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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Maari 2

Balaji Mohan revisits the concept of the bad Don that everyone loves to hate, but this time gives the titular character a best friend and a heart of gold that unfortunately reduce Maari’s onscreen impact. The standard mass formula doesn’t help either and the story feels tired despite attempts to refresh it with Sai Pallavi as Maari’s love interest and Krishna Kulasekaran as bestie Kalai. Still, in terms of generic gangster flick it’s not totally terrible, and there are a few flashes of the ‘old Maari’ while Tovino Thomas is better than the script deserves as the film’s villain. Overall the film is entertaining enough for a one-time watch, but as a sequel Maari 2 doesn’t come close to matching the appeal of the original.

Maari 2 opens well with the 100thassignation attempt on Maari’s life after which the gang celebrate his continued survival in plenty of style with cake and a party. A few years have seemingly passed since the end of the first film, and Maari’s boss Velu has died, leaving the leadership of the gang open. This is where Balaji Mohan adds in the new character of Kalai (Krishna Kulasekaran), the son of Velu and Maari’s best friend since they were both kids. While everyone wants Maari to become the leader (which in itself is a major turnaround from the first film), he proposes Kalai takes charge while he remains in the background.

Maari is seen to be trying to do the right thing, even as he cracks the usual jokes and slaps around his henchmen, Sani (Robo Shankar) and Adithangi (Kalloori Vinoth). Despite the loud shirts, sunglasses and gold chains, this Maari is a totally different character, with one of the biggest changes being the attitudes of the people around him – the only people who hate him now are the rival gangs. Adding to this newfound popularity, Maari has a stalker in the form of auto driver Aanandhi (Sai Pallavi) who refuses to be put off her attempts to coerce Maari into a relationship, despite Maari’s truly appalling treatment. The reason for her devotion is revealed later in the film but appears simply as a blatant attempt to appear feminist-aware and completely misfires given the film’s general attitude towards women and Aanandhi in particular. 

Aanandhi states that she isn’t a “loosu ponnu”, but she veers uncomfortably close while her character initially appears mainly as a butt for numerous jokes. Although Aanandhi tries to give as good as she gets, she’s limited by her determination to make Maari fall in love with her, and as a result does look just like any typical mass film heroine. The hearty demeanour of the character and over-the-top attempts to gain Maari’s attention don’t work well either despite Sai Pallavi doing her best to make her character sympathetic. Where she does shine however is in the songs, and her dancing in Rowdy Baby in particular is simply superb. Her energy is amazing and she matches Dhanush step for step, in some parts even surpassing him for passion and commitment to the routine. Prabhu Deva provides the choreography and ensures that Rowdy Baby is the most memorable song of the film.

Tovino Thomas plays the villain Beeja, aka Thanathos. Although he is first seen in a prison cell, Beeja is portrayed as a more intellectual gangster, speaking in English and using the name of the Greek god of death as his alias. However, he’s still the crazy psychopath Tamil cinema loves to have as a mass villain, since he sports dreadlocks, a gold tooth and has scrawled the words “Kill Maari” all over the walls of his prison cell. No doubts at all then about his plans for the hero. Tovino Thomas is an accomplished actor, and in the first half of the film he does a better than average job of making Beeja a more menacing character than his overdone theatrical traits would suggest. Unfortunately, he is let down by the plodding dialogue and nonsensical storyline in the second half, while the final fight sequence doesn’t do much for either Tovino or Dhanush. The later channels his inner Salman Khan in a rather unnecessary shirtless fight scene, while Tovino’s character rolls over much too easily for someone who has made the death of his opponent his driving force for the last few years.  

Varalaxmi Sarathkumar makes yet another appearance as a respectable member of government, this time as IAS Officer Vijaya Chamundeswariin charge of law and order. It’s a role with a rather similar feel to her last appearance in Sarkar and she really only gets to look stern or concerned in roughly equal measures as she hunts for Maari as a potential witness. The rest of the support cast are fine in equally narrow roles, mostly reprising characters from the first film. Worth a mention is Aranthangi Nisha who has a small comedic role as one of the other auto-drivers also named Aanandhi. Most of the fight scenes are well choreographed by Stunt Silva, but there isn’t anything that stands out as particularly new or innovative. The music too from Yuvan Shankar Raja works well enough within the film, but apart from Rowdy Baby none of the songs are memorable after leaving the cinema. Om Prakash captures the colour and energy of Maari and his sidekicks and I did like his contrasts between the worlds of Maari and Beeja. Both are gangsters in the same area of Chennai, but Maari is always bright while Beeja revels in dark costumes and equally dark lighting.  

While there are a few flashes of the old Maari, for the most part he is a more considerate and thoughtful character this time round. This softening of the character is completed by the romance with Aanandhi and without the ‘gangster everyone loves to hate’ persona as a point of difference from other gangster flicks, Maari 2 is just another mass masala movie. Even Dhanush seems at times to be unsure exactly which role he is supposed to be playing as he switches between callous gangster, the infuriated target of Aanandhi’s advances, caring friend and concerned lover. It’s only in the first of these that Maari 2 really comes to life and these are without doubt the best parts of the film. Further déjà vu comes from numerous references to Rajinikanth films, particularly in the second half, and the overall unlikeliness of the story further reduces the impact of the film. However, if all that you want is a potboiler gangster story with plenty of fight scenes, some good comedy and the odd dance sequence then Maari 2 fulfils all of that and adds just a little bit more. 

Seethakaathi

Seethakaathi

Vijay Sethupathi is known for his tendency to choose rather more unconventional roles and for his 25thfilm he takes on the character of an ageing theatre actor in Balaji Tharaneetharan’s Seethakaathi. The film is a refreshing mix of theatrical performances, comedy and drama underlying a satirical look at the film industry and despite only appearing for roughly forty minutes of the almost three hour run time, Vijay Sethupathi is the heart and soul of the film. Mouli, Rajkumar and Sunil Reddy play the other major characters, perfectly blending comedy and drama as the story moves through the world of theatre, into the film industry and finally ends up in a court room. It’s a novel tale that’s difficult to discuss without revealing the core idea that makes it such a wonderfully quirky and offbeat film, but it’s well worth investing the time to watch Seethakaathi in the cinema to appreciate the attention to detail and sheer inventiveness of the story.

The film starts with a series of scenes from theatrical performances featuring acclaimed actor Ayya Aadhimoolam (Vijay Sethupathi). These begin with his early career and progress through the decades via various classical scenes before ending with the elderly actor performing the lead role of Aurangzeb. As the actor ages, the setting for the plays changes too, starting with an outdoor performance under the stars, moving to a packed house in a new theatre and finally to a sparsely attended show with the theatre hall shabby and showing its age and lack of funds. Watching from the wings is Ayya’s friend Parasuraman (Mouli), while his fellow actors revere Ayya and provide partisan support for the performances. This opening section is focused firmly on Ayya as the lead actor in each theatrical vignette and Vijay Sethupathi is simply incredible, holding the audience attention though long classical speeches and in truth being the mesmerising and captivating theatre actor he plays. The ageing process is well done too and the prosthetics and make-up ensure Vijay is convincing as an elderly man, although it’s his posture and slow, considered movements that authenticate his portrayal.

Despite his success, Ayya lives simply and uses an auto to get to and from the theatre. He is shown as caring deeply about his grandson and takes care of his extended family of actors and theatre workers too. Early on in his career when he is offered film roles, he declines saying that he prefers to work in front of a live audience, however, with the theatre becoming less popular, Ayya is convinced firstly to advertise his shows in the local paper, and then later to ‘appear’ in films. However, when he fails to show, first in Director Sundar’s (Bagavathi Perumal) film with Saravanan (Rajkumar) and then later for producer/actor Dhanapal (Sunil), Ayya and Parasuraman are drawn into a court case.

Balaji Tharaneetharan adds his quirky brand of comedy to the scenes set within the film industry and there are cameos from film directors Mahendran and Bharathiraja along with some other unexpected faces. In Balaji’s cinematic world, directors are shown as having the short end of the stick; having to pander to their lead actor’s whims while placating their producers and walking a fine line between creativity and farce. The producers on the other hand are more unethical and grasping, with profit being the only interest for most, while fame and fortune quickly corrupt even the most innocent of actors. Adding Ayya into this world produces some wonderful comedy and Sunil in particular is excellent in his début role. His comic timing is superb and with some excellent slap-stick added, he really has some of the funniest moments in the whole film.  The difference between the slowly decaying artform of the theatre and the brash and opportunistic world of cinema is used to good effect, both for comedy and drama.  Even the courtroom scenes have plenty of humour which helps to keep the action moving along, despite the overall length of the film.

The female roles here are more peripheral with Archana having little to do as Ayya’s wife Lakshmi while Ramya Nambeesan, Gayathrie and Parvathy Nair all have one or two important scenes, but then they move into the background for the rest of the film. However, on the plus side there are no unnecessary romances and none of the female roles are there solely for glamour – in fact quite the opposite, despite the setting of the film industry. A few other faces appear briefly including Karunakaran as a lawyer but the action in the second half is mainly focused on Sunil and Mouli.

The story is enhanced by Govind Vasantha’s music which fits well into the general ambience of the film and provides contrast between the worlds of the theatre and the film industry without ever being too intrusive. Cinematographer T.K. Saraskanth provides plenty of warmth and nostalgia in the theatre scenes, well-seasoned with a patina of age, while the film shoots are brighter in keeping with the more brash attitudes and modern outlook. The pace of the film changes too. The early theatrical scenes are allowed to run as they would do in a conventional theatre without any chopping and changing, but as the story moves into the present day and into the film industry the pace picks up and humour is added. Just like in any film, action moves from one location to another instead of the steady and unchanging location of the theatre. It’s another contrast that highlights the differences between the two worlds, despite both being involved with acting and the telling of stories. Another plus point are the subtitles which are grammatically correct and in beautifully visible yellow font. Thanks to Aarti Sivakumar for following in Rekhs footsteps and enhancing the dialogue by making it easily read and totally understandable.

Overall, Seethakaathi is a novel story told in an unconventional way. The early slow-paced drama eases into more commonplace action although the premise behind the plot is still unusual and one that raises further questions about the nature of art. The disappearance of the main lead so early is a bold step that pays off thanks to the good writing and accomplished performances from the rest of the cast, while Vijay Sethupathy’s performance, although short, is so amazing and incredible that the memory infuses the rest of the film. I loved every minute of this film and was surprised to realise the length as I never felt that it was dragging or that anything was unnecessary to the plot. I would have liked more Vijay Sethupathi (of course!) but the rest of the cast are simply excellent and the story works incredibly well as is, while I felt the whole point was to have the impact of the early theatrical scenes overlay the rest of the film. I haven’t seen Balaji Tharaneetharan’s earlier film Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom as I’ve never been able to find a copy with subtitles, but I will definitely be looking out for his next release. Highly recommended for Vijay Sethupathi, the exemplary cast and an offbeat approach to an unconventional story.