Thoughts on the writing of “Petta”…

Posted on January 20, 2019

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Spoilers ahead…

I wanted to respond to a few comments (can’t remember them all now), and instead of one long comment, a post made more sense. So here goes:

I watched Petta a second time, and it “fit together” better. It still doesn’t work entirely and there are big problems with the writing (which I will come to), but this time around, I saw it as much more of a Karthik Subbaraj film than I gave it credit for in my review.

So I part ways with Madan when he says: A mass film like Petta is ostensibly meant to appeal to the largest section of the audience

This is not a “mass” film at all. (For that matter, neither is Viswasam, which is more of a Telugu-style action/melodrama. This may be the biggest surprise of this Pongal, that we got two films from “mass” stars that were not exactly “mass” movies.)

A “mass” film — especially a Rajinikanth film — has very clean, linear writing, with potent emotional landmines being planted regularly. But from the beginning, Petta is twisty as hell (a KS trademark). The narrative begins with a fight, and the bulk of the first half loops back to this fight (through a flashback).

This is a device that has been handled in many films earlier, with effective results. So why does Petta feel emotionally distant? (Now don’t say YOU were moved to tears, et cetera. This piece is about MY reaction. If I say it once, it’s like I’ve said it a hundred times.)

Because of the density of KS’s writing. Now, this is a good thing and works like gangbusters in his dramas, but here, it undermines the cleanness/pureness of the emotional through-line we are meant to feel.

What is this emotional through-line?

That Petta Velan decided to return from exile when he knew Anwar is back in India, where he could get hurt by Singaram. That he becomes a guardian. And when things get too far, he sets out to kill Singaram.

This is loosely the story arc of Main Hoon Na, and it works very well there because (a) it is a simpler, linear, star-driven narrative, but more importantly (b) we, the audience are always in the know. We know who Shah Rukh is, how he is related to Zayed Khan (the Anwar equivalent). So, we ALWAYS feel Shah Rukh’s emotions.

But here, the writing (which is KS’s style) is constantly cross-cutting between events. (I am not talking about the editing. I am talking about the screenplay.) So the emotional responses are delayed, and sometimes never attained.

A quick point here: If you want to view Petta as just an action film, filled with Thalaivar swag, then good for you — f0r it works much better seen that way. But I see it as more than that.

Take the superb sequence in the train compartment where Poongodi delivers her child, aided by transgender people. It’s the warmest moment in the movie. (Even the golden light is warmer than it is in the other scenes.) One of the transgender people brings the baby to Petta and says, “Unga marumagan aayirathula oru porappu. Bathirama paathukonga.

THIS is the basis of everything in the film. But it comes AFTER the first half. Its impact is diluted. It’s very emotional in itself (as a scene), but its impact is not felt in the first half.

Now, the scene where Mangalam texts Petta good night and he smiles. He then picks up a photo and smiles fondly as the background is filled with sentimental music.

Again, it’s only in the second half that we know what this photograph is (the one with Malik, Poongodi, Petta and Saroja posing together). What is Petta thinking when he sees that picture after 20 years? That he is close to finding a life partner? That he cannot think of a life partner till he avenges those in the picture? The moment doesn’t make sense because KS has made the (writing) decision to reveal the photograph only in the second half, and at this point, he cannot explain Petta’s feelings. So it ends up a “dead” scene. (I still cannot get over how Anu and Mangalam are completely written out of the second half.)

Now, let’s look at the reason for Petta’s decision to stay away for 20 years. It should have been much more powerful than “Yengeyo nimmadhiya irukkalamnu peraasai.” Having packed off Poongodi/Anwar to Australia, nothing is stopping Petta from hunting down the man who killed his Saroja and Malik. (In Baasha, this decision to refrain from revenge is clearly explained: it’s a promise he makes.)

Like MANK said in a comment, a journeyman director may have followed a more conventional route and ended up with a more involving drama. KS is very ambitious (which is why we like him, right?). No Rajinikanth film, ever, has had such a dense screenplay. Which is a good thing, in a way. Not so good in another.

One of the characteristics of good writing/characterisation is that if you remove a character (or a stretch of the events) from the film, the narrative should feel incomplete. I am not talking about the very minor characters, like those in a comedy track. I am talking about those who occupy a significant chunk of screen space.

Take Baasha. The heroine is linked to the sub-villain. The villain is linked to the main villain. The hero’s father is linked to the villain, and to the REASON the hero decides to live in exile (which forms the first half). The hero’s family is linked, again, to the promise he makes.

This is what it’s like with Viswasam. Here, the REASON (the equivalent of the promise in Baasha, the binding glue of the film) is the daughter. The wife’s decision to move away revolves around this daughter. The villain’s motives revolve around this daughter. The hero’s second half revolves around this daughter. (“I put you in danger when you were a child. I will atone for it now. I will not make the same mistake again.)

They are clean, simple, unambitious, but very effective screenplays. You take one character away and something falls apart — you have to find a new way to make the screenplay “balanced” again. The emotional through-line is very clear.

Apart from the Rajini celebration (which was there in Baasha too, if you remember), Petta doesn’t use its pre-interval portions well. You want the BIG REVEAL, the lead-up to the second half, only at interval point. So you fill the first half with fairly inconsequential things, including the Michael character, whose only real use (narrative-wise)  is that his father has goons that Petta can take with him to Uttar Pradesh. These goons, frankly, could have been got in any other way, and we would not have questioned this particular aspect at all.

In other words, if you take away the Michael portions of the film, you lose practically nothing. But take away the Michael equivalent (the “sub” villain) in Baasha’s first half — that is, the heroine’s father — and the narrative begins to wobble. This man is present – or at least, his presence is felt — throughout the film. Here, once Michael vanishes, no one misses him. (It was, frankly, a bit of a relief for me.)

So, why does KS need the Michael character?

Because he likes to build complex worlds. Michael’s video goes to Jithu/Singaram, and they see Anwar. (But they don’t recognise him as Poongodi’s son, if I remember this right. They just think of him as some Valentine’s Day mischief-maker who has to be put in his place. I think it’s only in the cross-cutting pre-interval stretch that Singaram realises who Anwar is, looking at his FB page). They send goons to kill Anwar. Petta realises that these goons are not Michael’s goons but sent by someone else. And thus, he gets an idea of Singaram’s whereabouts. So Petta and Singaram discover each other by… accident? Because the local minster happened to send that video to Singaram? Something like, Rama… stumbles upon Ravana while picking berries with Sita? The mythic element of the narrative takes a serious beating here.

This “novelistic” way of writing, I’d argue, works much better in a Jigarthanda or an Iraivi, which don’t have the burden of serving a HUGE star. And due to this “novelistic” density of the writing, some of the events in the timeline are confusing. For instance, here’s Amit Joki’s comment:

Firstly, Nawaz didn’t really treat VS as his son throughout the film. He really does use VS as a henchmen. VS may not have been Rajini’s son alright, but he wasn’t Nawaz’s either. We don’t see Nawaz’s wife any where.

It’s clearly explained in the second half that “Sullaan” (a cheeky nod to Rajinikanth’s son-in-law?) had a woman in Madurai, and Jithu is her son. Then, he came to UP and married into a powerful family, and Arijit is that other son. A less ambitious director would have dwelt on these events a bit (and not just have the whole thing narrated), or even pumped up the antagonism between Arijit and Jithu (after all, this is a huge reason Jithu buys into Petta’s lies). Could removing the “terror boys” angle have allowed the first half to give us more of the Jithu/Singaram/Arijit dynamics?

The masala echoes — Singaram’s “naattu vedi” countered by Jithu’s bombs in a bag, or how Singaram’s Hindu hardline party is but an extension of his father’s talk of “jaadhi veri oori pochu”  — don’t register all that well.

So does this mean Viswasam is better than Petta? Not at all. I have no immediate desire to see Viswasam again. I’ve seen it once. It did its job well. Watching it again would give me nothing. Whereas, Petta is a film that can be grappled with — both as a “Rajinikanth film” and as a “Karthik Subbaraj film”, and that’s why it cannot be dismissed. Or compared with a “simpler” film like Viswasam.

And it certainly is not just an empty-calorie “mass” film. It’s a half-satisfying masala/drama, and for those who take this genre seriously, it’s going to keep rewarding repeat viewings.

Now don’t ask why someone would keep re-watching films they aren’t that happy about in the first place. That’s what sets apart people who love the art form from those who just want to be entertained. If I say it once, it’s like I’ve said it a hundred times.

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Posted in: Cinema: Tamil