An Jo on Kabali

Handling a super-star beast like Rajnikanth isn’t an easy task. You tame this beast, and it can do some great things. The ‘actor’ in Rajnikanth might have had branches in the form of excellent K Balachander’s movies or even the remakes of Amitabh Bachchan’s super-hits that adorn his super-stardom down south but the roots that make him what he is to his fans are and will continue to be his insane fan-fare thanks to his, in today’s lingo, ‘SWAG.’ . If he tries to break-away from the carefully cultivated image his fans have of him, he is actually cutting off his roots. And that, no super-star, however big — or however powerful an actor might lie within [read Amitabh Bachchan] – can afford – at least in this country. Shankar successfully capitalized and extracted what-ever was needed out of Rajnikanth’s stardom and made a cunningly smart film in ROBOT, where, he ensured the stardom served the film’s greater interests while still garnishing the film with Rajnikanth’s mannerisms and antics that form the magnet to his multitude of Tamil fans. Pa. Ranjith, who gave us the superior MADRAS [a film all about Dalits without ever mentioning the D-word], alas, struggles and fails massively at this soul-struggle of a film. He surely has lost the battle between Rajnikanth the super-star or/and Kabali the film – HIS film.

This film actually makes one realize that the super-stardom of Rajnikanth’s is, if not completely over, is surely on a rapid decline. And by that, I don’t mean that his legions of fans would dwindle – no, they could still stay the same or might even increase. By that I mean that the ‘things’ that made Rajnikanth whatever he means to his fans [the staccato laugh, the whooshing sound when he crosses his legs sitting or when he points or looks at someone], are rapidly approaching an expiry date. Beyond a certain age, these things start appearing caricaturist. I am not quite sure how long Rajnikanth can continue doing this: even though his films for the past many years are planned events that rely heavily on long gaps between releases to keep the carnival-fantasy going.

Now let me come to disclaimers: I am a non-Tamilian; a non-south Indian, and most important of all, I am not a Rajnikanth fan. [I will now go ahead with the presumption that my thoughts would not be called biased because I STILL can enjoy a Rajnikanth film without a mandated qualifier of being a Rajnikanth fan.] To be brutally honest, what attracted me to this film is the possibility that I would get to see a great marriage of sorts between Pa. Ranjith’s grittiness and Rajnikanth’s super-stardom [a feat achieved by Mani Ratnam in his Mahabharata adaptation, TALAPATHI]. And even in that equation, I was more interested in what Ranjith would do and how he would mould his sensibilities around Rajnikanth’s madness – or the other way round. And to be even more brutally honest, I have NEVER been influenced by Rajnikanth’s mannerisms and antics – you might call it SWAG or whatever; in other words, what makes his fans his fans is NOT something that has succeeded in making me like him.

So the film is about an educated man [in his introduction scene, he is seen reading MY FATHER BALIAH, a confusing pointer regarding casteism {read Dalits} which doesn’t actually amount to anything in the over-all landscape] who becomes a gangster [Rajnikanth’s Kabali] thanks to the repression of Tamils in Malaysia. [Actually, there are caste-markers in a couple other places too. In another scene, he says Indians migrate to unknown lands leaving everything behind but caste!] He goes to jail for 25 years for being involved in a massacre at a temple – which also results in him losing his family – and is released back into society. His aim now is to stop a gang of criminals calling themselves the number 43 in flooding the streets of Kuala Lumpur with drugs and incapacitating an already economically and socially-weakened Tamil population. In the process, he also goes through the emotional crests and troughs of reuniting with his family [wife Radhika Apte’s Kumudhavalli and a yet-to-be-born daughter at the time he went to jail.] Kabali is basically a gangster with good ‘morals’ who is selective and chooses not to endorse prostitution and drugs [a throw-back to Amitabh’s AGNEEPATH as well as SARKAR’s iconic dialog to Zakir Husain: ‘और सुन, तुझे भी करने नहीं दूँगा!’]

As mentioned earlier, Ranjith fails and massively in the 2nd half of the film where he tries to build a bridge between Rajnikanth’s stardom and an emotional roller-coaster ride toward re-discovering his family and the Tamil society in Malaysia. In a scene where he comes to know that his wife is still alive, Rajnikanth tries to bring out the actor in him [he walks out on the court-yard and drops down crying] – and fails. It’s like he is caught between the devil and the deep sea; he wants to go the whole nine yards emotionally but his super-star instincts pull him back and he tries to ‘appease’ his fans by resorting to acts that ‘they’ would like. The whole scene, then, appears fake. When he tells his hench-men and his daughter to get ready to ‘fly’ to Madras to meet the wife, the scene just doesn’t ‘fly.’ The whole scene appears a disjointed one and falls flat on its face. The film is littered with many such acts where you can ‘catch’ Rajnikanth the actor trying to divorce himself from Rajnikanth the ‘super-star’ and fails miserably. Whether this is the fault of the director or the actor, I am not sure and leave the debate open.

For being a benevolent gangster and all, Kabali doesn’t hesitate to stage a massacre ridden with bullets on unsuspecting drug-packers. After all, they are just laborers, aren’t they? Just like he was, at one time? Or his wife was? Why not ask them to step outside and burn the building? The intention, after all, is to go after the root, and these folks are mere twigs.

The ‘villain’, played by Taiwanese star Winston Chao ends up a caricatured, pathetic rival-gangster who speaks miserable English and still has the guts to try and speak Tamil! Worst of all is the climax, where, after all his shenanigans, he is shown to wilt like a coward, praying for his life and turning chameleonic like Jeevan from the ‘80s. For all the suit-bragging, for all the F-bombing, he is shown a wimp in the end, thus making Rajnikanth’s ‘greatness’ not so great. After all, what is a hero if not faced with at least a competent villain [remember Adisheshan from SHIVAJI?]
You know that a film struggles when even a fine actress like Radhika Apte resorts to hyper-ventilating [when she meets her husband after 25 years]. Otherwise, she is just an ‘adornment’ in a Rajnikanth vehicle that just ‘bolsters’ her husband with the importance of not just being earnest and brave but also dressing stylishly.

Some scenes in the film are smart enough but very few and far between. For instance, in the climax or even when Rajnikanth enters the terrace party, he is seen ‘between’ the Petronas towers. It is conveniently shot and adds a metaphor; there can be ONLY 2 symbols of Petronas towers, and if there’s any Tamil in Malaysia that can close-in on those towers, it is the ‘Rajnikanth’ tower. In a hilarious scene, when the villain Tony’s stocks are shown declining into the red-zone, there is a Stark bar-graph right beside it! Get the drift  Tony Stark from Iron Man. The murder-cum-action-scene of Kabali’s hench-man Jeeva is, well, wildly imagined and shot. It is thrilling, the usage of night and the lights and bottles and the back-ground music in this scene – but I feel guilty even praising it, because, ultimately, it’s a freaking murder scene.

The next, strong point of this film is the fantastic score from Santosh Narayanan. I just can’t stop listening on the loop KABALI title-song [Ulagam Oruvankka] and NIRUPPA DA. Great idea to interject rap into Rajnikanth’s super-stardom frenzy [ and great lines like ‘It ain’t about the size of the dog in the fight; but the spirit of the dog in the fight, that’s right’ just add to the fun!

In the end, this is a disappointing venture; a venture that came with mammoth expectations with the thinking of Pa. Ranjith and the ready-to-use-stardom of Rajnikanth. This turned out to be a messy marriage. Maybe Rajnikanth needs to remain married to Shankar for a longer time…

Useful references:

3 Responses to “An Jo on Kabali”

  1. I loved almost all songs. Especially vaanam parthen. Melodious.


  2. If they make it in hindi, who can play Rajani’s role?


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