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Big Brother Is Watching

Courtesy photo

Annaatthe (2021)

When “The Irishman” digitally de-aged its stars – Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino – many complained they still moved like senior citizens. In “Annaatthe,” 70-year-old legendary Tamil superstar Rajinikanth is under a blow-dried ’80s rock band wig and an entire cake’s worth of concealer to appear decades younger, but at the very least he carries himself accordingly – which is not to say he hasn’t had help from some movie magic. During the requisite musical numbers, director-cowriter Siva employs the old Hype Williams trick of slowing down the music on set, then playing back at regular speed to make movements look a lot sharper. The result is almost seizure-inducing, much like “In the Heights.”

Rajinikanth plays Kaalaiyan, Soorakottai’s village president who pops up randomly with sidekick, Pachakilli (Soori), to save the day whenever villagers fall prey to duplicitous land baron Nattadurai (Prakash Raj). Pachakilli is the Robin to Kaalaiyan’s Batman. Indeed, the comic-book influences are not so subtly alluded to during the opening sequence of news flashes in print and over broadcast seeking the identity of the titular Annaatthe, which means big brother in Tamil.

Kaalaiyan will apparently spare no expense to pamper his baby sister, Thanga Meenatchi (Keerthy Suresh). We see his underlings literally shoving food and drink down people’s throats on the occasion of Meenatchi’s return from school in the north. Family members feel that, instead of throwing lavish birthday parties for Meenatchi, it’s time for Kaalaiyan to plan her a big fat wedding. But first, some slapstick comedy and extravagant musical numbers. Kaalaiyan prevails upon Nattadurai’s lawyer, Pattammal (Nayanthara), to throw her client’s case and then join Kaalaiyan for a duet that showcases the pair with numerous color-coordinated costume changes.

Kaalaiyan and Nattadurai call a truce, and agree that Meenatchi should marry Nattadurai’s brother, who is cute and a doctor in a national hospital. But Meenatchi absconds on her wedding night to be with her college sweetheart. Kaalaiyan resists calls for honor killing and lets the couple go. After no news for some time, Kaalaiyan secretly visits Kolkata to find Meenatchi living alone in squalor. It turns out that she and her husband ran a successful business until criminal overlord Manoj Paraker (Abhimanyu Singh) made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. Except they did, and he has made their lives hell. When Meenatchi’s overbearing big brother learns this, he goes on the warpath to exact revenge.

Much of the film’s exposition, in flashback following the opening sequence until getting caught up to date, can best be described as a hot mess. They are going for broad comedy: Characters shout instead of speak, and make dramatic head turns like hair flips without the hair. There are probably many culturally specific details that completely escape most velinattavar [Tamil for gringos], such as the fact that Meenatchi’s husband shares the same name as IBM’s chairman. Things finally start to get suitably decent around the obligatory intermission. (Or else would we be coming back?)

There is a nicely executed chase sequence with Kaalaiyan standing on a rooftop acting as a caller to help, via cellphone, Pattammal and Meenatchi evade murderous gangsters on crowded streets. There’s of course the satisfaction of seeing the villains getting what they have coming, since most of us don’t get that in our ordinary lives. Kaalaiyan administers payback with the precision of a truly psychopathic killer like Jigsaw, which makes it all the more . . . satisfying? For his part, Rajinikanth looks like a convincing action star, bringing the pain to all of his nemeses. He rides a motorcycle and walks in slow motion past a row of exploding trucks. Though his wig and makeup are woefully obvious, a velinattavar would have never guessed he’s actually 70.


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