'Vaathi' movie review: A wonderful Dhanush anchors a promising tale bogged down by cliches and deja vu

But where Vaathi really surprises us is in the sudden burst of ingenuity.
A still from the newly released film, 'Vaathi' starring Dhanush and Samyuktha. (Photo | IMDb)
A still from the newly released film, 'Vaathi' starring Dhanush and Samyuktha. (Photo | IMDb)

Even if everything goes downhill in a Dhanush film, one can rest assured his films will always have a poignant father-son scene. Right from the times of Thiruda Thirudi and Sullan to Polladhavan and VIP to even Thanga Magan and Asuran, a Dhanush film is elevated by the scenes featuring a father and a son. In Venky Atluri’s Vaathi (Sir in Telugu), Balamurugan (Dhanush) asks his father (Aadukalam Naren), why he is making a big fuss out of not having the money to make his son an engineer. The father says, “Pasanga kaekkara vishayam kedaikkalena avangalukku oru naal dhaan varutham, aana kaettadhu vaangi thara mudiyalena, pethavangalukku adhu eppavume varutham (Children are sad for a day if they don’t get what they ask for, but the parents are sad for days together for not being able to fulfill their children’s wishes).”

What follows and precedes this poignant moment in Vaathi is a bunch of cliche-ridden scenes that have a tremendous sense of deja vu. In fact, sandwiching a sentimental moment between template scenes is a trademark of this film. However, there is a reason why cliches exist in the first place… they work, and in Vaathi, they almost do. 

The film begins in 2022, and soon enough, through the wondrous world of VHS tapes, we are transported back to the late 90s and jump right into the crux of Vaathi — privatisation of education. On one end, there is dwindling attendance at government schools, and on the other end, there are burgeoning admissions in private schools. Of course, even if the system is a villain, you need a face for it, and that’s where Thirupathi (Samuthirakani) comes into the picture. He is the corporate villain archetype who treats education as a commodity.

Of course, his materialistic world is challenged by the idealistic and rather simplistic world of Balamurugan, or as he is fondly called Bala sir. In fact, it is fun to see Samuthirakani ham like there’s no tomorrow, especially when one realises that he is the Bala sir in Saattai, and his Dhayalan has shifted to the dark side in Vaathi. Nevertheless, Bala’s utopian worldview can be labelled as impractical, but it is nice to see a protagonist having a want and a lot of heart.  It is this heart that is seen in Vaathi, even in the most mundane of scenes.

But where Vaathi really surprises us is in the sudden burst of ingenuity. Take, for instance, the first time we see Rajendran in the film. He is Bhoopathy, a videographer who moonlights as a theatre owner who runs soft porn films. When his place gains respect among his own people, there is a nice wrap to that arc. The way Venky decided to sketch this character speaks a lot about his intent. 

This heart and intent hold him in good stead as Venky blows hot and cold with the writing, which is burdened by a Super 30 hangover, in addition to a cocktail mix of films, including Saattai, 3 Idiots, Nammavar, and a bunch of other films. If coaching centres were the bane of quality education in Super 30, it is private schools in Vaathi. There are a lot of similar beats in both films, especially the camaraderie between the students and the teacher. Honestly, these portions in Vaathi were quite enjoyable, and the lengthy sequence where the students defy the odds and rally for their teacher is a mass masala moment that finds its way to the top in a film that managed to stay rooted till then. It is a nice touch that when being exalted as a god, Bala is not really in his senses. This is the perfect amount of masala in a film that wants to be rooted.

However, sensationalism soon finds its way to the fore pushing realism behind, which leads to some uncharacteristic narratives, and unintended humour. Also, the ‘love at first sight’ and the ‘fighting for the girl’ tropes have no place in Vaathi, even if the film is set in the glorious 90s that always had a soft corner for such scenes. The forced humour does more good than harm and has a very bitter aftertaste too.

Also, can’t help but detect points from the makers for naming the film, Vaathi, and not having the students use it as a term of endearment and respect. Having a superstar like Dhanush at the centre of things also pushes Venky and Co to give us more than the required number of stunt sequences. They work because of the actor’s charisma, but they poke large holes in the narrative.  

Undoubtedly, Vaathi is all about Dhanush and his students, and it is impressive to see an unwavering focus on this equation. The biggest strength of Dhanush's performance is his understanding of when to take the back seat, and in more than a few scenes, he doesn’t shy away from letting the children take the wheel. The kids rise up to the occasion too, and most of them get their moment under the limelight, and they use it to the fullest. 

Another smart idea in Vaathi is the setting of the film, which allows the inhabitants of the town of Sholavaram to speak a smattering of Telugu. However, the idea isn’t fully developed, and it is also the case with the film being set in the 90s era. Apart from a PCO booth, and a beautiful scene involving hall tickets and a newspaper, Vaathi doesn’t really explore the time period, and we are left with the feeling of watching a rather trendy story unfold in a period setting.

Also, Samyuktha is wasted in a role that starts off quite well but doesn’t offer her anything, There is a nice aside where they refer to each other as 'sir' and 'madam' even when they are romantically inclined towards each other, but this arc is largely disappointing, especially since the writer even finds a way to conveniently pack her away during the second act where things don’t always go in favour of Vaathi. The same holds good for the supporting cast, who are spectacularly one-note and offer nothing new. 

Bolstered by a mostly loud and moderately effective background score by GV Prakash, whose songs are used smartly by Venky, Vaathi is a triumphant tale of an underdog who fights against a system that is heavily stacked against him. With the power of retrospection, Venky and the team talk in detail about the education system in the country.

As the credits roll, and we move past the induced mass moments and the warm relationship Bala shared with his Super 46, Vaathi becomes the latest film to strike warring bells against the increasingly expensive field of education. Impressively, Vaathi presents the problems without offering any solutions. Despite using a 140-minute runtime to teach us a bunch of subjects, including the importance of education, respect in society, caste discrimination, women empowerment, and financial independence, the biggest two lessons that Vaathi teaches us are...

1) Films don't have to be preachy to drive home a point

2) Dhanush can make anything look easy

Director: Venky Atluri
Cast: Dhanush, Samyuktha, Samuthirakani, Sai Kumar
Ratings: 2.5/5 stars

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