Five minutes into Petta, a friend who was watching the movie with me asked, “How many references to his other films did you catch so far?” I shushed him, hoping Petta would soon find its feet and stand as its own film. Up until the interval, the film continued in the same vein — a song, some dance, some fight scenes, villains who don’t stand a chance against Rajinikanth and a storyline peppered generously with throwbacks to Rajinikanth’s filmography.
This part of Petta is just short of the Tamil Padam franchise in its unabashed pastiche — from Apoorva Ragangal (1975) and Mullum Malarum (1978) to Padayappa (1999) and Chandramukhi (2005). There is also the token SP Balasubramaniam song and thinly veiled political propaganda for good measure.
Throughout the first half, the film relies entirely on Rajinikanth the star to build and keep the viewer interested in Kaali, his character in the film. The viewer’s knowledge of the multiple references to characters he has played in his previous films makes some of the sequences in Petta fun. However, if someone is not aware of the quirks of those characters they may find these sequences in Petta completely incomprehensible.
“Up until the interval, the film continued in the same vein — a song, some dance, some fight scenes, villains who don’t stand a chance against Rajinikanth and a storyline peppered generously with throwbacks to Rajinikanth’s filmography.”
Like we know that Kaali is ketta paya (a bad boy), as he was in Mullum Malarum (1978). Then when he arrives on a beetroot-laden lorry for a job interview, we think of Chandramukhi and reminisce about the humour and playfulness of his character in that film. Or when he dismissively asks his interviewer to sign off on the job, we’re immediately reminded of the line “enakku innoru per irukku” (I have another name) from Baasha (1995) and expect the appointment to happen. When a young girl tells Kaali that he’s stylish, we imagine ‘enna vayasaanaalum, un style-um azhagum unna vittu pogala’ (However old you get, your style and beauty haven’t left you) from Padayappa (1999).
Karthik Subbaraj does next to nothing to write Kaali. He just lets Rajinikanth be Rajinikanth.
And boy, does Rajinikanth shine! He completely immerses himself in the business of entertaining the audience. His presence is charming and comic timing impeccable. He is adorable in the romantic scenes and the fight sequences pump enough adrenaline to send a fan into a frenzy.
In fact, the film is so obsessed with Rajinikanth that everyone else’s presence seems incidental. From Vijay Sethupathy, Bobby Simha, Simran and Trisha to Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Mahendran, Sasikumar and Sananth Reddy, no one gets enough screen time to make the audience feel anything.
There’s more chemistry between Rajinikanth and Trisha in the film’s posters than there’s in the film — simply because no one else is around long enough in the script for an on-screen relationship to develop with the protagonist. Same goes for Siddiqui, he articulates his evil more in the posters than he gets to do as the villain in the film.
“So if we ignore the grand ‘tribute’ it is to ‘The Superstar’, 'Petta' has nothing worthwhile in it.”
That is not to say that these actors don’t try. Vijay Sethupathy holds his own in front of Rajinikanth, even if he does so measuredly. Simran is utterly delightful in the few minutes given to her. But the film does little to employ these actors. It rushes us back to Rajinikanth before we can even notice them.
So if we ignore the grand ‘tribute’ it is to ‘The Superstar’, Petta has next to nothing. With multiple introduction scenes, ‘punch’ dialogues, Bharathiyar kavidhai, silhouette shots, melodic whistles, meaningful laughter and slo-mo fight sequences — the film is neck deep in Rajinikanth memorabilia that we nearly forget that the story hasn’t moved an inch since the title credits rolled.
It is only after the interval that we see any semblance of a story being told. And Karthik Subbaraj tells us a rather flimsy one. Subbaraj wants us to believe that Petta (short for Petta Velan) is a hero trying to protect his Muslim friend from being attacked by the latter’s Hindu brothers-in-law — there is something said in passing about ‘jaadhi veri’ (caste fanaticism).
“It includes social atrocities in the narrative when convenient without making an effort to dismantle these structures.”
He also wants us to believe that Petta is the liberator of the oppressed — there is also something about land grabbing, sand mining and returning forcibly acquired land. However, Subbaraj spends no time fleshing out these significant contemporary social issues. And Kaali is portrayed as a a vengeful, murderous hooligan, who doesn’t come across as any better than the thugs he is fighting.
The film suggests in passing that caste, religion and fundamentalism fuel the cycle of violence. Yet, it doesn’t delve into these ideas or how they affect society. The film shows a brutal caste-conflict in small-town Tamil Nadu in a flashback sequence. In another, it shows an instance of communally motivated political violence in Uttar Pradesh. Yet, the film’s narrative chooses to refer to these incidents of violence merely as a personal revenge drama between two men, devoid of broader political implications. It includes social atrocities in the narrative when convenient without making an effort to dismantle these structures.
Therefore, the overwhelming saffron, the celebration of Mahashivarathri and Hindu processions that form the milieu of much of the second half of the film remain as lifeless as the painted backdrop of a stage play. In classic Karthik Subbaraj fashion, we are bombarded with twists and turns and clever manoeuvres that keeps bringing the film back to being just a ode to Rajinikanth’s Rajinikanth-ness.
Petta may be a great fan tribute, but it’s far from being good cinema.