Four years back, when Lingaa flopped at the box office, many voices came out to say that Rajini should now play different kind of roles and play his age. With Pa Ranjith’s Kabali, there was a new Rajini. He played his age. And while his true blue fans cheered him on, there was a sense of discomfiture on their faces. This was not the Rajini they had grown up on. He played his age but the ‘mass’ element was missing in the transformation, despite the trailer having come with promises of ‘Neruppu’. With Kaala, that feeling only grew and in 2.0, they only discussed the technical finesse. Rajini was missing in the discussion.
If anything, Karthik Subbaraj’s Petta has restored the Rajini that people grew up with. This film is part tribute, part fan fiction but at the same time, there is a Karthik Subbaraj element in it. From Mullum Malarum (1978) to Baasha (1995), the film is an ode to several Rajinisms. There is a concrete attempt to resurrect the past, while draping it in contemporariness. There is Simran as one of the leading ladies, again a throwback to the 1990s. You are reminded that it is Rajini’s 165th film. It oozes nostalgia and it works for that reason.
When Kabali had been released, I had written about the curse of superstardom. You can become a superstar after having been an actor but the superstar cannot suddenly decide to play non-conformist roles to be an actor again. And one reason fans do not allow the superstars to move on is that it also means an era in our own lives has come to an end. Petta reaffirms our idea of grand brand Rajini. It has the elements that are predictable and yet those are the elements that make a Rajini film. In that sense, this is the real Rajini film after Sivaji: The Boss, which came more than a decade back. The fans of the superstar have themselves moved on to different roles in their lives but in a world that forces change upon us, we seek some unchanging elements. The idea of Rajinikanth is one such element, that we have not been able to accept with massive changes. Those who have tried doing it have burnt their fingers in the past.
A great Rajini film also had a commendable Rajini villian. There’s Nawazuddin Siddiqui, quite underutilized in this role. There’s Vijay Sethupathi, who shines but is there to prop up further the image of Rajini. One could also have done with more of Simran and Trisha. But this film is not about any of them. It’s about Rajini alone. And it takes us back to yet another blockbuster.
Mild Spoiler Alert
The Pongal of 1995 was unique for moviegoers in Tamil Nadu for that was when Baasha hit the theatres like a tornado. So many years have passed since then but it remains one of the best prototypes of a Rajini film and has also remained a point of reference for several commercial film makers. You find the same elements in Petta too, which is also a Pongal release this year. A happy go lucky man hiding his alter ego, tales set in two cities, a disturbed past, friendships that stress upon communal harmony, revenge and finally an acceptance and resolution of the past. There is a love interest somewhere in between. And in this case, layered political messages too.
Which takes us to the politician and the actor. Who are we seeing on screen – Rajinikanth or Kaali? Politics is not a stranger to Tamil cinema. The cinema of 1950s and 60s was heavily driven by propaganda, with MGR being the face of it. But there was a difference. MGR spoke on screen what his party expected him to speak on screen. The star and person were not two different individuals. Rajini has not been clear with his brand of politics even in the past. His fans spent the entire 1990s lapping up every innuendo of his entry into politics on-screen. Shankar’s Mudhalvan was also written keeping him in mind. But that day took two decades and he has announced his decision to be in politics, though the details remain vague.
In such a situation, the political messages of his movies will be watched even more closely. But in the last few months, it has been clear that the messiah of protests in Kaala is quite different from the Rajini who asked people to keep a check on a culture of continuous protests. We still don’t know if his films reflect his ideology or those of the writers.
Just as the familiar Superstar signage in blue letters at the beginning of a Rajini film brings an indescribable sense of euphoria to any fan, Petta brings that feeling of familiarity. You get what you expect from a typical Rajini film and that’s happened after long. But this moment belongs to Rajinikanth and his fans. It’s old wine in a new bottle. But the wine has aged well.