Rajinikanth protects his turf in more ways than one in Karthik Subbaraj’s Petta. The unabashed fan-boy tribute has none of the gravitas of the Tamil screen icon’s recent films Kabali and Kaala, and its hero is a flesh-and-blood character bubbling with vitality and vim rather than the computer-generated figures from 2.0. Subbaraj’s screenplay smartly draws on Rajinikanth’s back catalogue and is overflowing with the lines, witticisms and gestures that have endeared the actor to his fanbase and made every new release the equivalent of sighting a deity.

In between reeling off numerous quotations from Rajinikanth’s previous films, Subbaraj spins a yarn that spans generations and locations. Petta has traces of the Hindi film Main Hoon Na even as it reworks Rajinikanth’s older blockbusters, most notably Baasha from 1995. The screenplay has two distinct parts. The first is better, with fewer characters and a lot less going on.

Rajinikanth plays Kaali, the new hostel warden at Saint Woods College, which is plagued by corruption and bullying. The over-achieving Kaali cleans up the place overnight by showing thuggish student Michael (Bobby Simha) and his posse who the real boss is. In between brandishing his fists and a nunchaku, Kaali displays his cooking skills, an impeccable taste in old Tamil film music and finds the time to size up Mangalam (Simran), the mother of one of his students.

Mangalam is soon eclipsed by a host of other characters who hold clues to Kaali’s not-so-mysterious past. Nawazuddin Siddiqui is wasted as opportunistic Right-wing politician Singara, but Vijay Sethupathi waddles his way to prominence as Jithu, Singara’s son and chief trouble-maker. Jithu finds something better to do than disrupting Valentine’s Day celebrations and punishing “anti-Indians” (this movie’s feeble attempts to smuggle a politic message into an entertainer), setting up a blood-splattered climax that promises a sequel.

Petta (2019).

The plot fits on a single page, but Subbaraj’s insistence on filling in the margins bloat the running time to 173 minutes. Petta unravels as it tries to cram in too much and too many twists, and some characters come off poorly – a recurring problem with Rajinikanth films, in which the fixation with the star’s persona invariably throws every other actor into the shadows.

There are, however, no signs of laziness or ineptitude in the packaging of familiar elements. The cleverly directed action sequences make the aging actor appear credible, and S Tirru’s slick camerawork bathes the icon in a golden hue at every available opportunity. The punchy soundtrack, by Anirudh Ravichander, is smoothly integrated into the busy screenplay.

Petta is always on the move, like its hero, and Subbaraj directs the film with a sure hand, deftly channeling Rajnikanth’s full-throttle energy and charm and allowing Indian cinema’s hardest working superstar to reclaim his throne. The actor relishes the mega-sized fan tribute, and he makes sure that he doesn’t waste a single minute that he is on the screen.