In the past few weeks, Vijay Sethupathi has had three film releases. He is also hosting a show on a popular Tamil television channel, has given umpteen interviews. Suddenly, Vijay Sethupathi is everywhere: in theatres, on digital platforms, on TV, Youtube. Memes flooded the internet and they progressed to trolls, fuelled by the failure of his recent projects. But VJS is showing no signs of slowing down: he has a long list of projects that are in various stages of production. Thus, the popular opinion came to be: “Are we seeing too much of Vijay Sethupathi”
Valentine’s Day is just over, and love is still in the air. For Tamil cinema, that means bringing back the romance on-screen. And this is one genre that cannot exist without its women. As a female Tamil actor recently observed, women do not get meaty roles unless it is a romcom or a romantic drama. It might be a reflection of the limited roles and spaces we want to see women in, especially on-screen; nevertheless, the genre is crucial when speaking about women’s portrayal. Sure, it has its pitfalls. But, this genre has given us some terrific women characters and has done so more consistently than others. That said, as with every genre, romance also has its share of stereotypes. Kutty Story — the love anthology from Gautham Vasudev Menon, Nalan Kumarasamy, Venkat Prabhu, and Vijay — attempts to break a few of these.
In an interview before the release, Aishwarya Rajesh was asked why the film is named Ka Pae Ranasingam, and she replied that though the film revolves around Ariyanachi (her character), the soul of the film belongs to Ranasingam (Vijay Sethupathi). When you watch the film, you can see the conflict in the narrative. Ka Pae Ranasingam is essentially Ariyanachi’s story but the film focuses more on establishing who Ransingam is. Ka Pae Ranasingam wobbles due to this tug of war and we get a three-hour film that wanders a lot before coming to the point.
Aishwarya Rajesh is bemused about interacting with the press through a Zoom call. “All of this is new to me,” she says, taking in all our faces peering through the little boxes on screen. This actor, whose Ka Pae Ranasingam has begun streaming on Zee Plex, admits to being a fan of the big screen. “I prefer watching films on the big screen. My mom and I used to catch the early morning shows.” She adds that Ka Pae Ranasingam was made for the theatres. “The film has been ready for release since April, but as we had no idea about when theatres would be allowed to open, we had to opt for a digital release. We believe that if a film is good, it will be acknowledged no matter which platform it releases in.”
The plan was for director Arun Kumar and Vijay Sethupathi to do one film together—Pannaiyarum Padminiyum—before they would both move on to other projects and collaborators. But they didn’t anticipate that it would not do well at the box office. Arun couldn’t comprehend this failure at first. Some attributed this to the release timing; after all, Rummy, with the same lead pair in similar get-ups, had released the week before. “Some others asked me why I removed the Koodamela Koodavechi song from the film,” he says.
Vijay Sethupathi is convinced that the formula for all the days of our lives can be found in one day, similar to how the existence of a tree is encapsulated within a seed. For him, this day was when he was first signed as the lead of a film. “I was really excited. I couldn’t sleep,” narrates Vijay Sethupathi. In excitement, he woke up at 3am and went to the gym to find that it was closed. “The film got dropped, and since then, I think I have also lost the idea of hitting the gym,” he says with a laugh. For him, it was a moment of realisation: That if he reaches the peak of excitement and the topic of his excitement fails, it is tough to recreate that euphoria again. Super Deluxe, he says, is about ‘one such fine day’ in the lives of five characters. “That day might have started on a dramatic note but ends with love and wisdom. All of us have that day, that important day, when someone unconnected to our lives, gifts us epiphanies.”
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.
What is art? What makes art? There’s a definite science to it, but is that all? Then, why are few practitioners of art better than the others? One cannot deny the existence of something more — that’s intangible and makes art what it is. Name it what you want: soul, life, spirit, passion, talent, anything. But there’s no denying the fact it is there. Balaji embodies this ‘spirit’ in a wizened thespian, who is interestingly named, Ayya Aadhimoolam which in Tamil translates to ‘the crux’. And Seethakathi, his latest, ponders over what happens when that ‘soul’ leaves.
Arguably the most common accusation a film gets from everyone who consumes cinema, clichés are considered to be an abomination in films. However, as Khaled Hosseini puts it in his book Kite Runner, clichés are also ‘dead-on’. Talking about avoiding clichés in creative writing, he writes, “the aptness of the clichéd saying is overshadowed by the nature of the saying as a cliché.” In fact, to prove his point, he goes on to use a few cliched phrases in the next few lines with brimming charm. Continue reading “Vada Chennai, 96, Badhaai Ho and A Star is Born — Are clichés always bad?”
Thiagaraja Kumararaja’s Aaranya Kaandam (2010) was a game changer in many ways. Touted to be the first neo-noir Tamil film, the film was critically acclaimed and made headlines for its run-in with the censor board. It also fetched a National Award for Kumararaja, who is now set to make a comeback with his second film, Super Deluxe.
Excerpts from a conversation: Continue reading “Aaranya Kaandam was a failure for me: Thiagarajan Kumararaja”