When did Tamil cinema begin yoking its valorous heroes to wild animals? I suppose it all harks back to Rajinikanth, who first unleashed a Murattu Kaalai, and followed it up with a Paayum Puli. (There was also, at some point, the dull roar of a Garjanai.) Today, every hero who wants to ascend to that superstar stratosphere is heading to the jungles for inspiration. Singam, Siruthai, Vengai and now, M. Muthaiah’s Kutti Puli — the multiplex has become a bloody menagerie.

This film, itself, is something of a menagerie, a hodgepodge of “mass” elements. There’s romance, fights, thaali-centered drama, drumstick-centered comedy, and — above all — unceasing amma sentiment. When whipped mercilessly by the police, the small-time thug named Kutti Puli (M. Sasikumar) stays silent. Asked why, he says it’s because his mother (Saranya Ponvannan) is outside the station, and if he cried out in pain, she’d end up in tears. All this aching tenderness... in a film where a 13-year-old schoolboy is offed in broad daylight with a knife plunged into his throat.

Sasikumar, after Subramaniyapuram, shone with the promise of turning into a superb filmmaker. Now, it appears, he’s happy trying to be a superhero. He saves an elderly woman trapped in a burning building. He loves kids. He’s respectful to women. (“Oru pombala nenachathaan neeyum naanum aambala.”) He fights evil. And in line with the rationalist stance of the politics in the state, he endorses vaguely heretical “good deeds,” like stealing from the temple donation box in order to save someone’s life. (That someone, no surprise, is the ailing wife of a drunk.)

After dressing up in jeans and a cool shirt — bought from a store where he is likened to Shah Rukh Khan — he asks his mother: “Jananga yethupaangala?” (Will the masses accept me like this?) And to make sure they do, I guess, is why they didn’t bother to compose a new song for the love duet between Kutti Puli and Bharathi (Lakshmi Menon). What we hear, in its entirety, is Ilayaraja’s glorious ‘Ponnoviyam’, from Kazhugu — another Rajinikanth film named for a creature of the wild.

All of which makes the end a total surprise. It’s a brilliant twist, whether viewed from an emotional standpoint (given the characters and their trajectories) or, more clinically, from a critical point of view (it’s a startling subversion of the heroics that preceded it). We should have risen from our seats in applause. But the way the sequence is cut and staged is so ineffective that all we’re left with is the sense of something that could have been great.

A major problem is that the villain is so ill-defined. He’s just another thug when he needed to be larger than life, a mythical monster, and his demise — no spoiler there if you’ve ever seen a masala movie — doesn’t carry the weight it should. And it doesn’t help that he vanishes for long stretches. Instead of being reminded of his menace, we keep cutting away to comic bits set to songs from the 1970s and 1980s. (One of the more inspired choices is the MGR-by-way-of-Kamal Haasan hero-worship number ‘Aayirathil nee oruthan’, from the ill-fated Naanum Oru Thozhilaali.)

The story has something to do with Kutti Puli resisting marriage because he’s afraid that his blood-spattered life — inevitable, according to him, given that a kalavaram illaadha Madurai is like a kalasam illaadha gopuram — will leave his wife widowed, like his mother. (Didn’t anyone tell him he’s the hero?) This narrative thread promises high drama, but the film finds its footing only in the light-hearted sequences, which are entertaining in a way things are entertaining on TV when there’s nothing else to watch.

A few weeks back, we were celebrating small, brave, oddball films that seemed to herald a new era. And now, we have Kutti Puli, with lyrics such as “Aatha un selai, aagaayam pola,” and with unimaginative fight sequences executed by veshti-clad men with an unstoppable itch to keep flashing their innerwear. I left the theatre with the image of Tamil Cinema as Michael Corleone, murmuring mournfully, “Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in.”

Genre: Drama

Director: M Muthaiah

Cast: M Sasikumar, Lakshmi Menon, Saranya Ponvannan

Storyline: A mother-worshipping thug runs afoul of a really bad man.

Bottomline: The comic sidelights liven up a cliché-ridden drama.