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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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.

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.

Kabali

Warning: Here be spoilers

After a more-or-less obligatory, yet absolutely rousing introduction to its eponymous hero (Rajni pretty much defines the word ‘swag’), Kabali parachutes us into the middle of a plot that has been unfolding for over twenty five years. We hear names of characters, get snatches of dialogue and flashback scenes that tell us who they are, but it doesn’t help. While it is admirable to avoid having the characters tell each other what they both know just so the audience would understand what’s going on, I found myself having considerable difficulty following the plot.

The immersion is not just into this story but also into this milieu — the Tamilian community in Malaysia. This whole section is not without its rewards, but is hamstrung by a severe lack of two things: narrative fluidity and the ability to evoke a sense of empathy with this community. It feels as though there is a story here that requires a more old-fashioned treatment than the one we get.

It is close to the end of the first act, in an extended interaction between Kabali and an assembled group of youngsters, that the pieces fall into place. This whole sequence, involving a Q&A interspersed with flashbacks, is so effective that one wonders whether the man who could conceive of something like this is the same man who made the 30-odd minutes preceding it.

This entire sequence, and the few scenes that follow, are a prelude to a quiet and surprisingly affecting second act, a lot of which is set in India. These scenes are somewhat reminiscent of Yennai Arindhaal, in the way a leading man puts away his gun in order to focus on something else equally valuable to him. Rajni’s performance here is a thing of beauty — you still see the man you know, but his transition from dreaded gangster to family man feels utterly natural.

And yet, that is not all there is to this segment. Upon landing in Chennai and Kabali makes a comment about how he is first since his grandfather to set foot in India. You wonder for a moment what conditions would have driven the old man, and so many like him, to take up the job of wage labourers in a plantation in a faraway land. You wonder how they would’ve dealt with that strange land with its own language and customs, how they would’ve tried to make a home there, tried to find their own slice of happiness. And you wonder if these visitors from Malaysia realize that they are going through the same process in reverse, back in the land of their forefathers.

The idyll is interrupted by yet another fight sequence, one that heralds the beginning of the last act where Kabali takes care of business once and for all. This section isn’t any more violent than the average gangster saga, but for a Rajni movie it feels positively blood-soaked. It is also, sadly, the weakest portion of the film. Apart from wrapping things up, there is hardly anything here to admire here. The ending especially feels tacked on. It is not implausible given the world these characters inhabit, but it feels less like an organic development and more like a nod to an earlier, acclaimed film involving another man who rose from humble origins as part of a Tamil community in another place to become a dreaded gangster.

The trouble with watching any Rajni starrer, especially one with the kind of pre-release hype this one has come with, is that it is difficult to divorce the experience of seeing Rajni from the experience of seeing this film. A lot of it has to do with the gravitational field of the superstar, which bends space, time, screenplays and performances around him.

By far the most interesting thing about Kabali is that the relativistic effect of Rajni is kept to a minimum. There are scenes that pander to the screaming audiences, but we’re not simply watching an awestruck director paying homage to a star he’s grown up worshipping. We’re watching a storyteller with a point of view and a lot of things to say, and there’s not a lot of room for hero worship on that agenda.

And that, unfortunately, is also what makes this such a problematic film. Ranjith wants to tell the story of a gangster trying to regain his place after coming back from prison, and an old man searching for relevance. But he also wants the film to be about this place, these people, this subculture of Tamilians who have lived in Malaysia for generations and are still clawing their way up a long, slippery slope.

It is possible to make a good, even great film that is about all these things and have Rajni in it. But this film is not it. But if Kabali‘s most egregious fault is that its conception is not matched by its execution, that is not such a bad thing.

ps: Oh, and there’s a sly little Iron Man reference. And in a Rajni movie at that. Especially apropos, don’t you think?

Chickens, Pirates, Special Theory of Relativity and, er, Mona Gasolina

Warning: This post might be a bit NSFW.

First, watch this. Then we’ll talk:

This post began with an urgent request for my email id from Ganesh Raghuraman in the middle of the night. Since he knew me well enough, I figured that the matter had to be of earth-shattering inconsequence for him to sound so desperate, so I obviously sent it to him right away. His email, which I reproduce below in its ungrammatical entirety (despite his fervent pleas to un-Michael Bolton the crap out of it) was as follows:

I am totally tripping on Mona now..thanks to Mukund.  One of those weird songs that gets better the more you listen to it.  I have some serious doubts about the production and shoot as it pertains to lyrics.

un kannu compassa

nan un columbussa

Nangooram na paychha, nee aaada,

kadal vedikkuthu pattasa
Have you guys seen the video?  Thalaivar raids a ship in the high seas and there is a elaborate cannon-fire routine all inside the studio. I mean, we are talking about straight out of TR’s page book.   I wonder if the poet, nay song writer,  (please don’t be vairamuthu, please) wrote some random shit to rhyme and thalaivar just told to producer to spend a few lakhs of rupees.  Or did he want a pirate themed song (i don’t think so. because he does some Mission Impossible shit).  Would they have done for some other guy who is not so famous.  They probably would have asked the song writer to come up with something else, right?

This is indeed a matter for deep thought, and deserves to be on par with the great existential questions of our age, such as “Does wisdom fruit have seeds?” or “Where is the other banana?” or “Could we (not we personally, more of a general we) possibly come up with a theory that reconciles gravity with quantum mechanics, leading them to have some urgent, sweaty, high-dimensional make-up silpongs in a corner of a Riemannian manifold?

Research suggests that the question is homomorphic to older ones such as “Kodi asainthathum kaattru vanthatha?” or “Which one came first, the chicken or the egg?” (the latter of which presupposes the existence of some very inventive — not to mention kinky — chickens).

Still, let me make an attempt to resolve this. A film like this begins with a resolution, and that resolution isn’t “We’re gonna make a great Rajni movie!” Rather, it’s “This is gonna be the biggest Rajni movie ever”. Which means that, once you’ve expended the GDP of the average banana republic on Rajni, you still have enough left in the tank to blow up on song sequences. The consequence, however, is that whatever trickles down to the serfs (lyricists etc.) after all the aforementioned profligacy smells faintly of ammonia and warrants lyrics with the same penetrative aroma.

You might still end up with a good movie, or even a decent one where Rajni is far and away the best thing about it. But it occurs to me that the bigness seems to be the first thing the makers focus on. It’s like a celluloid equivalent of the Spruce Goose – a big thing that flies rather than a thing that soars.

So the real answer to the question is: It. Doesn’t. Effing. Matter.

If they had already decided on dressing Rajni up as a pirate (is it just me, or are his song sequences increasingly looking like they’ve been designed by a Halloween party planner on crystal meth?), then these lyrics are as good as any you can expect. Okay, you can get all poetic about orgasms and condoms with visuals involving bandits in the desert, as in the case of Ottagatha Kattikko, but are you seriously gonna sit there and tell me that this approach would’ve immeasurably enriched your experience of Mona Gasolina?

If, on the other hand, the lyrics had come first, and had been speaking, instead, of rockets, then the budget would still have been blown up, except differently. Rajni would’ve donned a space suit, journeyed to a distant planet in the vicinity of a black hole (with scantily clad backup dancers chronicling the, umm, blast off and the reaching of escape velocity through interpretive dappankoothu), and returned to romance a girl a third his age, whereas here…

Actually, the outer space idea isn’t all that far-fetched. This is a man with a song titled Kilimanjaro that is shot in what appears to be Machchu Pichchu. He reads Joseph Campbell’s book years before Campbell was even toilet trained. Space-time bows before the sheer force of his awesomeness. Which, by the way, might answer the earlier question about the make-up sex.

References:

Does wisdom fruit have seeds?

Where is the other banana?

Existential: An adjective usually attached to nouns like question or dilemma by neophytes who like to make trivial shit sound deep.

Neophytes who like to make trivial shit sound deep: See here.

Homomorphic: A mathematical term, which can be most-likely-incorrectly understood to mean “equivalent”. The word has been commonly misused to suggest that the subject has turned gay. Please note that this is a misnomer, irrespective of the gender of the egg.

Ganesh Raghuraman: Better known to BITSians of a certain vintage as Argon (a shortening of R. Ganesh, and certainly not to be confused with chemical elements that have adjectives such as noble or inert attached to them). A man who, when it comes to exploring the seedy underbelly of Thamizh vocabulary, has boldly gone where no man has gone before. (Or wanted to, for that matter.)

A man who can not only swear with more color and density than the average Jackson Pollock canvas, but can also, in mid-swear, pause to ask you for your preferred theory of creation, so that he can then continue to insult your family tree all the way up to Adam or the ape, depending on whom you state as your antecedent. A man who can not only put the words twerking and bharathanatyam in the same sentence but also — this is the part that is as tough as it is disturbing — make it sound logical.
I offered to put this on his LinkedIn profile as a recommendation, but he turned it down. Not sure why.

Man 1, Machine 0

To be perfectly honest with you, I didn’t go in expecting to like Enthiran very much. Somehow, the idea of Shankar making a SciFi movie with Rajni didn’t set my pulse racing the way it might for a whole bunch of other people.

Then I saw the robot that the scientist (Rajni) created in his image and likeness. And the first words it spoke were “Hello, world!”

Can’t be a self-respecting CompSci geek and not give the film a whole lot of brownie points after a line like that, can I? (Enough brownie points to forgive the fact that neural seems to have been misspelt as nueral at one point. Then again, the fact that they actually brought neural networks into the whole thing buys some credit all by itself.)

It actually got better as it went on, believe it or not. Rajni was in absolutely top form as the robot, using a deadpan expression and voice to great effect. Rajni as the scientist had more of a straight role, but the character wasn’t entirely devoid of nuance.

Apart from the mostly lighthearted episodes detailing a robot adapting to the world around it (an absolutely hilarious conversation with a traffic cop is among the highlights), there is also a more serious plotline that discusses some interesting issues. If a robot is designed to be capable of harming human beings (so that it can be employed in wartime, for instance), then who is to say who it might harm? And if one wishes to imbue it with consciousness and morality and feelings, who is to say that it will continue to do your bidding?

Aside: The biblical references in the plot are so obvious, they might as well have called the robot Adam instead of Chitti. Not to mention the fact that a courtroom sequence seems to have been shot in a church.

So anyway, the film is going swimmingly well and I am having the time of my life watching it, when Shankar apparently decides that the film lacks punch and decides to make it into an action movie. I see where he’s coming from — it’s a Rajni Movie with untold millions riding on it — but surely there could’ve been a more economical and character-driven way of doing it? It is in the third act, when the film decides to become an action extravaganza, that everything goes horribly wrong.

Don’t get me wrong — Rajni as a villain is very effective. He does the badass stuff with such relish that it’s a whole lot of fun to watch. But the action sequences themselves are so implausible that they make us stop caring. By the time a score of policemen open fire on a car at close range without hitting anyone, the film has well and truly gone off the rails. You have no idea how frustrating it was to watch this sort of crap, especially given how much good stuff had come before.

I guess what it boils down to is this. When the story focused on the characters, it was compelling. When it became about an army of humans fighting against an army of robots, it became, well, mechanical. The machine lost, in more ways than one.

ps: In the shameless self-promotion category: one reason why I enjoyed the movie so much was that it reminded me of two of my own blog posts. You can read them here and here.

 

Freeze Frame #143: Baasha

I am sure there are a lot of Padaiyappa fans out there. Ditto for  Chandramukhi, Kuselan and Sivaji. I even know someone who claims to like Baba — for reasons too numerous to mention, I am disinclined to hold it against him, though. But as far as I am concerned, the last great Rajni movie that came out was Baasha.

There are numerous reasons for this, the most important of which is that it carries very little additional baggage. Sivaji had a romantic subplot that pretty much epitomized silliness. Padaiyappa was just too long, almost like someone stole a megaserial script from Radhika’s vault, gave the main character a penis and amped up the star power. Kuselan came close, but sometimes felt like a nice little story jostling for space with Rajni’s stardom. Chandramukhi faced a similar problem — it took a nice little supporting role and gave it more than its due simply because of who was playing it.

Baasha doesn’t do any of these things. It wants to be a great masala movie as much as it wants to be a star vehicle — as a result, although Rajni is present all over it, it doesn’t feel excessive. I think one big reason is the script. I cannot think of too many instances where a remake turned out to be infinitely better than the original simply by introducing a bit of nonlinearity in the storytelling.

For all its commercial success, Hum isn’t a particularly great movie. It starts well — the pervasive sense of fear about Bhaktavar (playing magnificiently by Danny Denzongpa) is well created, and when Tiger (AB) breaks the shackles, it is quite effective. But once he escapes and begins a new life, it all becomes very ho-hum. You know that his past will come back to haunt him, so all that is left is to see how and when. By adding a considerable bit of buffoonery involving two Kader Khans, the tension is brought down a couple more notches. By the time Bhaktavar came back, it was all I could do not to yawn.

Take Baasha on the other hand. Its central choice is very simple: Take the first act of Hum and push it down the order. Start with a man trying to lead a quiet life, with little hints that indicate that there might be more to him than it seems. The man you see is the typical do-gooder hero, but you are never allowed to take that for granted. For one thing, there are moments when he is about to lose his cool and his “other” identity seems to surface briefly, only to be quelled. There is also a moment when he reveals it to someone, but you don’t hear what is said, only the panicked reaction to it. Throughout the first half, the tension mounts. Just to ratchet it up even more, there is a sequence where he allows himself to be beaten up by a goon just to avoid a conflict.

All this might work well enough even with some other actor, but what really sells it is the fact that we know who Rajni is. Every time you see him controlling himself or going out of the way to avoid conflict, you’re not just wondering why the character would do this. You’re wondering why Rajni would do this. The movie takes his image as an invincible hero and asks him to rein it in, so that the audience is primed for the moment when he finally cuts loose.

This comes at around the midpoint of the movie, when the aforementioned goon goes too far and hurts his sister. This is, as far as movies of this ilk are concerned, The Unforgivable Sin. In what has since become a  tradition in action sequences involving a hero facing off against multiple goons, the first man unfortunate enough to make a move is hit so spectacularly hard that he doesn’t get up again.

I watched this movie in a little single-screen theatre in Chennai and when that blow landed, the entire audience erupted in cheers. The cheering didn’t die down until the fight sequence got over. And you know what, I could perfectly understand the feeling. Because I was whooping and hollering along with them.

ps: Shankar seems to have understood this strategy quite well. Throughout the first half of Sivaji, Rajni takes what is dished out to him. It is in the second half that he starts hitting back. Now, if he hadn’t made Rajni play such a lovesick twit in the first half, it would’ve worked sooo much better.

pps: Can you come up with instances where the remake turned out to be much better than the original? Might make for a good (if short) list.

ppps: And no, Hum Aapke Hain Koun doesn’t count, even if it made more money. I thought Nadiya Ke Paar was the better movie by far.