Karthik v/s Karthik
The screenplay is crammed with thin subplots, such as a Rajinikanth-Simran romance, a Hindu-Muslim student romance, dramatic gang wars, a paternity issue, and a climactic twist that is not fully convincing
Karthik Subbaraj is one of Tamil cinema's blue-eyed boys. His films are original and rooted, and have a panache born of an appetite for global cinema. All his films so far, Pizza, Jigarthanda (Cold-Hearted/a Madurai falooda), Iraivi (Goddess) and Mercury, have had strong stories and narrative treatment, often with a meta narrative about a film-maker, even if he stumbled with Mercury.
His latest film Petta (Neighbourhood) is about Kaali (Rajinikanth), a hostel warden in St Wood's College, who fights baddies on campus. He has a past that has him fighting assorted gangsters, mainly Singhar Singh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a right-wing politician, and his son Jithu (Vijay Sethupathi). The screenplay is crammed with thin subplots, such as a Rajinikanth-Simran romance, a Hindu-Muslim student romance, dramatic gang wars, a paternity issue, and a climactic twist that is not fully convincing.
Petta's real struggle is not hero versus villain, but Karthik v/s Karthik. Karthik the Rajinikanth fanboy and Karthik the auteur struggle to take control of the film. It offers tributes to the 'superstar,' with Rajinikanth flipping his cigarette, flipping his 'cooling glasses', and more 'Rajini-isms' from Baasha, dialogue-baazi and old Tamil film songs.
It's also an 'interactive' film: when Subbaraj stages a grand Rajinikanth entry scene, the film actually has a freeze frame for 10 seconds to allow time for fans to celebrate (or was that Aurora? When I was at the FDFS (First Day First Show) at 8 am at Aurora, Matunga, fans danced for so long during the screening that the police had to haul off those who overdid their enthusiasm). Subbaraj also overdoes his enthusiasm: he offers tributes to the Thalaiva's (leader) fans in the narrative. Rajinikanth dances in the film before his fans and a 'Thalaiva we love you' poster. So, if you're a Rajinikanth fan, you're in heaven. But if you're mainly a Subbaraj fan, you're left wondering what happened to the Subbaraj you love.
Rajinikanth, about 68, is lean, and still dances and does action with flair. His choice of weapons for thrashing goons reveals a peculiarly Tamil armoury, including a nunchaku, a candelabra, a roasting bhutta, and he smashes a baddy's head on a…jackfruit. The film includes top stars such as Sethupathi, Siddiqui, Bobby Simha, Trisha and Simran, but most have only half-baked roles; some whiz past and are never seen again. Subbaraj also aims for an all-India audience: the film is partly set in far-off Varanasi and elsewhere in Uttar Pradesh; Sethupathi speaks in Hindi, and Siddiqui speaks in Tamil, which plays up their weaknesses, instead of their strengths. Sethupathi has little scope to show his acting chops, while Siddiqui is a familiar villain. Women usually have interesting roles in Subbaraj's films, especially Iraivi, but here, all the actors and actresses are mere accessories to Rajinikanth. The screenplay, accordingly, is hagiography. No wonder cinematographer S Thirunavukarasu (Tirru) is a hero of the film, with real craftsmanship. Anirudh Ravichander's music has mostly peppy and dancy songs, including Ullaallaa, Marana Mass and Dance of the Masses.
It is interesting to see how the politics of Rajinikanth's films pave the way for his political career: in Kaala, he fought for land for the poor; in Petta, he fights right-wing goons. A favourite line in Tamil films, if you're grinning — which also occurs in Petta — is, "Don't show your teeth." No danger of that here. Now that Subbaraj has ticked the box of working with Rajinikanth, we hope the story will be the hero in his next.
Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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