It is an unusual day at Assembly Rooms, one of the only two theaters in Ooty, where hundreds have gathered to pay homage to superstar Rajinikanth. Even more unusually, the theatre, with its long and chequered history, has hosted two movies of superstar Rajinikanth –
2.0 and Petta — in the space of just a few weeks.
All through the year, the audience in this small town waits for event movies like
Petta while choosing to remain immune to the charms of the celluloid during most other times. It is at times as rare as these that the theatre can proudly put up the board announcing ‘House Full’.
It’s election year and the climate is politically charged. Slogans are raised by dhoti-clad supporters of Rajni’s party as the crowd sways to the beat of the drums. Crackers are burst, sweets are distributed and a massive cake is cut as Pongal, the harvest festival of Tamil Nadu, is ushered in much ahead of time. Inside the theater, however, the whistling and cheering is at a minimum. The movie is an unlikely vehicle for an actor on the eve of his full political foray.
Every single fan of the actor has made it to be his business at the hall today. Tickets were bought in bulk by Rajnikanth’s fan association and members go wild as the opening credits roll.
Next to me in the box are a group of students from a local architecture college who seem thrilled to bunk classes and pay their respects to the superstar.
A Superstar Show
And, it is a Rajni show all the way, as heroines Simran and Trisha are reduced to bit parts. The ensemble cast including Vijay Sethupathi, Sasikumar, Bobby Simha and Nawazuddin Siddiqui too struggle to find screen space.
True to its name,
Petta, roughly translated to Hood, happens in gangster-land and has violence as its engine. Quite unforgivably though, director Karthik Subbaraj stretches the running time of the movie to an improbable two hours-and-fifty two minutes. But thankfully, he does not set about creating a masterpiece.
Instead, the director is happy to cheer from the sidelines of his own movie and sacrifice his directorial skills at the altar of Rajnikanth. With tongue firm in cheek, the 35-year-old Subbaraj gleefully references superstar hits of the past such as
Annamalai (1992), Murattu Kalai (1980) and Mullum Malaram (1978). This is his love letter to every Rajni fan out there. Watch out for the scene in which Petta hands over a lit cigarette to Sethupathi.
As a commercial potboiler, the film seeks to keep its politics well below the surface. The politics here is much more subtle and is suggested more in the movements of the camera rather than in spitfire dialogues. Somewhere between the end of the flashback and the beginning of the climax, the movie incoherently slows down to no point at all.
They say that all good stories have already been told and Subbaraj grapples with the idea of telling his tale differently, thereby losing pace in his narration. While
Kabali and Kaala had overt political tones, Petta works best as a revenge tale handled with an admirable lightness of touch.
Subbaraj shares more in common with the New Cinema of Pa Ranjith than Shankar’s special effects extravaganzas. But the director chooses to bring back to life the Rajinikanth of the 1990s that we once adored. Just like in the movies of that era, the superstar emerges here once more unscathed, untouched and untainted despite playing up the anti-hero to the hilt.
There are cringe-worthy moments too. Ten years down the line, we are going to squirm in our seats every time someone says the word “mass”. The reference to Bruce Lee also seems to be out of place.
Leave Logic At The Door
The plot is razor thin and though it probably works inside Subbaraj’s head, we are witness to very little logic. As the movie begins, Rajni arrives as a temporary hostel warden Kaali at the fictional St Woods College in Darjeeling. He is a man burdened by his mysterious and violent past and at this point comparisons to 1996’s
Baasha are easily justified.
Rajni moves with the fluidity of a thespian from his angry man persona to the comic one. Very few scenes are laugh out funny, but we are able to sail through the first half as Kaali establishes a rapport with his students, particularly one Anwar (another
Anirudh’s introductory number for Rajnikanth, ‘Marana Mass’, with lyricist Vivek’s slang-heavy lines sent the audience into raptures. However, the composer’s BGM left much to be desired.
Much like junk food, the movie hits the sweet spot. However, it remains to be seen where the chips will fall as the hype dies down.
Petta doesn’t certainly push the boundaries of filmmaking by any yardstick, even for a superstar movie. But for millions of fans out there, this movie crystallises in many ways what they have come to expect out of a Rajinikanth film. Nandhu Sundaram is a journalist based in Ooty.