When Petta was announced, Karthik Subbaraj was quick enough to say that it would be a film for the fans, made by one as well. This was looked at with some apprehension by people who have grown to like the young filmmaker’s unique, maverick style of filmmaking. Will it be a Rajini film or a Karthik Subburaj film, they pondered. Well, now that the film is out, I see a lot of comments that it was a Rajini film rather than a Karthik Subbaraj one. Petta had almost all the motifs of Karthik (even though he says he doesn’t want to be associated, we have come to see a few in his films), even though he disappointed me in more than few places.
A constant feature of the Karthik Subbaraj story is that it weaves several genres or plot points that could have been independent films of their own. Similarly, Petta weaves in several genres into one mosaic with Rajini’s face on it. On one hand, it is a family drama, but there’s also a revenge saga, a campus story, a sand-mafia gangster tale buried in it. And there’s also the slightly bizarre but ironic endings that Karthik gives his characters. A laughter-hating don becomes a comedy actor; a blind man gets to see his family in Mercury… you get the drift. Petta has a similar ending for Pettavelan. Even the background score, is peppered with evergreen numbers from the yore — Anirudh gives a blazing soundtrack but at the same time you sense Karthik’s hand. The stylised visuals, the marginally darker frames — all are indicative of Karthik Subbaraj and his sensibilities.
Karthik has given us strong female characters; they are in the film because they make a difference. However, the women in Petta are a major disappointment. Right from his first film, Karthik’s on -screen women were in the story because they made a difference. Even Iraivi’s Malar (who has a comparatively smaller role than the other two women) is an admirably written character. However, in Petta, most of the women don’t have much to do except for the exception of Poongudi (Malavika Mohanan). As lovely as Mangalam (Simran) and Saro (Trisha) look, it was painful to see them be reduced to a few coy looks and smiles. Maybe, I wouldn’t have been so outraged if it had been someone else.
But this isn’t restricted only to the female characters. Petta has a long list of actors, in characters that don’t deserve them. Nawazuddin Siddiqui, for me, tops this list closely followed by Vijay Sethupathi and Mahendran. The more I think about it, the more Petta feels like a checklist film for Karthik Subbaraj. Considering he had Rajinikanth on board, did Karthik use Petta as an opportunity to work with all the actors he aspired to?
In more than one way, Viswasam, the other release for the week, and Petta are similar. Both are odes to the actor they idolise — it is about invoking the nostalgia and charm of the star they have become. (In fact, I am more excited for Ajith’s film with H.Vinoth.)
Petta is a handcrafted love letter from Karthik Subbaraj to his matinee idol. There are more than enough references to Rajini’s avatars and previous films — the pambu from Annamalai, the ‘Ulle po’ and rolling chair from Baasha, the ‘haaan’ from Raja Chinna Roja. While it was extremely enjoyable to see Rajini in a young, energetic avatar, haven’t we enjoyed Rajini in his all-charming glory for so many years? Why is it that we want the rest of Kollywood to evolve, but exclude the biggest stars out of the process?
Which is why Kaala will still be my favourite Rajini film of recent times. While fans might disagree, what Pa Ranjith and Rajini did was unique and it was new. It was Rajini exploring.