February 25, 2023
by Carla Hay
Directed by Venky Atluri
Tamil and Telugu with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place in India, mostly in the 1990s, the dramatic film “Vaathi” features an all-Indian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: After a greedy businessman manipulates the educational system so that schoolteachers from government-run schools are sent to his private school system, a dedicated teacher goes against the rules to teach students who can’t afford a private education.
Culture Audience: “Vaathi” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching movies about inspirational schoolteachers, even if some of the scenarios are very exaggerated for dramatic purposes.
[Editor’s note: “Vaathi” was filmed in the languages of Tamil and Telugu. The Tamil title of the movie is “Vaathi,” while the Telugu title of the movie is “Sir.” A few of the movie’s characters have different names, depending on the language. This reviewer saw the movie in the Tamil language, so the review will have the characters names that were in the Tamil version of the movie.]
“Vaathi” tells a sentimental story that takes a searing look at how the debate over government-funded education versus private education in India affects those who are financially disadvantaged. The movie shows how one person can make a positive difference. With a total running time of 148 minutes, the movie is a little too long, and there are some unnecessary and unrealistic action fight scenes, but the movie’s overall message and how the story is told is mostly watchable and entertaining.
Written and directed by Venky Atluri, “Vaathi” takes place mostly in the 1990s, but the movie begins in the early 2020s. Three guys in their late teens have traveled from Vellore to visit a district collector. They find out that his name is A. M. Kumar (played by Sumanth), who has a story to tell these teenagers. (In the Telugu version of the movie, this character’s name is A. S. Murthy.) A.M. Kumar has a photo hanging up on the wall of an influential schoolteacher, who has become somewhat of legend in A.M.’s small hometown village of Sozhavaram. (In the Telugu version of the movie, A.S. Murthy’s hometown is Siripuram.)
The movie then flashes back to the 1990s, to show the story from the perspective of this schoolteacher. In the Tamil version of the movie, his name is Bala Balamurugan. In the Telugu version of the movie, his name is Bala Gangadhar Thilak. (Dhanush has the role of Bala.) Bala is passionate about teaching and has a strong belief that education should be a right, not a privilege reserved only for those who can afford it.
A brief introduction in “Vaathi” explains that in 1990, the privatization of much of India’s economy led to many government-run schools being shut down and more schools becoming privately owned businesses. Teachers at these shuttered government schools were often transferred to the private schools, with the transferred teachers often making less money than what they were paid working for government-run schools. Meanwhile, depending on the area, private schools raise their tuitions, making education available only to those who can afford it.
The poorest of the poor can’t afford to pay any tuition for education. It’s an inequality that Bala finds very hard to accept. He becomes a teacher who is transferred from a government-run school to a private high school that is part of the Thirupathi Teaching Center, which is owned by a ruthless and greedy businessman named Thirupathi (played by Samuthirakani), who has an elitist and disrespectful attitude toward people who are working-class and poor. (In the Telugu version of the movie, the corrupt businessman’s name is Tripathi.)
Bala (who teaches mathematics) arrives at the school with two male co-workers who are also his friends: Prakash Reddy (played by Sha Ra), who is a physics teacher, has a friendly and easygoing personality. Karthik (played Hyper Aadi), who is a chemistry teacher, has a socially awkward and goofy personality. One of the first people they meet at this school is a pretty woman named Meenakshi (played by Samyuktha), who is a biology teacher.
All three men are immediately attracted to Meenakshi. The movie wastes some time with the three pals arguing about who will get to date her, even though it’s obvious to viewers which one of the friends will end up with Meenakshi. Karthik bungles his attempts to court her when he makes a pass at her that Meenakshi thinks is offensive. Karthik makes a sheepish apology and says this pass was just a “romantic gesture.”
One of the students at the school is named Muthu (played by Ken Karunas), whose parents tragically committed suicide. Muthu wears a leg brace and is often teased or bullied by other students about it. As a result, Muthu often has low self-esteem. Bala takes an interest in helping Muthu in many ways, including boosting Muthu’s confidence.
Bala spends a lot of time trying to convince the low-income villagers to send their underage children to this school. He gets a lot of resistance from the villagers who need their children to work for money instead of getting a school education. The children of low-income villagers who go to the school get treated as inferior by the students from families with higher incomes. Bala notices this discrimination and he figures out a way to stop it in his classroom.
But there’s a big problem looming: Thirupathi wants to raise the school’s tuition. And he doesn’t care if many people in the village won’t be able to afford this higher tuition. Bala gets in many conflicts with Thirupathi over this tuition increase, because Bala knows that many of the school’s students will have to drop out.
The school’s headmaster Thanigachalam (played by Tanikella Bharani) is at the mercy of Thirupathi. The village president (played P. Sai Kumar) also can’t do much to about Thirupathi and seems to be intimidated by this money-hungry businessman. Bala is the only one who seems to be standing up to Thirupathi the most and advocating for the children to get an affordable education.
Thirupathi won’t back down from the tuition increase. Bala knows that he is about to be fired, so he takes matters into his own hands and quits to start his own free “school” for the students who can’t afford Thirupathi’s tuition. Bala’s “school” is really just an outdoor gathering of students underneath a makeshift shelter outside of the village’s border.
Of course, Thirupathi doesn’t like Bala’s act of resistance one bit. He sends several thugs to cause some damage to the makeshift school and physically assault Bala. (None of this is spoiler information, since it’s shown in the movie’s trailer.) It starts a “war” between Bala and Thirupathi, with the students siding with Bala.
Most of “Vaathi” is about the conflicts between Bala and Thirupathi, but there’s also some romance, as Bala and Meenakshi become closer. She starts to fall in love with him after she sees how he treats all of his students with compassion and fairness. Bala is the type of teacher who leads by example.
“Vaathi” is filled to the brim with positive messages about how important education and good teachers are, but the movie sometimes goes overboard in making Bala look too good to be true. In his over-the-top fight scenes, he turns into a skilled action here who can take on and often defeat several men at once. He is almost saint-like as a teacher. Even when he is captured and tortured (already revealed in the movie’s trailer), he looks like a martyr.
However, the movie makes Bala more human when he has some moments of doubt and insecurity. He often gets advice from his supportive father (played by Aadukalam Naren), who’s a taxi driver. When Thirupathi goes on a derogatory rant to Bala about people who are poor or lower-middle-class, Bala says he comes from a lower-middle-class family and is proud of it. Thirupathi stammers a little and tries to backtrack from his insulting comments, but it’s obvious that he’s embarrassed that Bala has called him out for being a bigot.
Overall, “Vaathi” has acting that ranges from mediocre to above-average. The movie sometimes gets repetitious and a little dull. But aside from the phony-looking action scenes, there’s much about “Bala” that rings true when it comes to the battles that teachers have to experience when they want to educate underprivileged students who are being prevented from having the same access and resources as more privileged students. “Vaathi” is ultimately a love letter to underpaid and dedicated teachers who persist and make a positive impact on their students’ lives, despite the challenges and odds stacked against these teachers.
Sithara Entertainments released “Vaathi” (also titled “Sir”) in select U.S. cinemas and in India on February 17, 2023.