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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Thupparivaalan

Thupparivaalan

And he’s back! Mysskin has returned with a murder/mystery thriller which has more commercial elements than his previous films Yutham Sei and Anjathey, but still features plenty of his distinctive style. Thupparivaalan has more than a passing nod to the recent Sherlock Holmes films and Mysskin acknowledges these influences in his opening credits, but this is still a very Indian take on the detective genre. Vishal is excellent as the quirky investigator trying to solve the mystery of a dead dog, but Prasanna is just as good as the trusty sidekick, while the twists and turns of the story keep the film engaging right to the end. This still isn’t your standard mass fare despite some excellent fight scenes and the odd explosion or two, so expect to engage those little grey cells while enjoying the overall spectacle.

The film opens with a couple of quick deaths before switching to a frenetic Kaniyan Poongundran (Vishal) dashing around his apartment in a tizz as he hasn’t had an engrossing case for a while. Kani has a distinctive sense of style that extends from his fashion sense to the furnishing of his apartment. One wall is a huge bookshelf and there are copies of paintings by Vermeer and Degas that work their way into the narrative, while the wing chairs and comfy sofas evoke images of English country homes and roaring fireplaces. Kani himself doesn’t step outside without his cravat and jaunty cap, but it’s not just what he wears, but his movements and decisive walk that are part of his overall look. Kaniyan has principles too – he knocks back a huge fee for finding a businessman’s lost daughter as he reasons out what has happened and thinks the father will react badly to her return. Instead he accepts a commission from a young boy who brings his pocket-money to fund an investigation into the death of his pet dog.

It’s not long before Kani has linked the dead dog to the murders from the opening scenes, and along with his associate Manohar (Prasanna) he cajoles, bribes and deceives his way to the information he needs. Eventually the police invite him on to the case and with their help Kani and Mano start to find a more devious plot than they first imagined.

Mysskin still has an obsession with feet, and many of the shots are from ground level, but to add a new perspective, Kani has a height obsession and prefers to sit at the top of his bookcase ladder. As always with Mysskin films the staging and dressing of each scene are just as important as the protagonists and the action taking place. At one point Kani and Mano speak to Mrs Dhivakar (Simran) whose husband and young son were killed by a lightning strike and we see her in profile reflected in a mirror that’s reflected in a mirror and so on. It’s a poignant view of her pain that is very effective, and this is just one brief moment in a film filled with such insights. There are layers upon layers and I know it will take repeated viewings to pick up every detail Mysskin has managed to place throughout the movie.

There is a sort of romance too. Mano falls foul of some pickpockets in a subway that ends up with Kani taking them on as a kind of project. The eldest is Mallika (Anu Emmanuel) who is trying to look out for the rest of her siblings and protect them from an abusive uncle. In a shockingly brutal scene Kani employs Mallika as a housekeeper, and it’s hard to decide if her smile after being thrown to the floor is because she is accepting of the abuse or because she understands the implication of Kani’s strong reaction to her presence. However, Mallika’s green tea isn’t any more acceptable to Kani than Mano’s attempts and while Mallika obviously has feelings for Kani, he doesn’t reciprocate until it’s too late. Perhaps as compensation Mysskin adds a strong female character on the other side (Andrea Jeremiah), who is intolerant of harassment and perfectly capable of fighting her own battles, and for the most part Kani’s treatment of Mallika is no different to how he treats the rest of the world.

The villains in this case are a particularly nasty group of assassins for hire led by the uncompromising Devil (Vinay). Over breakfast it’s casually revealed that there is a body in the fridge, while Mysskin adds beautiful soaring violin music to a scene where Devil uses a chainsaw to dissect a corpse. I also wondered about the significance of Devil’s choice of beverage as coffee, which always appears drinkable, compared to Kani’s green tea which rarely seems acceptable. Such are the thoughts that go with any Mysskin film where every small detail may be important. Or possibly not – and that’s what keeps you hooked every time!

The gang’s actions are chilling, mainly due to the matter of fact and almost casual approach to their brutality, and their lack of emotion as they carry out their crimes. They kill a child with no apparent remorse, the death of Muthu (K. Bhagyaraj) is particularly grotesque and a scene that involves seppuku is frighteningly authentic. In contrast, Kani and Mano have a warm friendship despite Kani often racing ahead of Mano in the deductive process, and neither are afraid to make mistakes in their search for answers or become emotionally involved in the outcome.

The action too is well executed. There are a number of fight scenes that mainly feature hand to hand fighting but here again Mysskin veers away from the norm. In a restaurant brawl, none of the tables or chairs are broken despite the knife-wielding assassins being thrown around the room. Another in an abandoned room with hanging shreds of fabric is as beautiful as any choreographed ballet with clever use of the space. The final scenes though are gory enough for any SI film aficionado, but here too Mysskin ensures there is a puzzle that needs to be solved before we can reach the final climax.

The film focuses heavily on the lead pair of Vishal and Prasanna and they work brilliantly together – just as well as Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional Holmes and Watson. Mysskin has caught the nuances of Holmes/Watson relationship perfectly here and the two actors buy into it superbly. There is emotion, comedy, drama and plenty of excitement as they work together, with Kani always that ten steps ahead of his friend. Vinay is an effective antagonist too, and he delivers an excellent performance as a heartless killer for hire. The rest of the cast, including such veterans as Jayaprakash and Thalaivasal Vijay, all fit well into their roles with John Vijay particularly good as the sleazy Kamalesh. Anu Emmanuel doesn’t have a big role to play but she manages to give her character a reasonable presence in the limited amount of screen time she has and generally does a good job. Everything else is as meticulously crafted as expected with excellent cinematography from Karthik Venkatraman showing a keen eye for the detail of each scene. There are no songs in the film but the background music from Arrol Corelli is evocative and fits well with the narrative without overpowering the action.

Thupparivaalan is an excellent return to form for Mysskin and I’m really hoping that it’s the start of a franchise of Kani and Mano films as recently reported. Although Vishal produced the film, this is definitely Mysskin’s show and he’s managed to deliver a rather more commercial film without losing any of his trademark style. This is stylish, clever and packed full of detail while still remaining a visual feast. I really enjoyed Thupparivaalan and thoroughly recommend watching for Vishal, Prasanna and trademark Mysskin style.

Mrugaraju

Gunasekhar’s film is a remake of the Ghost and the Darkness – but with Mega Heroics instead of Val Kilmer grimacing. Having seen both (not very good) films, this is actually my pick of the bunch. It makes no sense, the sound team may have been drunk, and everyone forgets about the lion far more than they should. But Simran and Chiranjeevi are good, the songs are fun, and it just never lets anything (particularly geography) get in the way.

Aishwarya (Simran) volunteers to take over a bridge building project that has come to a standstill following a number of lion attacks. Raju (Chiranjeevi) is the legendary forest guide and sharpshooter hired to keep the workers safe. Eventually we find out that Raju and Aishwarya had been married and that sparks a long lion-free flashback to explain their back story. Aishwarya thinks he deserted her knowing she was knocked up and he can’t believe he has a kid (in a happy way). So he sings a sad little song that has the effect of luring his daughter out into the night and towards almost certain death. Will they get back together? Will the lion kill again? Will anyone ever finish that bridge?

I liked that Aishwarya started out as a practical professional woman. Her character is on the receiving end of a lot of unfortunate comedy uncle buffoonery and sexist remarks from Raju. Simran plays Aishwarya as pleasant but firm, and she wasn’t afraid of confrontation. She realised her fiancé Vicky was an arse and at her own engagement ceremony, strode down the aisle and asked Raju to marry her. Good move! But because you can’t have The Heroine on an equal footing with The Hero, many of her skills failed to manifest at crucial times. And her lion catching plan is in MS Paint. I don’t think anyone on the crew consulted an engineer about what good construction looked like (surely half the crew WERE engineers?). I’m not sure about Aishwarya wearing beaded chiffon sarees around camp either, but each to their own. She has nice chemistry with Chiranjeevi and does her best with the stupid screenplay.

Raju is a fairly straightforward good guy character but Chiru’s acting chops drew out the emotional tension in some of his scenes with Simran. Of course he could beat up packs of drug dealers with one hand behind his back, poachers better beware, and he always knows best. But for a renowned hunter he was frankly hopeless. They come up with a plan to have Rajanna up on a platform, with a baboon tied to a tree nearby as bait. Aishwarya startled an eagle which knocked Raju to the ground, just as the lion shows up. I really wish they’d watched a proper wildlife doco or two. He was too chatty and smoked incessantly so ensured the lions knew exactly where he was, he dropped his gun ALL THE TIME (a strap? Did anyone think of a strap?), seemed constantly surprised by animal behaviour, and his clever plans resulted in several unnecessary deaths. He apparently had a no-kill policy which is laudable, but then he wore so many animal teeth I had to wonder. The action scenes range from standard fights to more complex stunts and Chiru throws himself into it all with vim and vigour (and a bit of overacting).

Chiru really shines in the songs, which is hardly a surprise, and they are highlights of this inconsistent adaptation. It was odd but not unpleasant hearing Udit Narayan sing for him in Aley Ley Aley Ley as I tend to associate his voice with SRK. And yes, Chiru provided the vocals for Chai Chai in a spirited Sprechgesang.

Nagendra Babu is a tribal man supervising the villagers work. He and Raju have a lion claw type gesture in place of a bro fist. At one moment that was supposed to be emotional I was shouting “He’s gonna do the hands” and he did and I laughed and then I felt bad but hey…It’s like lots of things in this film, under thought and over used. But I always like seeing Naga Babu as a good guy sidekick. I just wish he didn’t have to die so often.

Prakash Raj and Kovai Sarala are Raju’s befeathered parents. They love their boy and have faith in their tribe’s way of life. And they ham it up at every opportunity. Anyone who can overact when their character is dead really needs to take look at themselves. But they’re not alone. Brahmi is a Hindi speaking doofus who adds nothing. MS Narayana dressed up as a bear to scare Aishwarya, only to have a real (man in a suit) bear drag him away with, er, romantic intent…Jeez. I understand the traditional requirement of a comedy track but it doesn’t sit well against what could have been a suspenseful action oriented story.

Where this bridge is located is debatable. While all the people speak Telugu, the government departments seem to be Indian, and the place names are Indian there is a sizeable population of giraffes, along with a few rhinos and those pesky lions. The “tribal” people don’t help with narrowing down the continent either. The cultural appropriation extended to Australia as Raju also wielded a very sharp edged boomerang. There is so much geographic inconsistency – are they in a jungle or grassy plains, where did those mountains come from and why are they so easy for a toddler to climb up and back down again…

The lions were very diverting. Due to shonky CGI and changing perspectives they sometimes appeared to be hippo sized, then sometimes like a small terrier. Seeing what looked like a tiny lion speeding by with galloping pony sound effects – hilarious. I also liked the lion strolling along a log made to look like it was climbing a tree. Very 1960’s Batman. There were some stuffed lions too. I think I paid more attention to the lions than most people in the film. Aishwarya spends a lot of time wandering around the long grass looking picturesque and edible, and Raju spends more time singing motivational songs than actually being on task.

I was also reunited with an old friend – the jungle bunny. Aishwarya nearly shoots a fluffy white rabbit thinking it is a lion, but it fakes death until revived by Chiru breathing on it. And then in what may be an act of rabbit revenge, local glamour girl Sivangi (Sanghavi) chases a fluffy white bunny that leads her into the lions’ den; a cave filled with skulls and bones. I reckon either the rabbits are in cahoots with the lions or they are the real evil masterminds.

Mruga Raju is not a very good film, Gunasehar lacked focus and the execution is clumsy. But Chiru is very appealing (once Raju eases off the sexist BS), and Simran is a good partner. It plays a lot better with judicious use of the FF button, but the songs are worth a watch. 3 stars!