Minutes into Venky Atluri’s Vaathi (or SIR in Telugu), you notice a pattern, the shadow of which travels throughout the film. Venky begins the story in a nonchalant, sobering fashion. In 2022, three boys discover a box of video cassettes. They play the video and we see the back of a teacher writing some trigonometry sums on a blackboard. It’s Dhanush (of course) and he even turns towards the camera for a brief half-second. The coveted mass introduction shot goes poof. Does half a second count? The mystery of the cassettes takes the boys to a District Collector’s office, and Venky once again shows Dhanush, looking straight at us from a picture on the wall.
Vaathi (Tamil) / Sir (Telugu)
If the intro is so sobering and intriguing, Venky’s casual use of songs in the first half also carries this subdued energy, and the prospect of an entire film in the same mould excite. The fine dancer in Dhanush takes a step back when there is no set-up for the first song; he walks down a street and shakes a leg casually with no notice. And in the middle of Vaa Vaathi, a romantic track, Venky tells something heavy, of how a school becomes a temple for the marginalised communities who are not allowed inside temples. These are fantastic ideas.
But this is only half of the pattern; unfortunately, Vaathi is full of one-off ideas that immediately find their evil twin. That is, the film keeps subtracting itself by adding things unnecessarily. The restraint in the introduction shots, for instance — a big name card for Dhanush appears the third time we see him, but the moment for it has passed. Similarly, the use of GV Prakash’s brilliant scores feels uneven.
The setting of the film is the ‘90s in a town called Sozhavaram on the Tamil Nadu-Andhra Pradesh border. Dhanush’s character Balamurugan, an assistant teacher at a private school called Thirupathi Coaching Centre, is sent as a full-time mathematics teacher to a government school in Sozhavaram, thanks to the government’s deal with TCC’s head Srinivasa Thirupathi (Samuthirakani). Thirupathi, however, has his own agenda; sending these “third-grade” teachers to government schools is to ensure that his own students come on top.
But Balamurugan naturally has a noble mission, which begins by ensuring the students attend classes, then bringing them together, and ganging up against Thirupathi. Now, the geographical and period settings definitely help — the lack of communication devices, modern modes of transport, and the internet are necessary to tell this story — and setting it in a border town helps this Tamil-Telugu bilingual film. However, the film stops establishing the look and feel of the period soon, and there are terrible lip-syncs in scenes.
Vaathi is a film in which the hero finds small means to win big, but the undemanding screenplay offers only a few pay-offs even when some moments are set up well. Similarly, the screenplay needs more scenes like the one where Bala explains the futility of caste and the classroom becomes a miniature of society; more of this, and we could have gotten something akin to the 2007 American film Freedom Writers.
The film is also full of unidimensional characters that showed potential initially. The characters played by Tanikella Bharani and Hareesh Peradi find no value in the story. While Ken Karunas’s Muthu finds himself in some interesting areas in the screenplay, Samyuktha’s Meenakshi is rendered deadweight. Coming to the star at the centre of it all, you only feel bad for Dhanush because he does try to single-handedly support the film even in its middling portions. Unfortunately, there isn't enough on paper to help him.
At one moment, director Venky goes meta to say that even a cinema theatre can impart education if needed, and his noble message in the film is loud and clear. You only wish the screenplay was as sharp as the tip of Dhanush’s fountain pen and as swerved as his folded half-sleeves.
Vaathi (or SIR) is currently running in theatres