Cast: Rajinikanth, Vijay Sethupathi, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Simran, Trisha
Rating: 2.5 Stars (Out of 5)
Not so much a movie as a fanboy's fond attempt to transport a superstar back in time - to the potboilers that created and defined his phenomenally popular screen persona - Petta, written and directed by Karthik Subbaraj (Pizza, Mercury, Jigarthanda) and released in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi, adheres to the Rajinikanth playbook of yore that had fallen a bit by the wayside in recent years.
A sprightly, power-packed performance from the 68-year-old lead actor that harks back to his Baasha days is bolstered with high-octane action, punchy dialogues and the inimitable swag that separates Rajinikanth from the rest of the world. His lines, his dance moves, even a song or two are throwbacks to less complicated times when the megastar and his directors felt no need to think beyond a pure, unadulterated Rajinikanth and of technology-driven (Enthiran, Kochadaiyan, 2.0) and ideology-inflected (Kabali, Kaala) screen avatars.
In Petta, the actor returns to the basics with aplomb. He is in familiar terrain playing an unstoppable one-man army who never walks into a room. He strides into it. He does not have to push a door open, It swings open of its own volition when steps before it. Likewise for the iron gates in his way. He uses them for entering a space and making his presence felt instantly or for blocking the escape route for his targeted human quarries who are foolhardy enough to cross his path.
Rajinikanth's entry scene catches him bang in the middle of a no-holds-barred action sequence. He is knocked down, gets back on his feet, and then proceeds to demonstrate his infallibility. Once his might has been established beyond question, we see the protagonist, Kaali, take the position of a boys' hostel warden in a college in a hill station. It is an idyllic campus that has been overrun by unruly students. Kaali swings into action immediately to set the house in order. He poops a party thrown for college newbies, stops ragging with an iron hand, and comes down heavily on the substandard food in the canteen.
Kaali also plays guardian angel to a student (Sananth) and his girlfriend (Megha Akash) even as he romances the latter's Pranic healer-mother (Simran). In the process, he attracts the belligerent attention of a particularly intransigent student and his strongman father.
The film then goes into a flashback in which Rajinikanth is a rural do-gooder who oversees an interfaith marriage in his village, an act that triggers a violent backlash. He loses his wife (Trisha Krishnan) and his best friend (M Sasikumar). The film's third act sees him in the guise of a revenge-seeker who relocates to Uttar Pradesh in quest of justice. The move pits him against a rightwing politico (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) who needs nasal sprays and IV drips for survival and his gangster-son Jithu (Vijay Sethupathi).
This is obviously a highly formulaic narrative, but Subbaraj imparts heavy spin on familiar tropes in order to inject a degree of freshness into the proceedings. In the climax and its lead-up - a 30-minute stretch in all - he springs two twists, with the second one upending the first, in order to ensure that the audience stays interested in what is unfolding on the screen. Well, with Rajinikanth at the centre of it all, the director does not have to try too hard. In fact, Petta ends with the hero loading a pistol and pointing it at the audience. Do we run for cover? Rajinikanth fans - Subbaraj is one himself, as the opening credits acknowledge - will obviously do nothing of that sort. And that is precisely what Petta banks upon.
So omnipresent is the megastar in Subbaraj's uneven screenplay that even those plot points that have been yanked from alarming news headlines - in one scene a gang of revivalist goons violently break up a Valentine's Day party, in another a bunch of hoodlums pounce upon a key character after accusing him of the crime of gau-hatya (cow slaughter), both incidents happen in Uttar Pradesh, where parts of the film are set - pale into insignificance. Moreover, woven into the narrative are two Muslim men in two different periods - they are named Malik and Anwar - and two separate cases of 'love jihad'.
But neither incident triggers any 'big picture' statement about bigotry or moral policing although in the UP sequences Subbaraj repeatedly foregrounds the Islamic structures of Lucknow with noisy processions waving saffron flags and raising threatening slogans. No matter how much we might want all this to evolve into a powerful commentary on the times that we live in, it doesn't because there's Rajinikanth out there demonstrating his multifarious heroic skills, including those with a nunchaku, and no way can the world stop for him.
So, these flashpoints come and go delivering momentary promise of a sensational twist in the story but Rajinikanth stays on forever... so what chance do the lesser mortals in the cast, including actors of proven merit such as Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Vijay Sethupathi and Bobby Simha have in Petta? Precious little.
The actresses - Simran, Trisha Krishnan, Megha Akash and Malavika Mohanan - are infinitely worse off. Petta is largely about the men settling scores with each other and the hapless women paying the price for all the masculine misdeeds paraded in an overlong vengeance saga that makes only feeble, half-hearted attempts to let a few lovebirds take wings.
There is no denying that the director's grasp on the medium is solid and both the cinematographer (S. Tirru) and the production designer (Suresh Selvarajan) do their best to lend the film its varied atmospherics and apt visual texture. But the film's editor, Vivek Harshan, probably too enamoured with Rajinikanth's onscreen exploits to effect the deletions that would have quickened the pace of the film significantly, is guilty of several avoidable acts of omission.
An hour or so into the film, the hostel warden's now-reformed students paint their love for him on the wall - it proclaims We love you, Thalaiva. When the actor and the character merge into one, the critic's job becomes utterly pointless. So just go and watch Petta for the Rajinikanth that you missed in his last few releases.