While Petta brings back the vintage Rajni, it falls just short of being a truly great Rajni-ism movie like Baasha and Padayappa.

Petta, as heavily advertised, is a tribute to Rajni from Karthik Subburaj, and it doesn’t disappoint. From the iconic name crawl of R-A-J-N-I in the opening credits, it’s quite clear that it’s going to be a treat for the fans from the director, a self-confessed fanboy himself. With the last decade being largely forgettable for Rajni, it’s a delight to watch him embrace his stylish superstar swagger wholeheartedly for the first time since Padayappa.

Rajni (Kaali / Petta) is a hostel warden at a nondescript convent in Darjeeling, but it’s quite evident he has a past flashback. Rajni breezes through his scenes as the hostel warden charming Simran, pranking Ramdoss, acting as a guardian angel for the students and putting the college bullies in their place. While Petta teases you with a few gratifying moments, the movie doesn’t really get going until late in the first half when the action kicks in. A MISA branded on his arms adds to the build-up and hints at something bigger at play. As the story unwinds, we are introduced to the other major players in the story, leading to a frenzy of activity just before the interval block.

Once the obligatory flashback is done and dusted, Karthik Subburaj wastes no time in assembling his main pieces in Uttar Pradesh for the final act. Rajni is pitted against a sea of saffron for the second straight movie, this time led by right-wing politician, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and his aide Vijay Sethupathy. It makes for a compelling, action-laden, punch-dialogue-heavy second half. Karthik Subburaj has a penchant for turning a story right on its head. In Pizza, he transformed a horror story into a heist in the blink of an eye, while Jigarthanda was quite literally a reversal of fortunes. He throws a curveball at us in Petta as well, a brilliant twist which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Petta is a concoction of the Rajni movies we loved and grew up with. The pop culture references I remember from the movie are the snake joke (Padayappa), Ulle Po (Basha), and the legendary cigarette toss seen in numerous movies. It wasn’t just these delightful little easter eggs, but even some portions of the main plot that make you reminisce of earlier Rajni movies. They were intended to give us a nostalgic rush and it works like a charm, primarily because Karthik Subburaj truly understands what the fans (himself included) really want to see from their larger-than-life star.

While Petta boasts an impressive ensemble cast, it was rather disappointing that nobody was allowed to steal the center stage from Rajni, barring Vijay Sethupathy, whose growing myth continues to soar. Sasikumar, Trisha, Simran, and Bobby Simha are reduced to background actors. Vijay Sethupathy impresses as a South Indian playing a North Indian, but Nawazuddin Siddiqui struggles while doing the exact opposite. As the movie’s main antagonist, Singaar Singh was no match for Mark Antony or Neelambari. The movie has other issues as well. With a 171-minute runtime, it certainly feels overlong at times. I also felt Karthik Subburaj could have perhaps milked the Rajni-ism moments even better.

Rajnikanth is one of those enigmas that pervades logic. You cannot confine his movies to the usual barometers for judging a film. It was movies like Annamalai, Baasha, Muthu, Arunachalam, and Padayappa that spawned an era of “mass” movies. Petta is also a throwback to a much simpler time when Rajni movies were meant to bring unbridled entertainment for people of all ages. While Petta brings back the vintage Rajni, it doesn’t do enough to join the pantheon of truly great “Rajni-ism” movies like Baasha and Padayappa.