Petta: A lightweight film that works beautifully as a tribute, but that’s about it

Petta functions wonderfully as a supercut of Rajni’s filmography, set to old தமிழ் film music. The Mullum Malarum references abound, obviously – with a name like Kaali, that’s almost a given. One of them comes right at the end and is an absolute beauty. But there are so many others that much of the pleasure of watching this film comes from spotting the call-outs to other films.

In that sense, this film can be slotted in roughly the same category as Om Shanti Om. The craft is visible, but it is the cheekiness that you notice. The film is so cheerfully self-indulgent that you don’t feel like begrudging Karthik Subbaraj his ultimate fanboy moment – getting Rajni himself to recreate for him, his memories of growing up as a Rajni fan.

My favourite is actually one of the non Rajni film references (and there are quite a few of those as well) . The line ‘Naan veezhvaen endru ninaiththaayo?’ accompanies a shot that seems to reference one at the end of Mahanadhi where the same line is heard in the background. Is that a hat tip to his greatest contemporary? Maybe it was accidental, but remember, this is Karthik Subbaraj we’re talking about. But I’m not trying to divine the director’s motives so much as explain how I reacted to the film.

And to be honest, for the first hour or so, this is all there is to do. The story seems to be going nowhere. He’s a fun-loving hostel warden who seems to have developed a soft corner for one of his students, and runs up against another, a prototypical entitled brat who believes he runs the place and finds out that there’s a bigger dog in the pound. But the film seems to be spinning its wheels just on the basis of this premise.

Then suddenly, some semblance of a plot kicks in. The flab all but disappears. This is not a great story, and nearly every character other than the hero gets short shrift, but you can see a degree of competence in the treatment, and the performances cover up for the deficiencies in the script. The filmmaker has not entirely been sublimated by the fan.

It occurs to me that Rajni movies over the past decade or so have suffered from a lack of balance more than anything else. They’ve wanted to tell a story with Rajni in it, but in their desire to accommodate the star, they’ve added so much hero-glorifying flab that the output suffers as a result.

Pa Ranjith went the other way by situating Rajni in the middle of some very interesting stories, but his inability to match his vision with top notch execution has resulted in uneven products of another kind.

Karthik Subbaraj might have found one answer to the puzzle. Make a film that embraces its Rajni-ness so completely that there’s hardly any conflict between the film and the star. This does not make the film itself great, mind you – this might be the most lightweight film this director has made – but it mostly hits what it aims at.

Now, if he could marry his skill as a filmmaker with Pa Ranjith’s depth of field in creating a world around his central character, you’d really have a Rajni movie for the ages.

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Wisecracking

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Middle East…

Wise Man 2: You had one job. One. Job.

Wise Man 3: Sorry

Wise Man 2: How difficult could it have been? I remember specifically asking you to get fleece pyjamas. I distinctly remember the feeling of my lips moving when I said that to you. Fleece pyjamas. How hard can it be to get? And what do you get instead? This. What is this anyway?

Wise Man 3: Myrrh

Wise Man 1: What’s myrrh?

Wise Man 2: Myrrh? Really?

Wise Man 3: Oh please, you got frankincense!

Wise Man 2: Come on! We’re visiting a manger. Anything with the word incense in it, she’s gonna love.

Wise Man 3: Still. You gave him a simple enough job to do. There’s always some gold lying around the house, so he just had to scoop some up and gift wrap it. You just raided your frou frou cupboard and got done with your job. I had to drive all the way to the store, and my camel had starting trouble. You know how that happens.

Wise Man 2: You could’ve sent someone.

Wise Man 3: It wouldn’t have felt personal.

Wise Man 2: And myrrh feels personal?

Wise Man 1: What’s myrrh?

Wise Man 2: You could’ve improvised. Found a nice quilt, maybe.

Wise Man 3: It didn’t occur to me.

Wise Man 2: Of course it didn’t!

Wise Man 3: Oh, come on! Are you gonna keep going on about it all night long? We have a long way to go

.Wise Man 2: All right, let’s get going. <under his breath> Myrrh indeed!

Wise Man 1: Got any wine? For the road?

Wise Man 2: You wanna drink and drive?

Wise Man 1: Oh, don’t be such a spoilsport! Do you see much traffic this time of the night?

Wise Man 3: I’ve got water.

Wise Man 2: Not the same thing as wine, is it? Good thinking, though. We’re bound to get dehydrated.

Wise Man 3: <pleased at having been seen to do something right>

Wise Man 1: We could stop at Cana. It’s on the way, and there’s this guy over there with an incredible wine cellar.

Wise Man 3: Yeah, I know, right! We were there for a feast the other day and he served this divine Merlot…

Wise Man 2: Yeah, I remember. I meant to ask him where he got it from. He’s a bit of a miser with his stock, though. I’ve never been to a party at his place where the wine didn’t run out. And he keeps making excuses about how his cellar is empty.

Wise Man 3: Yeah, he does that. Then again, if I had wine like that stored up, I’d want a few barrels left for when I want to put my feet up on a Friday night. Not spend it all on the guests.

Wise Man 1: You’ve got a point. 

Wise Man 2: All right, let’s get cracking. Where’s the star we’re supposed to follow? That one?

Wise Man 1: Yeah. You’re the navigator. Let’s go.

Wise Man 3: Are we supposed to say something when we get there?

Wise Man 2: Yeah. Congratulations! What an adorable baby! What have you decided to name him? Haven’t you done this before?

Wise Man 3: I have, but congratulations sounds a little, well, underpowered for the occasion, doesn’t it?

Wise Man 2: It does, yeah. But we’re gonna get to wherever that star tells us, and then ask around for the King of the Jews. When you’re calling the kid a king to begin with, congratulations will do just fine after that.

Wise Man 1: Yeah, don’t over think this.

Wise Man 2: And we’re taking gifts, so it’s fine. Gold, and frankincense and, well, whatever Mr Euclid here decided to get.

Wise Man 3: You just HAD to bring it up one more time, didn’t you? Nag, nag, nag…

Wise Man 1: What’s myrrh?

Entertaining half-truths, nuanced truths and (un)intended consequences

One of the now-inevitable sideshows that accompany most big releases is the group of people objecting to something in the film and taking their grievance to court. Sometimes it’s religion (Kevin Smith’s irreverent religious comedy Dogma comes to mind), sometimes it’s the depiction of real life personalities (too many to count), sometimes it’s the misrepresentation of government policy… it doesn’t really matter.

The latest one has to do with the “unscientific” basis for the villain’s ideology in Rajni’s 2.0 — apparently a bunch of people are up in arms about a film espousing the idea that cellphone towers might be dangerous.

This discussion doesn’t just rage in public spaces. My friends recently got into a discussion on a WhatsApp group on whether the caste politics depicted in Pa Ranjith’s films were faithful to reality. 

As with most things, the truth is complicated and doesn’t lend itself to binaries. Punch dialogue in films, and much of what passes for reasoned argument in public forums, seems to have no use for anything but binaries.

Take Vijay’s Mersal. There was a line in there about how liquor doesn’t have GST while medicine does. Which is true, but also disingenuous — liquor is taxed by the state and has VAT. His fundamental point, which is that access to quality healthcare needs to be free for all, is reasonable. (Whether or not it is achievable in our country is besides the point. It is a reasonable thing for a man to ask for.) 

The ruling dispensation had a problem with the specific argument about liquor, which is fair as well. (They also shot themselves in the foot by protesting about a bunch of other things that they should’ve left well enough alone, but that’s a separate story.)

The straightforward way of looking at the issue is to say that films are no place to search for truth — as long as the story has emotional truth, the facts don’t matter. This is an easier concept to sell when a straightforward rout in reality is depicted as a nail-biter in the sports movie based on it. But when the consequences of this misrepresentation involve a bit more than box-office receipts, this begins to get tricky.

So what were the consequences of this dust-up?

First, the push-back from the ruling party simply gave the film an additional boost. I suspect that curiosity contributed at least partly to the film’s collections.

Second, and here’s where it starts getting tricky, Vijay has increasingly been showing signs of political ambition, and this little brouhaha only added to his political capital. Instead of ignoring him, they engaged with him — for someone taking his first steps in the field, the engagement is the win. While the specifics differed, the fight itself played out so similarly in Sarkar that it almost felt pre-meditated.

Third, and now it gets really tricky, we’re increasingly finding ourselves in a world where confirmation bias is not just a cognitive blind spot but a consciously adopted strategy. Plus, political rhetoric has traditionally been a bit light on facts, but now, practically anything goes. The intended consequence of something like Mersal could be that people start talking about universal healthcare, and if Vijay makes it part of his political platform, people would remember the film and go “Ah! I knew it!” But the (perhaps) unintended consequence might be that their opinions are now informed not only by the overall message, but also by the half-truths he used to support it. (Vijay himself gets the best of both worlds — if his political manifesto turns out to be at odds with the film dialogue, hey, it was just a movie.)


None of this matters to 2.0, of course. Not just because it’s a Rajni film. The contention that the radiation from cellphones can harm loving beings has not, to the extent of my knowledge, been proven. I might be wrong or misinformed. But even if we’re gonna discuss the film’s themes or their relevance to Rajni’s political ambitions, we’re gonna do it on, well, WhatsApp.

96

Please, please go watch this film before reading my blog post.

What an amazing, amazing film this is!

I didn’t get to see it during its theatrical release, and I had the dubious fortune of being laid up with an infection on Deepavali evening, so it was just me and the TV at home. (Not that I agree with Sun TV’s decision to telecast it so soon after its release.) There’s a lot to say about the film, but let me just list a few things that struck me.

The film opens with a depiction of Ram’s life, and it is a thing of beauty. You see him swinging from a branch, playing in a sand dune, sleeping in the hollow of a tree. Here’s a man doing things by himself: the sort of montage that sometimes features a free-spirited heroine. But the tone is different. It is one of a man content to live within himself. You’re not thinking Roja, you’re thinking Henry David Thoreau.

Jaanu’s songs always start from the second stanza. Always beautifully sung (Chinmayi is in top form here, but even by those standards, the one sung at the reunion is an absolute standout), yet always incomplete. She only sings one song from start to finish, and it is exactly the one that needs to be sung that way. To be fair, it’s a small song with not much middle to it, but I suspect this was a deliberate choice.

Lots of scenes of the couple in an elevator. Two lives in limbo?

For what is principally a two character drama, there’s so much warmth provided by the supporting characters. Devadarshini (as well as Niyathi, the girl who plays her younger avatar) oozes sass. Bagavathy Perumal has an absolutely hilarious moment when he fakes a phone call to exit a frame and starts it by saying “Hello, Dubai-aa…?” And who better to evoke the 90s than Janakaraj?

My favourite cameo, though, was that of Kavithalaya Krishnan as a barber. There is a lived-in feeling to this character that owes as much to our memories of Crazy Mohan’s comedies as to the brief expository dialogue. It’s as inspired a casting choice as that of Janakaraj. There is a moment when he understands more or less precisely who Jaanu is without actually being introduced to her, and he absolutely, perfectly nails it.

The scene in the coffee shop with Ram’s students is an interesting one. It appears at first that the focus is Jaanu’s re-imagining of their past, but there’s another story being told on the sidelines – Prabha’s. There’s a lingering handshake at the end that speaks volumes. For a long film, some of its most eloquent moments are startlingly brief.

There’s a conversation in Ram’s apartment where Jaanu worries about Ram being single. The content is reminiscent of the last scene in Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya. But where the tone in the earlier film was more elegiac, there’s an urgency here, an undercurrent of desperation. The difference lies in the woman’s state of mind — Jessie has moved on, but Jaanu hasn’t. Listen to her talking about what she needs Ram to do, as opposed to what Jessie wanted Karthik to do.

Half the story is told in body language, in the distance between the characters. To begin with, Jaanu is the one who determines it. Ram resists, then gives in, and sometimes simply passes out. Sometimes it’s in small gestures: There’s a moment in her hotel room where he recounts a memory, Jaanu pats a space closer to her, and Ram simply scoots over. It’s casual, it’s telling, it’s beautiful. But by the time they’re driving to the airport, it’s Ram who takes charge. Left to Jaanu, they’d still be stuck on neutral, unable to move on.

On beginnings, storytelling and Vada Chennai

Consider the prefix “Once upon a time in” that is affixed in the English subtitle that appears during the opening credits. Here’s a director who has pretty much announced, right at the start, that he’s attempting to do to the bylanes of a fisherman’s slum in North Chennai, what Sergio Leone did to Manhattan’s Lower East Side in Once Upon a Time in America. This film too, has a sprawling canvas, a nonlinear narrative, characters who are perpetually armed with their baggage if not their weaponry…

If you’re looking for other gangster sagas to point to, there’s Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur. Or, if you’re looking towards literary cues, there’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, whose memory is evoked in its circular narratives and repetitive motifs and knack of having a larger story nudge a smaller story every once in a while. Or Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Or Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.

The thing is, if you’re making an epic, and Vada Chennai is indubitably one, you’re unlikely to break a heck of a lot of new ground in terms of the basic emotions and storylines. Yeah, there’s lust and greed and betrayal and vengeance. And a girl and a gun. At that level, we’ve probably described most stories.

Where you make your mark is in how rooted the story is, how organically its characters’ motivations are tied into the time and place they’re from. Vada Chennai’s characters are driven by the same base impulses as anyone else, but you can’t imagine them in any other milieu. And what’s more, this film is not just about its characters. It’s about this location, about its importance to the people living there. The film is narrated in chapters, each named for three of the characters. But the key chapter that details the genesis of this story uses the word Oor, meaning place. This place.

One useful way of understanding a film is to ask yourself: what has changed between the beginning and the end? A narrative this nonlinear doesn’t lend itself easily to such analysis. But consider the opening and closing shots instead. The opening shot is of a bloodstained murder weapon casually thrown on a table. The reasons for this murder have to do with this place, and what people want to do with it. The closing shot is of the oor itself. There’s an old wall separating this neighbourhood from the more “gentrified” world on the other side. The other wall is the sea. The place hasn’t changed. Nor have the pressures from the outside. The people dealing with them have, and sometimes their stories have their genesis in that of the people who came before them.

A character with an ability to look beyond the immediate term gifts a pair of binoculars to a little boy. You see him sitting on top of a tower with the binoculars as a young adult. You see him capable of looking past the short term as an adult. And you realize that even a throwaway moment, where an adult gifts a child something he fancies, has such an emotional resonance in hindsight. These stories are like geological formations. Scrape away a layer of rock, and there’s another layer that tells the story of a previous age.

You don’t see them all in chronological order, though. The nonlinear nature of the storytelling is a wee bit disorienting at first, but you realize soon that this is not mere gimmickry.

The effects of a murder — the one referenced in the opening shot — are seen well before the murder itself is shown, in what is probably the standout sequence in the film. As good as the film-making is in that scene, the emotional charge comes from the fact that we already know how the ripple effects of this event will be seen in the coming years.

An attack that happens around the interval block comes as a surprise, but in the scenes that follow, Vetri Maran interleaves the backstory that motivated it along with its aftermath, thereby shaping our perception of that attack in very interesting ways. And then he adds another layer of motivation that precedes this one, thereby reshaping our view once again.

This is not a filmmaker toying with form, or with the audience. This is a master storyteller telling us that Once upon a time is not where the story starts. It’s just where you begin to narrate it.

 

Freeze Frame #171: Ae Dil Hai Mushkil

The most interesting scene in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, for me, is the one where Ayan (Ranbir) meets Tahir (Shahrukh) for the first time. Shahrukh’s lines in this scene are so unbearably pretentious that one would want to throw something at the screen, were it not immediately apparent that he’s very deliberately hamming it up.

It gets better. Karan Johar sets up an interesting dynamic in that scene where Saba (Aishwarya) matches Tahir’s tone and penchant for overly dramatic wordplay to throw out her own barbs, while Ranbir plays the wisecracking outsider. But it’s clear that all three are basically playing parts in a little drama out there, and they all know it. It’s a very interesting conversation, because you can practically see two scenes playing inside your head in parallel, one that’s on screen, and another one where they speak normally but convey the same message.

But what really elevates that moment is a single exchange in the middle, that makes it clear that the characters are also playing the “normal” scene inside their own heads. Ayan drops the mask for just a moment, and asks, “Is it easy to love someone who doesn’t love you back?”

And Tahir lets his own mask slip literally for just a second. And within that second he manages to convey this: “Hey, it looks like the kid’s noticed something! He’s not just a dumb boy-toy after all. And what’s more, you don’t even notice something like this, much less ask about it, unless it matters to you, and it’s clear that it matters to this kid. I wonder why. It can’t be Saba. Oooh, interesting!”

And then the mask is back on.

And I’m sitting there thinking, holy shit, one second. One. Freaking. Second. That’s all it took for Shahrukh and Karan Johar to convey what I took a whole paragraph to write.

 

On the unevenness of Kaala

There is a long, unbroken take early in Kaala that serves to introduce the eponymous character’s family. It ends with some playful banter between a few characters, after which you get The Song.

(You know, the one that’s a paean to The Hero and has been such a staple of big-budget hero-centric Thamizh cinema that, if you see one without The Song, you’re apt to make one up in your head while watching the film, like an amputee scratching a phantom limb.)

That whole sequence right there tells you nearly everything about what’s right and wrong with Kaala. The unbroken take itself is a nifty piece of work. There’s a bit of an 80s vibe in the joint-family-with-simmering-tensions intro, but Eswari Rao, who plays Kaala’s wife, distracts you from that with a near-monologue of rare brilliance and shepherds you through that whole take. There’s enough colour, density, prickliness and warmth in two minutes worth of lines to fill a whole movie.

And then you register that the guy who was earlier doing a non-violent protest and was frustrated with Kaala’s violent intervention is also his son, as is the hothead who served as Kaala’s hatchet man. So a part of you goes, oh, there’s Sonny and Michael right there. So you’re sitting there thinking, here’s a director who took a standard issue family introduction scene and turned it into something really interesting. Nice!

And then Pa. Ranjith decides to take a big steaming dump on your head. Basically, a bunch of youths turn up like a hip-hop Greek chorus, and one of the supporting characters says something to the effect of, why don’t you sing a song and we’ll dance. And you sit there thinking, how can a man who wrote and directed that also be capable of this?

This unevenness is evident throughout the film. A slum redevelopment project championed by the younger non-violent son turns out to involve a golf course, and a bunch of characters are naturally in opposition. This is a complex issue — the slum dwellers too want their lives bettered, but they want it on their terms. This conflict is already established bit by bit in the earlier scenes, and the argument isn’t presented only from one angle. But why the golf course? It is such an outlandish thing to put in there that it trivializes what was building up as a nice conflict. I have no quibble with Ranjith’s politics, or that he chooses to use film as a medium to espouse his views. But this deliberate turning-away from nuance is disappointing, to say the least.

If there’s the brilliance of overlaying a narration of the final war in the Ramayana with the final fight here, there’s also the amateurishness of the scene where people talk about what they want in the housing project.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

The film ends with a somewhat hallucinatory sequence set during Holi, which I suppose is pretty apropos. A riot of colours on one hand, a hot mess on the other.