I think I was in the ninth, when my entire school was making a variant of “the cow” with their fingers, while a horde of auto-rickshaw rears read “Known is a drop, unknown is an ocean”. Baba euphoria had taken over the city and I couldn’t wait to watch it on its opening day. I guess it was my first Rajni movie in theatre on the opening day. But anticlimactically it turned out to be a damp squib. But one thing that was palpable was the aura of this person in the dark of the theatre. The movie was filled with humanly impossible stretches, but nothing really seemed to deter the electricity in the air. Make no mistake, I’d watched a ton of Rajni movies before this, but nothing compares to the experience of being in a frenzied theatre, that too at the cusp of adulthood. Some years passed and Chandramukhi came, which exactly wasn’t a quintessential Rajni film. It was a plot driven remake, in which he was a catalyst and not the centerpiece. Then came Sivaji, which simply put, was a train wreck barring a few moments. It heralded a partnership with Shankar, in which they made soulless tent pole movies where the Superstar was buried under layers of VFX, towering budgets and tumbling skyscrapers. Then started another even more problematic collaboration with Ranjith that yielded a bunch of neither-here-nor-there movies. These movies touched upon the marginalization of the Tamil diaspora, making the Superstar a broken messiah minus the trademark mojo, who was neither super nor a star. If the Shankar movie diminished his aura under constant spectacle, Ranjith movies went one step ahead and neutralised it.
So you can understand the cynicism when Petta was announced with Karthik Subbaraj, another avant garde kind of filmmaker. I was prepping for another snore fest with identity crisis. But it all changed in the wee hours of the tenth of January this year.
Right from the opening fight sequence I knew I was in for something special. We are introduced to an unassuming(cough) warden’s carnage— verbally and then visually —as a gang of thugs get decimated in an enclosure, while various profiles of the decimating silhouette alone are revealed, eventually building up to Thalaivar smirking at us. Coming to think, even King Kong and Godzilla don’t get built up this way.
I’ve never seen a movie since Padayappa that has treated him with such reverence. He’s not only written as some sort of a guardian angel, but consistently framed like one, as his silhouette appears from or dissolves into a sepia beam of light.
There are so many things worked for me, that I don’t really know where to begin. Like this moment he’s asked to play cupid to a young couple. He gets overwhelmed and then implodes. It’s a meta moment. History’s repeating, both within the context of the movie and his oeuvre. For be it, Dharmathin Thalaivan. Nallavanuku Nallavan or even Padayappa, how many times has he been assigned this role.
There were these little directorial touches that we rarely come across in a Rajni film. Like the one where he’s in the mess kitchen narcissistically relishing his own cooking and talking about doing things with love, as we’re introduced to a couple making out. I even loved this stretch before an action block, which has “Malarnundhu Malaradha” playing in an archaic transistor as a subplot about long lost siblings is about to kick in.
Even the costumes fit in beautifully this time. The jackets, cardigans, turtlenecks, the characteristic round necks under unbuttoned shirts, winter boots that hitherto made no sense in the midsummer of cities, factories and villages, make sense in this foggy ecosystem, that seems to have been carefully crafted for Thalaivar to look and dress a certain way.
Petta promised to get one “Rajnified“. That is exactly what it achieves as an unapologetic homage to its star, with a doff of hat at almost every turn. Some subtle and some blatant, the film is filled with Easter eggs, be it his name from Mullum Malarum, the fake snake alarms from Annamalai, the koan studded life instruction song, the mouth organ from Padayappa and even the “Oole Po”(go inside) moment from Basha.
And I couldn’t help but notice the myriad uncanny resemblances to Basha in particular. The way his character’s look is styled in the present. his past as a dreaded gangster in which he loses his best friend, who also happens to be a Muslim. And did I mention the fact that this best friend’s son is called…. Anwar?
But my favourite moment of the lot has to be the manner in which the climax pans out with a band performing “Raman Andalum” from Mullum Malarum that gradually segues into “Marana Mass” from this film as Rajni’s character continues to dance ecstatically. It pretty much summarizes the purpose of the entire movie, a nostalgic jog down the memory lane for an entire generation of fans.