Yes, that’s Abbas’s line from Padayappa. Not necessarily the best Rajni ” moment” that by any stretch of imagination, in fact the scene might look downright funny to any soul a stranger to RCU, that’s yes Rajni Cinematic Universe and Karthik Subbaraj the director of Petta has made a film which proves that he is stuck in a cinematic time warp of sorts where that dialogue from Padayappa is played over and over again. But he wouldn’t be alone there, considering the fact that the Superstar has a fan base in lands as far as Japan. Rajnikanth might very well be the only import to that country. Okay, maybe I did exaggerate a bit there, but we are talking Rajnikanth and his films where everything is larger than life. The last time a director paid tribute to Rajnikanth was with Sivaji when Shankar finally got to work with him, though one can’t help sigh wondering how Mudhalvan would have turned out had the star said yes to Shankar. Bygones are bygones and a decade since, a young filmmaker has brought the Rajnikanth every fan yearned for, back to the screen.
Rajnikanth is 68 and he is most probably the only star his size in our part of the world who is the least bothered about looking his age off the screen, he can afford to do that simply because the energy and charisma he brings to his characters on the screen is something even his younger peers cannot match. In Petta he plays a college warden who appears to be more than just that and there’s a hint of mystery to everything he does and says. You know something’s brewing because you have watched him do that in the first half of Bhaasha too. But this time, he is not taking any blows, he’s only delivering them, verbal and physical to anyone who stands in his way. The first half of the movie is essentially a walk in the museum of all things Rajnikanth. Karthik Subbaraj uses everything from silhouettes to shadows to the sound of the star whislting to drive the fans into frenzy. Rajnikanth gets another introduction scene just before the interval which takes us into a narrative totally removed from the fun and frolic of the first half. But before he gets serious Karthik Subbaraj ensures that the fan in every viewer is fed well. Rajnikanth channels his inner Bruce Lee more than once and there’s even a scene where he displays his nunchak skills, obviously a throwback to his Paayumpuli days. Then there’s a song set on the hostel grounds where Rajnikanth shows us that he hasn’t lost his groove. The only time the audience erupted for a scene without the star was when Vijay Sethupathi appeared on the screen. Vijay Sethupathi again sleepwalks in a film where he has little else to do other than being a satellite to the star at the centre. Other Karthik Subbaraj regulars are splattered across the canvas, namely Bobby Simha. Simran makes a breezy comeback and Rajnikanth again gets to show that his charisma hasn’t faded in romantic scenes and songs. But in the second half it’s an entirely different film and these characters disappear. We do not miss them because another set of actors take their place. Sasikumar appears in a role that has shades of more than one buddy character from Rajnikanth films of yore. Nawazzudin Siddiqui in his Tamil debut is in a role that is essentially what we identify him with the most thanks to popular cinema, the nonchalant gangster with a hint of psychopathy.
Kabaali and Kaala were films where the director used Rajnikanth as a medium to sell his politics but unlike Pa. Ranjith, Karthik Subbaraj has done what the likes of K.S Ravikumar, Suresh Krishna has done in the past, build a shrine for the Thalaiva. Apart from that he has also done something clever here, I feel. Despite Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Vijay Sethupathi playing bad guys to Rajnikanth, Karthik Subbaraj who is also the writer has written a character for his favorite actor which almost makes a statement that in the ultimate Rajnikanth film, it’s the star who plays both the hero and the villain. Interestingly this is the second time in a row where a Rajnikanth film references Ramayana, given Tamil Naud’s love-hate relationship historically with the mythological epic. If you see Rajnikanth as a Christ figure against a cross in the first half, he is almost Krishna justifying the means to a win when pitted against opponents who are kin in the second half. Karthik Subbaraj also has taken a subtle jab at the hard right politics here. The only time the film drags a bit is when it ceases to a Rajnikanth film somehere in the middle of the second half and tries to take a serious tone but Karthik Subbaraj, I think it’s to safe to say, saves the film from an inevitable mediocre ending with a cinematic sleight of hand of sorts that will leave the audience stunned, much like the characters on the screen. After two back to back movies laden heavily with political themes, Petta is just what the doctor ordered for the Superstar and his fans. Rajnified indeed, to the dot.