The halo around Rajinikanth, the star, seemed to be on a bit of a wane, it must be said. 2.0 wasn’t exactly an example to show otherwise. Kaala and Kabali weren’t too interested in deifying the actor — and for many of us, it was a relief, considering how films like Linga and Kochadaiyaan seemed to suggest that perhaps it was time for the focus to be finally shifted to the terrific actor in Rajinikanth who has always gone under-appreciated, thanks to the blinding radiance of his star appeal. Right at the beginning of Petta, Karthik Subbaraj has Kaali (Rajinikanth) ask, “Naan veezhven endru ninaithaayo?”, as a seeming riposte to any doubts over his dwindling superstardom. The question assumes even more relevance when you glance at the preceding lines of this Bharathiyaar poem, which go: “Narai koodi kizha paruvam eidhi, kodum kootruk kiraiyenappin maayum, pala vedikkai manidharai pole naan veezhven endre ninaithayo?”, which roughly translates to, “Like those aging, with greying hair, who suffer the fate of death, did you think I, like contemptible people, will fall?” Petta is Karthik Subbaraj reminding us that the Superstar hasn’t fallen. The film’s a highlight reel, a paean to the Rajinikanth many of us grew up adoring. Karthik Subbaraj makes this abundantly clear with a disclaimer before the film begins, in which he dedicates the film to Rajinikanth, and credits him for being his inspiration.
Director: Karthik Subbaraj
Cast: Rajinikanth, Simran, Trisha, Sasikumar, Sananth, Bobby Simha
Perhaps it’s not exactly healthy — this worship of an individual, but it’s impossible to curtail your grin right from when the Superstar credits begin rolling, powered by the famous Annamalai music. Anirudh’s remix of this track may have become popular, but Karthik Subbaraj doesn’t bite into it for the opening credits. The message again is clear. Petta isn’t about reinterpreting the Superstar, or facilitating his transformation into something else. This film is about recreation — of all that we were charmed by the actor for more than two decades. It’s an exercise in rekindling nostalgia, of getting to see it all come together just one more time. “Velai kadachaachi!” he says, ending the word with ‘chi’, not ‘chu’, in his inimitable way. I instantly thought of Manickam telling his sister, “Unakku seat-u kadachaachi!” in Baasha. “Nallavanaa irukkalaam, romba nallavana irukka koodadhu,” he says more than once. Kali’s thirst for vengeance got me thinking of Polladhavan. When driven by the desire to eliminate a long-term enemy, he takes with him an overawed youngster (Sananth). The latter may as well have channelled the inner Abbas in him and said, “What a man!” as Kaali dispatches those in his way. Kaali’s childlike playfulness in love is reminiscent of, well, you only need to take your pick from a long list of Rajinikanth films. The anonymity of his parents, his very name, and the darkness at the heart of his character is all Mullum Malarum. Oh, and quite naturally, Mahendran’s been cast in this film, in a noticeably quiet role. His character’s tendency to avoid melodrama — even in the face of a threat to his life — and quiet demeanour could well be an ode to his style of filmmaking. The question over another character’s parentage is, you could say, Thalapathy. Even a throwaway line like “Haaaan!” that Chinni Jayanth says, transports you to the time of Raja Chinna Roja. But surely, the biggest influence, at least in terms of the structure of this film, has got to be Baasha. The two names, the secret over his identity, the Muslim friend — who incidentally has a child called Anwar (remember Charan Raj’s role), the love angle which slides into the background once an old foe emerges… It’s all evocative of Baasha. Even that final step in Ullallaa is a throwback to Rajinikanth’s final dance move in Baasha’s Autokaaran. As you watch Petta, these associations pop in and out of your head. If you grew up gorging on all these films, your enjoyment of Petta is quite enhanced.
There’s also an additional source of nostalgia in the form of Kaali’s transistor which plays songs like “En iniya pon nilaave”, “Manidhan enbavan”, “Malarndhum malaraadha”, “Andhi mazhai”… Typically, our films have milked old songs mainly for humour. But in Petta, the choice of these songs really flavours events in a — I can’t help but say it — Tarantinoesque way. And given that this film itself is an exercise in reviving nostalgia, this idea is quite in keeping with the overall plan.
So, the big question is, is there any Karthik Subbaraj in this film? Well, it is his film, even if it feels like a mish-mash of many Rajinikanth films you’ve seen over the years. To be more specific, it’s a tribute film, and Karthik Subbaraj, the admirer of Rajinikanth, is the one behind the wheels. And yet, there are some of the touches you have come to associate with him. The protagonist in each of his four films so far — Pizza, Jigarthanda, Iraivi, Mercury — have all had imperfections. He retains it in this film too, even if it stars an actor whose characters have generally been beyond reproach. Yes, Kaali stands up for the weak and the bullied, and fights the greedy and the murderous… but he’s murderous too. There’s a fair bit of romanticisation of this aspect of his — and it’s a thing of cinematic beauty how Karthik Subbaraj milks the tension for laughter in a flashback scene. Kaali also realises the negative effects of being merciful. He’s trigger happy, and sometimes, performs ritualistic dances before the act — in a sense, like his namesake goddess. He’s definitely not a nice guy, and he knows and flaunts this proudly.
The director may have denied in interviews that the film has any political colour, but there are several evident digs, especially at Hindutva parties. I suppose it’s a follow-up in a sense from the bashing in Kaala. From gau rakshaks to self-anointed culture saviours who attack unmarried couples, Petta treats them all with disdain. There’s also a fleeting reference to the political leader who came up with the idea of using thermocol sheets to prevent water loss from a dam. It was once a mandatory aspect in Rajinikanth films to make politically charged statements, and perhaps as an ode to that than any serious political statement, Karthik Subbaraj has Kaali tell college students that it’s important not to tolerate bad food, and to instead actively seek a change from those providing it. And much like in films like Baasha and Muthu, he repeats some catchy statements and gestures. Every time he wants to intimidate someone, he slaps a table. If the situation is more serious, he says, “Kola gaandla irukken.” The line assumes deeper significance because you know it’s not just an offhanded line. He really means to murder.
All this Rajinikanth adoration comes at a cost. In Petta, despite a solid 171 minutes of running time, there’s hardly any time in which to round off the edges of the very many characters populating this film, including those played by actors like Sasikumar, Vijay Sethupathi, Simran and Trisha. While even Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s Singaaram is left wanting for more time in which to truly turn him into a menacing presence and a worthy adversary, I quite enjoyed that Karthik Subbaraj turns the tables on what makes your garden variety villain. To put it in Harry Potter terms, Singaaram is a lot less Voldemort and a lot more Wormtail. He snivels, begs, and is almost a pathetic creature. Even in jubilation, he crawls around in the scene of mayhem, sniffing about like an opportunistic hyena. The character is interesting, but there isn’t a whole lot of interplay. Despite your trademark Karthik Subbaraj twist, it’s a large reason why I didn’t particularly leave with my adrenaline pumping. Anirudh does his darndest best though through the film, and is only second to Rajinikanth nostalgia, in terms of the film’s strengths.
You walk out, fairly content in the assurance that the greying hair and physical fragility notwithstanding, it’s still possible to tap into Rajinikanth’s superstardom. Hopefully though, we can look ahead instead of backwards.
This review was written for Cinema Express, the cinema division of The New Indian Express. All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to its page if you’d like to share it.