It's the 1990s. Thanks to liberalisation and privatisation, education has become a booming business. There's a statue of Saraswathi in the premises of the local government school, but note the name of the local theatre: Lakshmi. The school with zero attendance and the theatre with housefull shows – education and money, Saraswathi and Lakshmi – become intertwined in Venky Atluri's halfway-decent Vaathi (or Sir in Telugu), which stars Dhanush as Bala, an idealistic teacher who believes that education should be free for those who cannot afford it. The children who return to the government school after Bala is appointed as a teacher are the children of cobblers and tailors and so on. What if they can change their destinies? What if their stories could resemble that of APJ Abdul Kalam, the son of a boatman who became a scientist? (As of this time period, he is not yet President.)
This material could have resulted in an unbearably "noble" message-movie, but Venky Atluri pulls off a small miracle. (The film could have been a bigger miracle, but more about that later.) The director is also the writer, and he demonstrates a great instinct for masala-movie writing. One of the film's most goosefleshy touches is in the way it merges cinema and education. At one point, the hero is celebrated with bits of paper thrown at the screen because what he's doing is a true act of heroism – and not just because he is this film's "hero". Through his conviction and his acts, Bala has earned this fandom. There is another wonderfully earnest scene involving a hand pump. It is a moment right out of myth, where a student will do anything for his teacher. (Recall, for instance, the story about Karna bearing great pain without moving because his guru Parasurama was resting on his lap. This is in that same zone.)
Where there is a hero, there is a heroine, there is a villain. But both characters are (thankfully) understated. The love angle with Samyuktha Menon is kept mercifully short. And Samuthirakani plays the bad guy without too much fuss. The ending has him winning without actually winning. It is an inspired bit of writing that stresses how being practical is sometimes more important than being emotional. Even in the dialogues, there are little touches that stand out, like how Bala speaks in phrases of three. (An example: "Okay sir. Thank you sir. Take care sir".) GV Prakash delivers a rousing, old-fashioned score that matches the pitch of the storytelling perfectly. As for Dhanush, it is not exactly a challenging part, but he sells his character with ease. We believe in this do-gooder without getting annoyed by him, and that's no small feat.
Then why isn't this movie better? Why is it just a… "small miracle"? Because the director doesn't trust his material to the extent that he should. Vaathi/Sir takes a while to take off. The framing device is unnecessary because the point with the videos would have worked much better had it appeared out of the blue, instead of being hinted at earlier. The comedy is bad. And there is no "stay" in the masala touches, which always work best when they are built up to. Instead of spending more time in, say, showing an expelled Bala finding a way to reenter the village to be with his students (this would also make the Bharathiyar get-up at the end more convincing), we waste a lot of time in "mass" action stretches, full slo-mo and all. Bala's first fight sequence is a waste of some five minutes that could have gone towards building the film's masala world better. A lot of this world-building, now, seems to happen at 2x speed. But given everything, I was just happy that this was not a generic, preachy movie. It's not perfect, but it holds on to its metre, its pitch, its sensibility. And that's a… small miracle.