Cast: Rajinikanth, Vijay Sethupathi, Trisha, Simran, Sasikumar, Nawazuddin Siddiqui
Director: Karthik Subbaraj
One way to view Karthik Subbaraj's Petta (Neighbourhood) is to treat it as Rajinikanth's Petta. Superstar is in super form, and it's a thrill to be reminded — in this age of disposable stardom — of enduring screen charisma. To hook you with a look at this age, at this stage of his career — you can forgive any number of Baba-s and Lingaa-s. He's lit beautifully, and the heightened pace of his movement (something we missed in his recent films) brings to mind the Rajinikanth of old, when he spoke so fast that the words sometimes tumbled and merged into one another like socks in a washing machine. A lot of this, I bet, also has to do with the director, a self-confessed fanboy. When the rest of us saw Lingaa and decided we didn't give, um, a dam, he tweeted: "#Lingaa is a 3hr emotional talk between thalaivar and a fan who was heart broken when he was ill.Others won't get it.HE is back & We luv him" One way to view Petta, then, is simply as a shrine to a star, by a fan. Others won't get it.
And what a shrine it is, harking back to the very first "Rajini moment", when a newcomer flung open those gates in Apoorva Raagangal. In Petta, Rajinikanth plays a hostel warden, and his name is Kaali, which is to this actor what "Vijay" is to Amitabh Bachchan. The cigarette toss makes a smashing return, as does the "paambu" joke. The sun-splattered lighting scheme appears to be an homage to Thalapathy. A watch sales and service store goes by the name of "Muthu". The nunchaku bits bring to mind Paayum Puli. My favourite nod, though, has to be Anirudh's number, 'Marana Mass'. It isn't till the end of the film that you realise the song is a tribute to (and an extension of) a famous Rajini number that was equally percussion-heavy and also sung by SP Balasubrahmanyam.
But to those of us who are also Karthik Subbaraj fans, "getting Rajini-fied" isn't enough. We also want to get Subbaraj-ified, and that doesn't happen for a while. Petta opens with an out-of-nowhere fight sequence that exists solely as (1) a hero-introduction scene for Kaali, and (2) an affirmation that Brand Rajini, despite recent setbacks, is still on fire. (At the end of this action stretch, the star borrows one of Subrahmanya Bharathi's most famous lines: Naan veezhven endru ninaithayo…) But Brand Subbaraj suffers. The writing is barely functional: a half-hearted subplot about ragging in college, another half-hearted subplot about a canteen contract, something about sand smuggling, a half-hearted love angle between the characters played by Sananth Reddy and Megha Akash, a half-hearted villain in Bobby Simha (this time, he gets to play Michael, a name almost always found in Karthik Subbaraj's films), a half-hearted heroine in Simran, a quarter-hearted heroine in Trisha (she's had more footage in some of her ads). Petta is so much about Rajinikanth that many other characters literally disappear after a point, never to be heard from again. Now, compare this to the Superstar's post-Baasha movies (that was the point he became really larger than life) — you still had characters being present across the screenplay, even as the film remained a Rajini-a-thon.
Jigarthanda and Iraivi were sprawling stories, too, but there was a sense of a gradual buildup, the sense of the narrative noose being slowly tightened. But Petta looks rushed — and even the Karthik Subbaraj flourishes, like the old film songs he likes to use, come off like affectations. The Simran character prancing about to 'Unnai Ondru Kaetpean?' A nod to one of the most famous love songs of… Kamal Haasan ('Andhi Mazhai')? Ennio Morricone's theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly employed in a throwaway scene? It isn't till the second half, set in Uttar Pradesh, that the film really takes off. It's almost as though Karthik Subbaraj envisioned the film as two distinct parts — the first for the fanboy in him, the second for the filmmaker in him. (Some of us will no doubt wish some of the generic Rajini worship in the first half had been cut short to accommodate more of the "plot".)
Post-interval, Petta finally comes into its own, a combination of a star with style and swagger, and a director with as much style and swagger. Tirru's cinematography begins to cohere — the camera starts moving in interesting ways (especially during a hilarious murder-plotting sequence) instead of simply worshipping the star. The writing becomes better, too. I loved the big twist, which uses the legend of Rama to defeat a Hindutva stronghold, and it made me wonder if Kaali's reference to living in a forest for many years, almost like an exile, was another nod to the epic. We get a good antagonist in Vijay Sethupathi, who's far more convincing as a "North Indian" (he looks like a swarthier Pankaj Tripathi) than Nawazuddin Siddiqui (the primary villain) is as a "South Indian". And no, the viboodhi patch doesn't help. He's too… puny for a Rajinikanth movie, too life-size. But then, I can't think of many actors who can play a convincing antagonist to Rajinikanth. Only Shankar got it right in Enthiran. The only actor capable of taking Superstar on is… Superstar himself.