Before we see Rajinikanth on screen, we hear the song Vantha Naal Mudhal, Indha Naal Varai. It sets the framework for what we're about to see - Rajinikanth from those days, until now. Karthik Subbaraj's Petta is exactly what he promised - a tribute to Rajinikanth, with the director's trademark twists. And like all of Karthik's films, sparks fly in parts of it.
For fanboys and fangirls, Petta offers a fun spot-the-Rajini-film reference game. His name is Kaali (from Mullum Malarum - and the director of that film, J Mahendran, appears in a small role in Petta; the song 'Raman andalum' appears at a crucial juncture too), he has an origin story similar to that of Thalapathy, there's an Anwar (Baasha) who plays an important role in his life, the 'paambu' joke, a Rajini staple, gets a nod, as well. A thread in the story develops along the lines of Thalapathy but is then subverted, Karthik-style, there's even a 'Muthu watches' in the background in the fight scene before the interval.
The first half, in fact, suffers from acute Rajinitis, with Karthik unapologetically stuffing every frame with "mass" - or his interpretation of it. Rajini certainly looks stylish but you wish the director had given him something more to do other than alternating between flicking his sunglasses and hair, in between beating people up. We meet him as the temporary hostel warden at St Woods College and by the end of the film, I was still left dissatisfied by the flimsy explanation for why he was there in the first place.
Of course, nobody in the audience believes for a second that he's just a hostel warden. Unlike Baasha, to which the film liberally references (that "Ullepo!" still manages to raise goosebumps on your skin), there is no transformation from 'innocent underdog' to 'badass gangster'. From the very first moment when we hear of Kaali, people are always giving him "build-up" - "we don't know who he is but he beat up everyone", "look at him, he is aware of our presence and he will turn now", "he is not an ordinary man" etc etc etc. And if this wasn't enough, Anirudh's constant background score and the colouring underline the "mass" in every frame.
Everyone's waiting patiently for Karthik to make the revelation and he prolongs the moment with one distraction after another. Rajini plays the Nammavar kind of mentor to the students, but when he's talking about setting things at the hostel right, the political undertones are hard to miss. Later in the film, he uses Jayalalithaa's punchline - "Seiveergala" - adding that it's not enough to ask if they will do it, they have to do it.
Rajini can sleepwalk through the motions of style by now, but he is there packing in as much as he can. It is not for nothing that he is called a director's actor. His comic timing remains spot on - that throwaway 'biryani dealer' line had me in splits.
Simran looks lovely but one would have to be generous to call her role anything more than an extended cameo. She simply lends some 'mangalam' (her name in the film) to the proceedings before disappearing. Trisha's role is even smaller and the pairing with Rajini looks decidedly awkward. Malavika Mohanan leaves more of an impression than either of the two women actors.
But the film picks up pace in the second half, with Vijay Sethupathi and Nawazuddin Siddiqui taking over the mantle of antagonists from Bobby Simha and Aadukalam Naren. It also looks like Karthik finally decided to step into the driver's seat, having done enough to please the fan in him.
Vijay Sethupathi is a delight to watch - his character is more layered than Kaali's, and he's effortless as a thug who struggles to win his father's approval. Much like Rajinikanth, who is equally good at playing the villain and the hero, in fact. In the scene when Kaali passes his cigarette to Jithu (Vijay Sethupathi), telling him that he's given up smoking because he's suffered enough because of it, it's almost as if Rajini is passing on the baton to the next superstar. And listening to the cheers from the crowd when Vijay Sethupathi first appears on screen, it might happen yet. The best scenes in the film are between these two actors, as Kaali attempts to play a cat and mouse game with his enemies.
One is not sure why Nawazuddin Siddiqui was chosen to play Singaran, a man from Madurai. He is indeed a terrific actor, but was it really necessary to import someone from Bollywood and have him lip sync to Tamil (nobody in his family, by the way, looks remotely related to each other)? The flashback sequence with Singaran, which drives the plot, could have done with some better writing. The motives of the characters fall back on cliches and the explanation is too rushed. Nevertheless, just through sheer acting prowess, Singaran makes for a convincing third corner in the hate triangle that Karthik draws for us.
The fight scenes are one too many, especially when you already know who is going to win. Perhaps it's because of this that the most enjoyable stunt sequence is when Rajini is practising a martial art all by himself in front of a fire. It's way more convincing than watching random goons falling like nine pins.
Petta is a film which begins as a Rajinikanth film and ends in Karthik Subbaraj's petta. I was left wishing Karthik had had the confidence to step into the driver's seat much sooner than he does - the first half could have definitely done with some chopping. It would have given us a film with more substance and less style - and there are some Rajinikanth fans who do like that better in his films, especially after Kabali and Kaala.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film's producers or any other members of its cast and crew.