The word “Vaathi” means teacher, and the last time this word was heard was in the film “Master,” directed by Lokesh Kanakaraj. Though the film served a purpose for the audience and the critics equally in terms of storytelling and direction, this film, “Vaathi,” directed by Venky Atluri, had nothing going for it from the start till the end. Released on the big screen on February 17, 2023, the movie stars Dhanush, Samyukhtha Menon, P. Sai Kumar, and Tanikell Bharani. The movie overall talks about the right to education, which every student in this country has the right to access, but “Vaathi” comes across as a bad mix of “Super 30” and “Taare Zameen Par,” and the result is a commercial film that would have required better treatment.
“Vaathi” begins with Abi and his friends helping Abi’s father sell his grandfather’s video store by clearing out all the old CDs and cassettes. In that process, they come across old VCRs with TNPCEE stickers pasted on them. On plugging in the cassette, Abi discovers this VCR contains a video of a man teaching mathematics, which has been Abi’s weakest subject. He realizes the man in the video helped him solve the math problem much more easily than his teacher at the coaching center. In the quest to find the teacher in the video, Abi and his friends reach Andhra Pradesh to meet a man named A.M. Kumar, who is the district collector. Kumar recognizes the videotape and starts reminiscing about the man who was responsible for teaching him. He mentions the teacher’s name is Bala, and there is a picture of the said man on his office wall. But who is Bala sir, and how did he change this district collector’s life dramatically? His story from here on to the kids is about the man who brought about a change not just in his life but in the lives of his other classmates who were struggling to make things right for themselves and their families.
Turns out, Bala was a teacher with a private higher secondary school who was sent to the government school in the village in Tamil Nadu bordering Andhra Pradesh in the late 90s as per the government’s new law. The law required the sending of teachers from private schools to government schools in a bid to rescue the government’s schools from closing down, and leaving the kids who cannot afford an education struggling to salvage their future. Thirupathi, the man who runs Thirupathi schools and coaching centers, has a big, profitable business to run in the name of opening schools and colleges, and this law was introduced to favor him and other private school owners by means of bribing the education minister.
Why it is necessary to paint the antagonist as the man who is always against the betterment of “society” is beyond anyone’s comprehension. It is highly predictable. The only man with bad fashion choices, luxury cars, intimidating words coming out of his mouth, and the whole system in his favor is an archetypal villain that many have watched in many films in the past, especially through the 90s up until now. What made this film go from something watchable to something so unfathomable in 2 hours and 30 minutes is the establishment of a mystery that needs to be solved. The film does take a long time to establish who Bala is and what he does. The audience knows who the actor in the film is, and a commercial film such as this requires a certain amount of build-up to introduce the leading actor. The build-up of Bala’s character was weak and predictable, and there was nothing but a sense of familiarity, which is not a good quality here in this film.
The screenplay is problematic when Bala and his colleagues are attracted to a local government schoolteacher, Meenakshi, played by Samyuktha Menon. She is prim and proper, wears perfect makeup, and drapes a saree perfectly, which gets the attention of the said leading man. Why are women in sarees always stereotyped as the ones who are “marriage material”? This stereotype has been going on for decades in many films and is used as a trope to establish the girl as a perfect woman, someone who would be the perfect archetypal wife for the protagonist. Dhanush’s character, Bala, reduces her to someone he loves, and she is nothing more than one who will cook food with his mother for him. No matter how much the writer and director Venky Alturi tries to project women empowerment through this film, the misogyny reeks through in such dialogues. The damsel in distress pattern is evident, where Meenakshi could not salvage the school from being shut down even though she is a native of that village, but they had to wait for an outsider like Bala to come and save the school from being shut down. It is enraging to watch the men try to save the day by the end of it, while the women in their lives are just passing spectators in their victories. The film is filled with erratic direction and editing patterns, which irk the audience from time to time. The framing of the scenes and the use of slow-motion at points make the narrative wobbly.
Yes, there is talk of caste discrimination in the film, which is rampant in rural parts of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, but the topic is just skimmed through, and there is only surface-level discussion on it. The director, in his quest to deliver a hero making a strong statement against caste, someone who has never faced any sort of discrimination as such because he is from the city but is lecturing his students about how socially and morally it is wrong to distinguish on the basis of caste. The lecture and the dialogue comes across as a façade and not a genuine concern for the actual issue at hand. The writer-director shouldn’t be talking about an issue just because it is topical, just like the case of women’s empowerment in this film.
It is disheartening to watch Dhanush sleepwalk through a character like Bala, who has no shades of gray. Dhanush, who is an actor par excellence, is reduced to a typical protagonist with zero depth given to him. “Vaathi,” in the race to be another masala blockbuster, refused to deal with the real issues at hand, which have been plaguing society for decades. In the name of talking about free education for all and not making it a business for profit, this film became a typical commercial cinema, with a standard villain and a standard hero, the narrative being too black and white with no space for any adult to be a flawed character, and no character having an arc that could be related to. The movie was predictable from the beginning till the end. While some films in this genre remain like that, what makes those films different is the emotion attached to them. “Vaathi” lacked emotions and empathy, and that’s the reason the film fell flat from the beginning till the end, and predictability made the viewing experience dull.