card is also amazingly impervious to damage and works even after prolonged submersion in water – that does also apply to the truck carrying the money and the container full of money too though so perhaps it’s the water that has the special properties!

Criminal mastermind T. T. Vikram (Salim Ghouse) has various lackeys in India who steal the money for him, but his chief accomplice Ashok (Ajay Ratnam) is quickly apprehended and arrested by CBI chief Laxminarayana (S. P. Balasubramaniam), prompting a rather juvenile temper tantrum from the boss. However after an unpromising start, Salim Ghouse settles into the role of evil mastermind and enjoys himself immensely as he executes people who displease him after he heads to India to find his money. I like that his gang mange to arrange themselves artistically before starting to menace their targets and even the initial robbery is carried off with precise timing and a pleasing display of acrobatic moves on a moving train.

Before his arrest, Ashok manages to send the vital computer card and a cryptic message to singer Chandralekha (Anu Agarwal) who skips out before the CBI manage to arrest her too. Meanwhile petty crooks Kathir (Anand) and Azhagu(Prashanth) are on the run from the police after looting a safe belonging to one of the rich men in their village. During the robbery they stop Rasathi (Heera Rajagopal) from committing suicide, but rather than being grateful she decides to go with them to reclaim her share of the jewellery they have stolen.  Kathir and Azhagu don’t want to be burdened with a village girl so they unsuccessfully try to dump Rasathi, until they learn that she is escaping from an unwanted marriage with her uncle and become sympathetic to her plight.

The unlikely trio cross paths with Chandralekha and get drawn into the race to find the money while trying to stay one step ahead of the law and simultaneously avoid T.T. Vikram and his merry band of thugs. Things move along quickly with a little romance and some attempt at comedy, but mainly there are chase sequences (many, many chase sequences), as Kathir, Azhagu and Rasathi escape from the police, Rasathi’s uncle and his henchmen, the CBI and Vikram and his gang, although not all at the same time. Mostly these are well choreographed with bicycles, motorbikes, cars, horses, buses, trucks, trains and even elephants being used at some point or another, while the art of disguise and misdirection are also used to good effect.

The action sequences ensure that the film keeps moving along at a fast pace, which may be why the various characters are relatively under developed and the script somewhat lacking at times. Kathir and Azhagu should have had an easy camaraderie given that they are two thieves who have been working together since childhood, but here their relationship is clunky. This is particularly noticeable when a love triangle develops between the two thieves and Rasathi and there is little rapport or emotion during their scenes together. It may be the fault of the subtitles but the dialogue between the two is also awkward and fails to deliver the idea of two great buddies out to con the world together.

Heera Rajagopal is much better as Rasathi and even manages a bonding session with the sophisticated Chandralekha which gives Anu Agarwal the chance to make her character more sympathetic than she first appears. Despite her overdone entry scene, I really liked Heera and her portrayal of Rasathi. Every time I felt she was in danger of becoming a typical heroine, moping around and waiting for someone else to save the day, she actually got up and did something about her situation instead. Anu’s Chandraleka was also a much stronger character than anticipated and although the two female leads have less to do than the men, they give the film some much needed shading and depth. S.P Balasubramaniam is in fine form as the CBI officer chasing after the thieves, and fares better than the leads as far as characterisation goes. He has more of a back story and shows good rapport with his co-workers while showing off his excellent interviewing skills. His Laxminarayanan is one of the more interesting characters along with Malaysia Vasudevan as the police inspector, while Ajay Ratnam, Madan Bob and the rest all provide good solid support throughout.

The music really is the stand out performer in Thiruda Thiruda and A.R. Rahman changes from full chorus and orchestral score for the big production numbers to the evocative and very effective a capella song Rasathi, and pretty much everything in between. The mixture of Western and Indian music works well here and it’s probably my favourite Rahman soundtrack just because it is so varied. The accompanying cinematography from P.C. Sreeram is also excellent and the staging of the songs ensures each fits fluidly into the storyline. This is probably my favourite though – a lovely song, beautifully sung by Shahul Hameed with simple but powerful picturisation.

While there are a many Indian films that feature bank robberies, I haven’t seen many that follow this style of heist caper more typical of Hollywood films. It doesn’t work as well as it should due to the lack of rapport between the two male leads, but the various chase sequences are fun to watch and the storyline does have a few reasonable plot twists. For a film that does have so much action, there isn’t much suspense but the characters are likeable, the songs enjoyable and overall the film does entertain. Worth watching for the songs, Heera Rajagopal and S.P Balasubramaniam. 3 ½ stars.

Thiruda Thiruda

Midhunam (2012)

Midhunam Poster Over the past few years of watching Telugu films I’ve seen Tanikella Bharani on-screen in many roles, but most usually as the sensible father or responsible authority figure providing support to the hero or heroine. He appears as such a natural actor and fits those roles so well that I was surprised to find out that he is also an accomplished writer, dramatist, poet and now film director. In Midhunam, Tanikella Bharani has adapted a short story by Sri Ramana, writing the screenplay and dialogue and also directing the film. It’s a lovely little story about an elderly couple living alone in the country that focuses on relationships and shows that love doesn’t fade with the passing of time. It’s rather unusual in that there are only two actors for the whole two hours, and the film concentrates on their day to day activities and interactions without any momentous dramas or major events. It’s beautifully done, and is well worth a watch for a well-drawn picture of a happy marriage and a glimpse of rural life.

Appadaasu (S.P Balasubrahmanyam) and his wife Buchchi (Lakshmi) live by themselves on a small farm in the country. They have five grown up children who have moved to the USA but who keep in contact with their parents by phone. The couple seem to prefer their solitude and isolation, with Appadaasu shouting at a persistent caller who keeps knocking on his door, and yelling at his son down the phone when he calls unexpectedly. Buchchi on the other hand does seem to miss her children, but doesn’t have any wish to move away from her home despite the hard work it takes to keep everything maintained. She keeps a mobile phone hidden in one of her pots in the kitchen to talk to her children without her husband’s interference, although this seems more to be a way of outfoxing her husband rather than actually something that is completely necessary.

The couple squabble incessantly about literally everything, but their arguments seem to be more as a result of knowing each other too well and being very comfortable with each other rather than from any genuine acrimony. They are like small children, pushing at each other until they get a reaction, but not taking any of it too seriously. It feels comfortable and natural, just like any married couple after a number of years together. There is also a lot of laughter as they play tricks on each other and each tries to get the upper hand. Buchchi seems to be the more sensible one but she strands her husband on a top shelf by removing the ladder so that she can make coconut chutney in peace, and teases him later on by dressing a scarecrow in his clothes. Their love for each other shines through all of the bickering and teasing, and is the central thread around which everything else is woven.

Appadaasu is a man who takes his food seriously and much of the film is either about growing food, the preparation of food or eating.

The couple harvest everything they need from their farm, and they have impressive crops which do look very appetising. In fact the major focus on food might be one of the reasons why I enjoyed this film so much! At one point one of the sons proposes that the family come home for a wedding, and Buchchi immediately starts cooking enough food to feed an army. This is accompanied a song which celebrates pickles amongst many other traditional foods and is just mouthwatering!

There is an old radio on the wall and the programs and old songs are incorporated into the film, adding to the story. Both Appadaasu and Buchchi have conversations with their cow Savithri, who is almost a third member of their family and serves as a sounding board for some of Appadaasi’s ideas.  In between all the cooking and eating, Appadaasu expounds his philosophy that retirement from his teaching job doesn’t mean that he doesn’t work. He makes sandals, cleans cotton, throws pots and does a myriad of other tasks that emphasise his practical nature and willingness to do whatever he feels his wife wants. Actually asking and doing what his wife really wants naturally isn’t an option, and Buchchi makes sure that Appadaasu knows when he’s missed the point completely.

S.P.  Balasubrahmanyam is perfect in the role of Appadaasu. He’s cheeky and mischievous but also appears suitably serious when necessary. His expressions are wonderful and he fits the part of a cantankerous but loving husband perfectly. Lakshmi is also well cast as Buchchi and is the ideal partner for S.P. Balasubrahmanyam. The two have great chemistry together and the rhythm of their dialogue sounds as if they really have been together for years. That’s down to some good writing too, but the body language, delivery and tone from both actors ensures that they do appear to have grown old together and are very familiar with each other as a result. The use of older songs helps set the mood of the story, as does the beautiful location and wonderful farmhouse. I’ve just spent a week staying at a farmhouse near Tanjore, and much of the décor was just the same as my own recent experience. The film feels authentic due to this and many other small touches which is part of why it works so well. The cinematography by Rajendra Prasad Tanikella (a relative?) is also outstanding with beautiful use of light during the night scenes and great shots of the farm and surrounds.

This is a sweet film that simply follows the ups and downs of life for an older couple and shows how a marriage might be after more than 50 years together. It’s charming and yet meaningful with the contrast between Appadaasu and Buchchi’s life and the imagined lives of their children overseas just one of the ideas explored. There is jealousy, anger, forgiveness, tenderness, love and sacrifice, all mixing together to add colour and life to the description of a successful partnership and just what that partnership really means. A beautiful film that deserves a wide audience. 4 stars.