Tamil director Karthik Subbaraj’s fifth movie is his biggest yet. Petta stars Rajinikanth as Kaali, a hostel warden who protects his turf from characters played by Vijay Sethupathi and Nawazuddin Siddiqui. The star-studded film has Trisha Krishnan, Simran, Bobby Simha and M Sasikumar in the cast, and will be released during Pongal on January 10 alongside Ajith’s new movie Viswasam.

Petta’s slickly cut trailer is a treat for Rajinikanth fans – it showcases the Tamil screen icon’s trademark gestures and contains references to some of his most iconic roles. The name Kaali itself is a nod to Rajinikanth’s character from J Mahendran’s Mullum Mallarum (1978). Petta has “all the dimensions of Rajinikanth’s performances”, Subbaraj promised in a telephone interview from Chennai.

The 36-year-old director made a well-received debut in 2012 with Pizza, starring Vijay Sethupathi, followed by Jigarthanda (2014), Iraivi (2016) and Mercury (2018). Petta has been shot in Darjeeling, Dehradun, Lucknow and Varanasi, and will also be released in Hindi and Telugu to extend the Sun Pictures production’s market beyond Rajinikanth’s traditional territories. “We wanted to make sure that it does not look like a dubbed film,” Subbaraj told Scrol.in. “We have worked a lot on the dialogue and the dialect.”

You have said in interviews that Rajinikanth was the reason you got into films. How did ‘Petta’ take shape?
I grew up watching Rajini sir. Once I started making films, I wanted him to see my work. That happened with Pizza itself. He also liked my work in Jigarthanda, and that was when I met him for the first time. He told me that Bobby Simha’s role in the film reminded him of his character Parattai in 16 Vayathinile. I told him that I had him in mind when I wrote Assault Sethu for Jigarthanda, and he said that had he known, he would have played the character.

Rajini sir told me to come to him with a good script. I took it seriously and started working on Petta.

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Petta (2019).

‘Petta’ appears to be a different zone from Rajinikanth’s recent politically-themed films ‘Kabali’
and Kaala’. How has the film channelled his screen persona?
His style has always been unique. Even in Enthiran, the high points in the movie were Rajini sir’s moments.

Kabali or Kaala are very different, and are serious stories. Luckily, this script has all the dimensions of Rajini sir’s performances. Rajini sir’s main strengths are his charm, his style and the fun that he represents. When I started writing the script, the things that I adore about Rajini sir came in automatically. He is an actor who can perform any sort of scene, be it romance, comedy, serious action or emotional. He can also seamlessly switch from one sequence to another.

The story is about a hostel warden at a hill station. Kaali is a tribute to Rajini sir’s character from Mullum Malarum. That film moved me, and I connected to it deeply, especially with his character. However, the similarity stops with the name. We were very clear that Kaali from Petta has his own attitude and style.

The film is like a fan event. From the makeup to the hair, we wanted everything to bring out Rajini sir’s charm. Since I have loved the way Rajinikanth acts, I have brought in references. Rajini sir opens the gate in one scene just like he did in Apoorva Raagangal. I wanted it to be memorable for me as a fan. I suggested incorporating small mannerisms from his older films. There are shots that people will relate to and connect with his old films.

What was it like working with Rajinikanth?
He was very energetic in the songs, dances and stunts. He was as energetic as he was in his prime in the ’80s and ’90s. You imagine something and write a scene, but Rajini sir performed at another level. If my level was seven or eight, he took it to 10.

None of us can define why we were attracted to Rajinikanth or the magic he does. But he does have some sort of magic. Beyond that, I see him as one of the greatest performers in our country. Beyond the style and the stunts, he is a very detailed performer. He knows his meter, and his meter is different from other actors. When you give him a heavy scene, he performs in a different way. I wanted the performer in Rajinikanth to show in the film.

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Mullum Malarum (1978).

‘Petta’ is your most mainstream film yet, with a huge canvas and cast. How challenging was it for you to scale up?
This script is definitely different. This is the most massy, commercial script I have written so far. It was a new experience for me to create scenes for a larger-than-life hero. I could not treat the scenes as I have in Pizza or Iraivi. But we also did not want Petta to be an out-and-out masala film as it has very strong content.

Tell us about the other actors in ‘Petta’, including Vijay Sethupathi and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who makes his debut in Tamil cinema.
This film has important, strong characters. Rajini sir was also excited when I said we have Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Vijay Sethupathi. The characters have their own space and importance. When you see so many good performers in the same frame, it is exciting for me as a director.

I am a very big fan of Nawazuddin – what an actor he is. From Gangs of Wasseypur to Badlapur, I have seen all his films. I also feel that his face is very South Indian.

Rajini sir used to say that Baasha [1995] worked very well because it had such a strong antagonist in Raghuvaran. He believed in having a strong antagonist to give the story a good kick. That is why when Petta demanded two antagonists, we decided on Nawazuddin and Vijay Sethupathi. The casting is unusual, the combination is new, and it holds together the drama very well.

Karthik Subbaraj. Courtesy Silverscreen Media Inc, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Karthik Subbaraj. Courtesy Silverscreen Media Inc, CC BY-SA 3.0.