Simply put, it’s a film that is designed to cater to everyone, a story where Rajini’s character typically begins with comedy, and then, goes on to get emotional and violent
When Rajinikanth laughs, happiness courses through you. When he cries, sadness washes over you. It’s a rare connection he has forged with the audience over decades. I doubt there’s a single other actor out there who can convince you that he’s, at once, capable of great violence, and at once, a poster-boy of innocence and vulnerability. So, if you’re a director allowed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of making a film with such a unique actor, what do you do? It seems to me you have two choices. You can try to reinterpret the actor (as Ranjith did), or you can seek refuge in nostalgia and attempt to recreate old magic? Siva has opted for the latter and attempted to make what he called in our conversation to be a ‘Superstar’ film. Simply put, it’s a film that is designed to cater to everyone, a story where Rajini’s character typically begins with comedy, and then, goes on to get emotional and violent. This plays straight into Siva’s own strengths, as evidenced best in the enjoyable Viswasam—which could easily slot into the 90s as a superhit film, and with the added benefit of propagating better ideas concerning women and children.
Cast: Rajinikanth, Keerthy Suresh, Nayanthara, Prakash Raj, Abhimanyu Singh, Jagapathi Babu
The beginning portions of Annaatthe are straight out of enjoyable Rajini films from the 90s. The actor, playing Kaalayan aka Annaatthe, is a sprightly presence and found engaging in playful banter, along with the ever-dependable Soori as his sidekick. Right off the bat, the film also indulges in another Rajinism: The dispensing of wise one-liners. The actor’s offscreen, spiritual presence has added to the effect of such writing in films, the lines between character and actor blurring, when he, for instance, tells Naatu Dorai (Prakash Raj), that the value of life must be measured by the laughter created while alive and the tears accumulated when dead. In another scene, Naatu Dorai makes lavish contributions to a local deity, and Annaatthe quips, “Illadhavangalukku kudutha, saamiye sandhosha padum.” Where some older Rajinikanth films like Mannan or Padayappa, for instance, dispensed the occasional problematic instruction, like dictating how women should lead lives, this film makes no such mistakes. The dialogues are wise and written by a mind that seems to have a deep understanding of life and relationships.
Khushboo and Meena make a nostalgic comeback into this film as potential partners for Rajinikanth, with their characters playing into rural, caste-benefitting traditions of marrying within family. It’s impressive that even in this space, Annaatthe makes a wise observation: “Sondham ponaalum, paasam poga koodadhu. Adhu podhum.” My most favourite lines come in the opening song, the late SP Balasubrahmanyam’s ‘Annaatthe Annaaatthe’ (to hear the singer’s voice once again in the theatre for a Rajinikanth opening song makes for a moving experience). The lines go, “Ulaginil azhagu edhu sollavaa… edhirikku irangum gunamallava… Uyarthara veeram edhu sollava… suya thavar unarum seyal allava…”. It’s par for the course for the actor’s introduction songs to have such aphorisms, but I enjoyed that these lines don’t just exist in a song. They turn out, in fact, to define the relationship between Annaatthe and Naatu Dorai.
The film is built around the brother-sister bond, a protector-victim relationship in a sense that exists between Annaatthe and Thanga Meenatchi (Keerthy Suresh). There’s an almost mythical beginning to this relationship, as Thangam gets assigned to Annaatthe’s protection even while she’s in the womb. Siva might argue that these facets perhaps make this relationship quite different from Vedalam, but it’s impossible not to think of the Ajith film when the idea of this protector-brother, operating from the shadows, gets introduced in this film. Or how about the idea that Annatthe, despite being emotionally torn, is forced to stay away from the person he loves the most in the world—an idea that reminds you of Viswasam? These are all portions that happen towards the latter part of the film, which, for me, is where Annaatthe’s faults mostly lie.
The film misses a glorious opportunity to make Thanga Meenatchi a stronger person. I’d struggle to list scenes in which she isn’t found breaking down into tears at the slightest emotional provocation. It’s a film focussed on her journey, on her paasam for her brother and vice-versa, but paasam, as I see it, isn’t only about protection. It’s also about enabling others, especially adults, to learn to look after themselves. To be fair, at one point, Annaatthe does let Thanga Meenatchi go, but it doesn’t seem like that results in any character development for the latter. This protectiveness didn’t feel so asphyxiating in Viswasam because there, the other party was a child, a little girl who still seemed to show more personality than Thanga Meenatchi does. It doesn’t help that she’s a slobbering mess pretty much through this film. If there’s anything that Rajinikanth films have shown us in the past, it is that the sorrow of a strong, happy person, is far more affecting than that of a weak victim figure. Annaatthe tries his best to make her braver, show more spine. “Dheiryamum, nyaayamum oru ponnuku irundha, andha aandavane erangi thunai irupaan.”
In a sense, Annaatthe is Aandavan, and this film seemed to me to be littered with parallels to God. For Thanga Meenatchi, Annaatthe is the protector she cannot see. Like many ardent theists feel about God, she feels she can sense his presence, and every time she’s in trouble, her harassers seem to miraculously disappear. These are really interesting ideas in this film. Their dynamic is perhaps best summarised by that lovely, imaginative shot at interval: one in which a seemingly helpless Thanga Meenatchi walks on what she doesn’t realise is actually Annaatthe’s shadow. There’s a line in the film that references this: “Kadal thaandi ponaalum, kulasaamy nezhal thaanda mudiyadhu.” She’s, apparently, destined to be forever under his protection, and this film might have been better served, allowing her to walk out of it and be her own person. Much like God is said to be both kind and at once, capable of terrible punishment, in Annaatthe, the same shadow that’s such a source of protection for Thanga Meenatchi turns out to be such a looming threat for the bad guys. This gets established in a shot in which his shadow spreads across a skyscraper. I enjoyed these ideas.
There seemed to be some really imaginative ideas on paper, like the scene in which Annaatthe has Pattu (Nayantharaa) mimic his dialogues to make Thanga Meenatchi feel safe. Annaatthe’s plan succeeds because the brother and sister have a deep relationship that’s unusually intuitive. This is reflective of many of our own relationships, aren’t they—where we find that our thoughts can be communicated wordlessly to certain people… And yet, this scene doesn’t feel as moving as it should in execution, partly on account of how composer Imman often shows a tendency to heighten what are already heightened emotions (his songs in the film are great though). The quick, endless tears of Thanga Meenatchi, coupled with Imman’s overzealousness, play a large part in adding to the feeling of exaggerated sentiment. And that’s a pity because these emotional films, I believe, have tremendous utility. Where the struggles and routines of everyday life blunt emotions, such films serve to remind us to feel deeply, to express freely. There’s a line in this film that makes a reference to this: “Nee yaarungardhu, nee pesara pechchulayum, seiyara seyallayum dhaan irukku.” In fact, I think this is easily the most vulnerable Rajinikanth we have seen in some time. He’s innocent and vulnerable as he was in Muthu, he’s wise as he was in Padayappa, he’s violent as he was in Baasha. On paper, it has all the markings of a blockbuster.
But. The action set-pieces, though cleverly designed, have Annaatthe beating up hapless henchmen and their equally hapless bosses, characters we learn little about. Thanga Meenatchi’s victimisation in Kolkata itself happens far too quickly, at the hands of bad guys who are far too generic. Where Jagapathi Babu in Viswasam played an antagonist, whose villainy fell very much within the context of the film (he was a bad parent), here, his character description seems to be, “You look like the old version of Muthu but behave like Radharavi from that film.” There’s a half-hearted attempt to contrast the Annaaatthe-Thanga Meenatchi relationship with the sibling dynamics between characters played by Abhimanyu Singh and Jagapathi Babu, but we know precious little about them, let alone get any real understanding about their relationship. So, when Annaatthe sets Kolkata alight, performing a mayana kollai, the idea of this villager performing a ritual in the big bad city is, again, fascinating on paper, but the ones who are being vanquished are fairly nondescript, so their destruction isn’t as cathartic.
Perhaps I’ll remember Annaatthe best for how energetic Rajinikanth seems in the film. He’s laughing, jumping, dancing, crying as we have probably not seen him do in years… Perhaps the best example of the casual excellence he’s capable of as a performer can be seen in that pre-interval portion when someone tells him that Thanga Meenatchi seems to be missing. He has already sensed her absence by that time and has started to get worried, and yet, he’s in denial. He communicates these contrasting emotions wonderfully with just a shift in glance and a shake of his head.
As we seem to slowly near the end of his filmography (there are constantly rumours about what might be his last film), there’s the temptation to lap up whatever we get. That’s perhaps why Siva went all the way back to the 90s in search of a winning recipe. And that’s also perhaps why Annaatthe might have been better served with a final scene that establishes happiness and joy among the characters, as opposed to its rather downing end. After all, when Rajinikanth laughs, it makes everyone happy.
This review was written for Cinema Express and was originally uploaded here.