Petta is one of the best glamor shoots for its leading man Rajinikant. No really, after Mani Ratnam's Thalapathi as far back as 1991, this is probably the most beautiful looking 'Superstar' movie. Whether bathed in russet and amber glow, or cloaked in steel blue shadow, slightly out of focus like an emerging myth or sharp and up close like a sculpture in stone, the Rajini aura has almost never been so lovingly burnished. The legend himself, nattily dressed with mane-like coiffured hairpiece, looks relaxed and happy, a lion in his own jungle. Of course, Petta is far less ambitious than Thalapathi. In the erstwhile film Rajinikant played the Mahabharat inspired Surya / Karna, the iconic back-lighting as much in service of the character as of the star. Petta has no such thematic pretensions. The swanky production design (Suresh Selvarajan) and cinematographic lusciousness (S. Tirru) are for cosmetic effect (and what's wrong with that?). More crucially, Karthik 'Jigarthanda' Subbaraj's script is also purely in homage to the shrine of Rajini.
Using his iconic screen name 'Kaali', Rajini-saar swishes in as the new hostel warden of one of the strangest institutions: One with a cathedral sized assembly hall and a budget for candles that would make Sanjay Leela Bhansali proud, and prestigious enough to attract students from Australia, but where over-age thugs swagger the halls hazing newcomers, and the hostel idlis are hard enough to literally brain folks with. Kaali's entrance is equally strange - apparently his recommendation for the warden's post comes from the Prime Minister's secretary. When the true background of the character is revealed, one immediately wonders how he could have wrangled such a connection, but Petta's not a film for believable explanations. Kaali comes, he sees and he conquers - first the ragging thugs (led by Bobby Simha), then the corrupt mess contractor. While playing matchmaker to a young pair that came in from Australia, he meets cute with the girl's pranic healer mom (Simran, in real life near the age of Rajini's daughter, which here makes her an apt "mature romance" candidate).
A brilliantly shot "hero" action sequence with flashlights dancing in darkened corridors culminates in a dramatic reveal of Kaali's true purpose (with the expected drawn out flashback), and the introduction of new antagonists - Nawazuddin Siddiqui (dubbed) and Vijay Sethupati. The rest of the movie is about how Kaali takes the fight into the enemy's stronghold for the ultimate showdown, no prizes for guessing who wins. Some of the violence towards the end is unnecessarily gruesome (although not uncommon in the 80's potboilers Petta's roots lie in)
Petta is in the best and worst ways, a brand Rajini film: He talks, he walks, he dances, he nun-chucks, he everythings. There are numerous movie nods to both Rajini filmography and other references - Mullum Malarum's Raman aandalum Ravana aandalum, rival Kamalahaasan's Andhi mazhai, Ennio Morricone's TGTBTU theme also gets a hat-tip. No character other than 'baas' carries any real weight. Simha and Sethupati have sufficient talent to bring nuance to their parts (and to be fair, Subbaraj does strive to make them more than run of the mill henchmen), but I doubt they would have accepted the roles without the R-factor. Some interesting supporting actor / cameo choices for Tamil movie fans - veteran comedian YG Mahendran, actor-director M Sasikumar (Subramaniapuram) and J Mahendran (he directed Rajini in Mullum Malarum) The women (Simran, Trisha, Malavika Mohanan, Megha Akash) uniformly have "say your two lines and GTFO" appearances. Once the action begins they are pushed off-stage, not returning even for a "The End" frame. Baas' party is purely a Boys' affair, but those invited are guaranteed a good time.