Petta- The Rajni movie we all deserved

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.

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Roast of Kaala

We’ve often seen visual metaphors employed in great movies as a narrative device, to drive home a thought or reflect a state of mind through images alone- like a dried up pond to depict lack of prosperity or an insect caught in a spider web when a character’s caught in a convoluted mess. Then we have the not so subtle ones like a dog seated under a table standing in for an underdog. Kaala falls under this category. Rajni’s Kaala is constantly seen in a black sabari malai costume. He’s constantly sporting a pair of shades and even drives a black jeep while talking things like “Uzhaippin vanam karuppu“(Colour of labour is black). This excess doesn’t stop here, but goes on to become a character defining tool throughout the running time. All white skinned folks that show up onscreen— men, mongrels and idlis —are bad, vulgar, close minded and racist; while the dark skinned ones are hard working good Samaritans, extremely broad minded and liberal. And most importantly, apostles of dravidianism.

The movie feels like those drowsy post lunch history periods in school. In fact it opens with one such anthropological AV, which resembles those state govt sponsored documentaries  that played in single screens to get electrical subsidies.

To the movie’s credit it constantly keeps trying to reinvent the wheel, but often than not keeps finding itself in the “unintentionally funny” territory. Take this for instance, a bunch of nondescript dudes show up to rap jack-shit, every time someone’s murdered graphically. We’re shown a suspended corpse of a young bloke, moments later to only see this motley bunch, agony rap below the very post he’s hung from. Leave the fact that this neither turns out cool nor novel, but the very idea feels very wrong and inappropriate, like the thought of Kamal preceding over a Ganapathi Homam.

Another thing that got me curious was the love track between Rajni and Huma Qureshi. What’s it with Ranjith and the recurring motif of estranged elder couples. If Kabali focused on a separated husband and wife, who later unite to the tune of Mayanadhi, this one pedals the unrequited romance in Kaala’s life. Every time they cross paths— or for that matter even their neighbors or their dried clothes or pets — the Kannama track solicitously cues us to soak in the poetry of their epic tragedy, even if we’re just interested in checking our phones. This track feels like those complimentary welcome drinks that accompany a buffet, to only spoil the appetite.

Fascinating things happen through the course of movie(not in a nice way), that your head keeps oscillating from “what the fuck” to “yaaawwwnnn”. Agreed Dharavi is a microcosm of India, but here every character that pops out on the screen sounds like they’ve stepped out from different Mani Ratnam movies from different eras with weird ethnic accents.
Another such gem is that Hari dada apparently kills Kaala’s dad in front of his eyes in his wedding and still both of them go through an extremely polite meet and greet when they meet decades later. Not often do you see such big hearted compassion in a mainstream feature centred around a thug, who not just forgives, but offers a welcome drink to his father’s killer.

I’m all for looking at ancient folklore through the prism of today’s socio political ecosystem. This is a beautiful way to dust the cob webs, while keeping the core embalmed in relevance. Thalapathy did this. So did Rajneeti. While the protagonists were demigods and demons in their spirits, they came in the skins of flawed mortals. This made for a fascinating marriage between myth and mainstream. Storytelling was the sole focus behind these unions. These interpretations were removed of malice or mischief of any kind. Objectivity was the only scaffolding that held them together. They never were a artifice to drum out personal agenda or a pet prejudice. That’s what was the most hurtful part about Kaala. The Rama-Ravana play that goes with absolute prejudice. Dandakaranya Nagar, regular shots of Rama idol with dramatic musical cues from Conjuring movies. And the self referencing of Rajini as a one headed Ravana. The list goes on.It could’ve been an angry blog or a drunken stupor, but the fact that this was made as a mainstream theatrical greenlit by the mascot of “spiritual politics” has to be the among the biggest ironies of the decade.

The dravidian agenda gets doled out myopically, subverting the Ramayana from being good vs evil or even righteous husband vs his wife’s abductor to North vs South, Class vs Crass and white vs black, like the myth was only about these things leaving it like an orange sucked of all its pulp, to only be called bitter. A progressive Ravana as opposed to a chauvinistic Rama who expects women to touch his feet. The statement against centuries of patriarchy is an absolute necessity, but not in this fashion; not as a gun that pulls another bullet at the heart of the ideological another Hindu god. And the parallel narration of Ramayana in the climax as the Ravana personifying  Kaala, gets decimated head by head reeks of perversion and deep rooted hatred.

Okay, let’s leave aside the problematic sub texts and the reams of political incorrectness, does it at least work as a simple minded Rajni movie? No. The power play between him and the villain is lopsided, but not in the way we’re used to in a Rajini film. Every time he opposes Hari Dada, he gets pummeled down with greater force. He throws ego tantrums, the villain obliterates his family members like rag dolls. He warns the villain, the villain acknowledges with a bomb that reduces his dear hamlet to ashes and charred survivors. He takes the battle to the streets, the villain kills him over a early morning prayer without moving a finger. The moral victory they were going for in the end, comes almost as an ambiguous after thought.
Remember that iconic scene from Padayappa, where he pulls a swing from the ceiling. Now imagine the same scene had that swing fallen on Rajni’s head instead or had one of his sidekicks done it for him. Kaala essentially turns out as either this movie or that.