Even as Rajinikanth’s latest movie Petta marches on to become one of the biggest blockbusters in Tamil Cinema, what makes it different from the Tamil superstar’s preceding movies Kabali and Kaala is the general impression that it is an all-out fan-film.
Yes, it is indeed vintage Rajinikanth, the man, the myth and the entire legend in a single package wherein the stylish, do-gooder, larger-than-life images of the actor over the years have been presented as a delectable medley. And Rajini does extremely well to resurrect his mythical movie-self all at one go and enthral the audience.
The storyline with sufficient dramatic twists and turns is about love, rancour and retribution. In the process, many thought it was a straightforward “Thalaivar” film and some even concluded that he was an apolitical entertainer in it.
If you look even reasonably close, the answer is NO!
The movie indeed is a super-stylish thrilling entertainer, but not without very strong political undertones that are quite similar to his last outing Kaala, in which the antagonists are associated with or represent the majoritarian rightwing ideology. If Kabali was just a teaser in which the subaltern-Tamil Dalit political identity asserts itself against hegemonic power, in Kaala, it was clearly Tamil-Dalit Vs Corporate-right wing. In Kaala, Rajinikanth, his life and the people around him were soaked in Ambedkarism and symbols of Dalit-politics, and his antagonist was a cleanliness-obsessed corporate-backed non-Tamil right-winger.
Interestingly, the underlying leitmotif is no different in Petta as well, although the storyline, the presentation and the director are different. Beneath the entertaining surface, Petta’s storyline too is intensely political and here too, besides their villainy, the antagonists embody majoritarian politics. And the way they are set up – both the people and their politics – is not subtle – but very explicit and carefully detailed.
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In terms of screen space and time, the villain that gets more prominence is Jithu, the character played by Vijay Sethupathi, a top-billing Tamil actor. He is a gorakshak, a moral vigilante and even a mass murderer who burns people alive. He sports a saffron tikka on his forehead, has a saffron cloth around his neck all the time and walks around with a danda. His activities, with the help of a thuggish mob in similar attire, are depicted in considerable detail which clearly recreates the cow-protection, lynching and moral-policing episodes that have been reported from states such as Uttar Pradesh.
Vijay Sethupathi’s Jithu is a gorakshak, a moral vigilante and even a mass murderer who burns people alive.
Jithu is the sidekick of the main antagonist Singaaram, or Singaar Singh, who is a criminal politician and he too sports the same signifiers as that of Jithu. His party has saffron flags and associated signs and sounds. He is devout too. In one of the scenes his backdrop is an elaborate arati.
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And guess what, this Tamil move is set in Uttar Pradesh of all the places. Why should Singaaram, who had a past rivalry with Rajinikanth (or Petta Velan, his character) in the movie, run away to Uttar Pradesh of all the places? Why should the political pastime of the villains be the kind of vigilantism that we hear from states such as Uttar Pradesh. There’s more. Rajini’s closest friend is named Malik and his son, who the villains want to kill, is Anwar.
That’s why Petta too is political. The story doesn’t end there. At one stage, as a matter of strategy, Rajini projects one of the antagonists as a victim, but clarifies in the end that he indeed is a bad man. A guy who does such macabre things – almost entirely as a political thug – cannot be a good fellow and doesn’t deserve sympathy.
The movie was not written and made overnight, but over a few years. So, every situation could have been discussed threadbare and Rajinikanth would indeed have approved as to why the critical setting of the movie is in Uttar Pradesh, why the politics of the antagonists looked the way it did, and why Jithu, the political-thug indulged in what he did. Interestingly, in one scene, his lynch-mob friends turn against him and accuse him of peddling beef. The politics couldn’t have gotten more evident than this.
So, there’s indeed a political continuum in the last three Rajni movies and it’s not concealed at all although the superstar’s charm, style, entertainment quotient and the director’s skill effectively prevent it from screaming in your face. Petta’s politics is as much about Tamil regionalism taking on the rightwing majoritarian nationalism as it was in Kaala. The only difference is that in Kaala, it was subsumed by Ambedkarite politics.
If an actor who has already announced his political entry takes the opposite side of a certain type of politics, it can’t be merely coincidental. There’s certainly a message. Let’s wait and see.