The Tamil movie industry, known as Kollywood, continues to raise awareness of social and political issues in Tamilnadu, in India’s south.
Its latest offering, Petta, is breaking records at home and is now playing in Australian cinemas.
It’s directed by relative newcomer Karthik Subbaraj and stars veteran actor, Rajinikanth. “Rajini” returns to his cinematic best in what is a scrumptious slice of nostalgia for both his fans and all Tamil audiences, with tributes to the actor peppered throughout the film.
Petta is an eponymously named revenge drama about the warden of a student hostel, seeking to right several wrongs.
The light-hearted first act introduces audiences to a charismatic lead character who’s absolutely engaging from the outset. The plot intensifies when villain Singaar Singh (played by Nawazuddin Siddique) enters the story. He’s a politician-turned-gangster who seems to be inspired by Christopher Nola’s “Joker” from the Batman movie franchise. Siddique is the best antagonist in a Rajini film since Raghuvaran in ‘Baasha”. The two men soon clash in what becomes outright warfare.
Since the year 2000, various directors have struggled finding roles to suit Rajini. The actor collaborated with mega-budget fanatics like Shankar Shanmugam and KS Ravikumar, who constantly fed audiences larger than life characters like “Lingaa” and “Sivaji” – a departure from the down-to-earth roles Rajini successfully played in the 1990s. Similarly, newcomer Pa Ranjith only cast Rajini in emotionally weak gangster tales like “Kabali” and “Kaala”.
Petta however provides a sigh of relief. The Rajinikanth everyone once loved, has stepped back onto the big screen doing what he does best.
Subbaraj’s past filmography is simply a stunner. His directorial debut “Pizza”, is a run of the mill horror movie with an unjustified twist and unsatisfactory climax. However, the film garnered positive reviews and kick-started his career.
Two of his other movies, “Jigirthanda” and “Iraivi”, are beautifully chiselled works of multi-dimensional cinematic art with relatable commentary on gender binaries.
“Iraivi” demonstrated Subbaraj’s filmmaking mastery in balancing out the screen time of several talented actors, making the audience invest emotionally in each of them – without over-doing or under-doing it.
In this regard, the same cannot be said of Petta. Mahalingam Sasikumar usually appears in movies about rural India. And while he adopts a similar role as gangster “Malik Bhai” in Petta, his character was underplayed and under-utilised. Consequently, a hole in the plot opened up that was left unanswered.
Trisha Krishna’s persona of “Saro” was practically non-existent, which is a pity. On a comparative scale, Bobby Simha’s comedic sequence as a college student really worked and the unconventional chemistry between Rajini and love interest Simran Bagga was also filled with comedic elements.
Beyond the great acting, visually pleasing cinematography, and edgy music in Petta, is a message of social responsibility.
Caste-related violence has been an ongoing issue in India, in which the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (SC/ST) have been victimised and the Supreme Court has been largely silent. In recent times, many Tamil films like “Pariyerum Perumal” have commented on this.
Petta depicts an instigator of caste-related violence and illegal sand mining, using his twisted beliefs to gain political power. It’s a barely explored area and kudos to Subbaraj for conveying a fresh angle.
It is the caste-fueled conflict between Singaar Singh, Petta and Jithu that defines the film as a commercial revenge story.
The movie also draws from the current political climate. The characters that surround Rajini are abstracts of real-life Tamilnadu politicians. Vijay Sethupathi for instance, portrays Jithu, a character who’s part political gangster and part emotional nomad yearning for a proper father figure. It’s a characterisation resembling real life politician, M. K. Stalin – as both have a desire to step out of their father’s political shadow. The film cleverly builds the audience’s sympathy for Jithu – before his tragic downfall.
Stylistically, the colour tones and sepia-like grades were mildly inconsistent throughout the movie. Additionally, there was an overuse of aerial shots which added to the already stretched out screenplay. And while Petta comes with logic loopholes and an overdose of action, it is nevertheless a near-exemplar commercial entertainer.
– Vishal Venkatesh