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.

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?