Petta (2019)

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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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’96

'96

Separated lovers and a school reunion some 20 years later are the key elements of C. Prem Kumar’s beautiful and spell-binding romance ’96. The title refers to the year Ram (Vijay Sethupathi) and Janu (Trisha Krishnan) graduated from their school in Tanjore and there is a lot of nostalgia here, even for someone like me who left school many years before 1996 and in a different country. For anyone who has ever been to a school reunion, much of this will ring true, and it’s the realism throughout the film that drives investment in the characters and their situations. Everyone here is fantastic and the story completely captivating, making this the best romance film I’ve seen so far this year.

The film opens with a song introducing K. Ramachandran (aka Ram), a wild-life and travel photographer who can see beauty and interest everywhere he looks. We see birds and butterflies look simply amazing through his eyes, and even an isolated group of plants in a sand dune become charmingly scenic. What’s interesting here is that Ram is always alone. When shown eating in a restaurant, he’s the only one there, and while taking photos on the streets, he rarely interacts with the people around him. Even when he’s taking a picture of an actual person, the camera seems to create a barrier between him and his subject. The song ends with Ram on a deserted beach and as the camera pulls away, we can see just how isolated and alone he is, although there is nothing to suggest that this is not exactly how he prefers to be.

Ram also seems to teach photography and, on the way back from one of his teaching sessions, a detour takes him through his hometown of Tanjore. Despite initially instructing his student not to stop in case he has to talk to anyone, Ram ends up outside his old school and after reminiscing with the security guard (Janagaraj) heads inside to his old classroom. Prem Kumar doesn’t give us flashback sequences with chattering students to illustrate Ram’s memories of his school days. Instead, and more effectively, the school is empty and silent, but Ram runs his hands along the marked walls, exactly as he would have done every day at the school, and shouts in glee when he spots his name on an achievement board. The visit sparks some nostalgia and after speaking to his old classmate Murali (Bagavathi Perumal), who adds him to the ’96 class Whatsapp group, the two quickly organise a reunion. The reactions of the group when Ram joins their chat are simply perfect and work well to recreate the different dynamics between the old friends. They’re also very funny, and allow us to see a different side of Ram’s personality which up until this point has been very dour and unapproachable.

On the day of the reunion, Murali and Ram’s ‘sister’ Subhashini (Devadarshini) are careful not to mention Janu as Ram scans the crowd looking for the girl he loved back in high school. When Janaki Devi aka Janu arrives, she too spends her time scanning the crowd, until she spots Ram, and immediately goes to speak to him, despite the best efforts of Subhashini to keep the two apart. Janu is now married and lives in Singapore with her young daughter, but when she sees Ram, the years fall away and we are swept back into the past.

The flashback sequence shows the romance between Ram and Janu, and it’s a beautifully sweet and innocent love affair. The young Ram (Aadithya Baaskar) is shy to the point of not being able to speak to Janu, and his contortions to avoid touching her even by accident are simply perfect. Young Janu (Gouri G Kishan) is more confident, for example she sings regularly for her class, but she is just as head over heels as Ram. The flashback sequences are a beautiful slice of nostalgia, with songs and film posters from the era, while Prem Kumar has perfectly captured young love with all its silences, confusion, embarrassments and raw emotion. Aadithya Baaskar and Gouri Kishan are superb and play the young lovers perfectly while the support cast including Niyathi Kadambi are also excellent and capture the atmosphere of school life well.

Back in the future, there are more silences and pent up emotion when Ram and Janu meet. Gradually over time they start to talk and the mystery of what happened to Ram, and why he left Janu becomes clear. Along with talking for most of the night, Janu also takes Ram to the barber (Kavithalaya Krishnan), and as he loses his bushy beard and wild hair, Ram seems to lose some of his reserve too and opens up to Janu.

The emotion here is incredibly powerful, and although the film moves slowly it’s the right pace for these two separated lovers as they gradually discover each other again. The same mannerisms are there as in the flashback sequence, and the sheer depth and intensity of the emotion makes for compelling viewing. However, it’s not all awkward silences, potent emotions and age-old frustrations. Prem Kumar has crafted a well-rounded story with comedy perfectly timed to lift the mood just whenever it seems about to become too self-aware or dip into melodrama. It also helps that the two leads, Vijay Sethupathi and Trisha Krishnan have scintillating chemistry and both are at their absolute best throughout the film. I’m always appreciative of Vijay’s versatility and having just seen him power through Chekka Chivantha Vaanam as a cop, and previously as a smart gangster in Vikram Vedha, this is an amazingly abrupt turnaround to a shy, socially awkward loner. He takes the role up to another level entirely and completely brings Ram to life so that we can feel his insecurity and shyness, but also see through all of that to the genuinely sincere person beneath. Trisha too is brilliant here, and her natural reserve works well for Janu while she has an air of sophistication that echoes her character’s usual life in cosmopolitan Singapore. She delivers too in terms of emotion and this really is an outstanding performance from her throughout. I was simply captivated by both Ram and Janu, and like everyone else in the theatre was completely invested in their relationship and longing for some kind of happy ending. Both characters carry equal weight in the film too, which keeps the dynamic more appealing and ensures a better understanding of the characters.

The music for the film is a mix of old and new. Janu only sings songs by S Janaki, and there are timeless Ilaiyaraaja melodies as a result, while the new music from Govind Menon is beautifully melodic and fits seamlessly into the film. The playback singers do an amazing job too, and this is one of the most memorable soundtracks I’ve heard for a while. The subtitles too are well done (I’m not sure who was responsible) and they have taken time to think about the song lyrics and even added in translations of some of the written word.

There really isn’t anything to dislike about ’96. The performances are exemplary and the story is impeccably detailed and perfectly told. There are so many amazingly poignant scenes too – Ram puling out his old school shirt from a suitcase under his bed, the moment when Janu puts her hand onto the gearstick of Ram’s car and his reaction when he goes to change gear and inadvertently touches her hand, the moment when Janu sings for Ram in his apartment, and the final scenes in the airport – just incredible. I loved every single minute and cannot recommend this movie highly enough to anyone who likes their romances to be nostalgic, bittersweet and full of emotion.

 

Kodi (2016)

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Kodi is an interesting political thriller that sadly did not release in Australia with English subtitles. As the film is dialogue-heavy this meant that I missed most of the subtleties of the film, particularly annoying since the female characters seem to have more substantial roles than usual and the plot appears to be well-developed with unexpected twists. However the basic story is pretty easy to follow and the characters all clearly delineated ensuring Kodi is worth the trip to the cinema. It’s still completely baffling to me that in today’s global market the producers would choose to release Kodi overseas without subtitles, although it does follow the recent trend of not including subtitles on Tamil DVD releases either. Come on Kollywood – lift your game!

Dhanush plays a double role in the movie, portraying twin brothers, Kodi and Anbu. Despite being mute, their father (Karunaas) had political ambitions and was prominent in the local party as an activist and avid supporter of the local leader.  On his birth, Kodi was presented to the leader and from that point on it seems that his father transferred all his political ambition onto Kodi, dragging him around to various political events and giving him speeches to declare on his father’s behalf.

Initially Kodi seems relatively happy to follow the party line, but he is horrified when his father suicides right in front of him in order to highlight mercury poisoning at a local factory. Rather than lessen his passion for politics, this ensures Kodi grows into a hot-headed and passionate politician who craves social justice and presumably the power and prestige such a role would bring. As a young campaigner Kodi seems to have a fairly prominent role in the local party office, although there are grumblings from the older generation about the young upstart who seems to be taking a lead role. Along with the problems Kodi faces from his party, his girlfriend Rudhra (Trisha) is also a wannabe politician, except she’s firmly on the opposing side and the two seem to frequently clash in the public arena. Luckily for their romance, they seem to be able to put their opposing views aside once they are alone together and apart from the hassle of having to keep their relationship secret, Kodi and Rudhra happy together.

Anbu on the other hand is a gentler character who works as a teacher at a local college and is content to let his brother lead the charge for democracy. He finds romance with a local egg farmer Malathi (Anupama Parameswaram) although he isn’t above swapping roles with his more volatile brother when the occasion demands it. Dhanush keeps the two characters separate with ease, and not just because Kodi has a full beard and Anbu a moustache. Kodi is harsher, often appearing stern and forbidding, and only leading down his guard with Rudhra. He is argumentative, struts around combatively and is a typical mass hero when it comes to any fight.  Anbu on the other hand is softer, smiles more and even his posture indicates he’s a man who can be more easily pushed around. In his first double role, Dhanush effortlessly makes the two brothers separate individuals, perhaps even more so than real twins as Kodi appears more like an elder brother, and Anbu the younger.

Anbu  discovers more about the mercury factory which leads his brother to some unsettling revelations and as events unfold, Anbu ends up taking his brother’s place in politics. This is where the characterisation breaks down a little, as Anbu playing Kodi is really just the same as Kodi. It would have been even more effective if there had been some Anbu mannerisms left behind, although it’s possible that I missed some of this through not understanding the dialogue.

While Dhanush is superb as Kodi and Anbu, Trisha is just as good as a young and ambitious female politician. She has to battle against the prejudice of both her gender and her youth to win her place in the party and in doing so displays a ruthless streak that serves her well later in the film. Trisha is regal in sober saris that reflect her political ambitions, but lets her hair down in the romance scenes where she is softer and more likeable than in the rest of the film. There are also glimpses of the continuous rivalry between Kodi and Rudhra as they grew up together, with the childhood flashbacks proving more substance and clarity to the two characters. I love the interactions between the two – both in public as rival politicians and in private as their romance heats up. Writer/director R.S. Durai Senthilkumar has ensured that the female role is just as well-developed as that of the male protagonists, and in some ways Trisha has the more thought-provoking role with a complex and ambiguous character.

The story has a number of twists and turns with the machinations of the two political parties, the plots of the various members and the truth behind the mercury factory all having a part to play. I wish I had understood more of the dialogue as I missed the significance of Kodi and Anbu’s friend Bhagat Singh (Kaali Venkat) and I’m still not sure why Malathi disappeared from the story for most of the second half. This was a shame as Anupama was excellent, as were the rest of the supporting cast. S.A. Chandrasekhar was good in the role of Kodi’s party leader while Saranya Ponvannan was excellent playing the only role she ever seems to do nowadays (but then she does it so well!) as Kodi and Anbu’s long suffering mother. There are only a few songs in the film and these are mostly focused on the two romances, but Santhosh Narayanan’s music seems to fit well, although I did miss watching Dhanush dancing.

Like his previous films Ethir Neechal and Kaaki Sattai, R.S. Durai Senthilkumar concentrates on telling a good story rather than simply showcasing a star or indulging in mass action scenes. As a result, Kodi is an intelligent and engaging thriller, with excellent characterisations and clever twists in the plot. Dhanush does a fantastic job in a double role, keeping his presence somewhat understated so that the focus really is on the story and not the few fight scenes or dramatic speeches. I really do hope that this one releases on DVD with subtitles as it deserves to be seen by a wider audience and I’d love to finally understand all that dialogue.