“Kabali”… An unsatisfying clash between the impulses of star and director

Posted on July 22, 2016


Spoilers ahead…

Recently, I saw a Malaysian film titled Jagat, directed by Shanjhey Kumar Perumal. The films from the country are usually in Bahasa Malaysia, but this one is in Tamil. It’s about the plight of Malaysian Tamils who used to work on estates, but were forced to migrate to the cities when these estates were sold off. Without governmental support, many of them ended up in minimum-wage jobs. It’s a story of urban poverty and crime, and this film kept coming to mind while I watched Pa. Ranjith’s Kabali. One reason is that the latter tells a similar story, about a man from the oppressed class rising to the top of the Malaysian food chain. I mean this literally – a visual near the end shows Kabali (Rajinikanth) on the rooftop of a building, flanked by the Petronas Twin Towers. The other reason is that a character in Jagat says the only thing that could break his “adimai sangili” is money. And here’s Kabali, the millionaire gangster. He has money and power. There’s a lighter link between the two films. In Jagat, the movies playing on TV are Moondru Mugam, Maapillai, Dharmathin Thalaivan… It’s as though Rajinikanth rules the Malaysian airwaves too.

But remove the Malaysian setting, and Kabali plays like… a Rajinikanth movie. A revenge drama. It would be silly to expect the grime and grit of an indie production like Jagat in a mega-budget Superstar movie whose seemingly endless pre-release publicity has spanned the earth to the sky (courtesy, Air Asia), but given that Pa. Ranjith is behind the camera, there is a sense of a letdown. It’s as though, given the biggest stage of his still-young career, the director went up before the audience and got a severe case of the jitters. The meat of Kabali is a gangster story that attempts to tease out some history about Malaysian Tamils. The suits Kabali wears aren’t just a fashion statement. The coat, the tie – they’re symbols of a rung of capitalism people like Kabali weren’t allowed to set foot on. (They’re also a nod to Ambedkar’s sartorial tastes.) But as with Ranjith’s Madras, these are scribbles on the margins of an all-too-familiar story.

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Ranjith is an intriguing filmmaker. On the one hand, he seems to load his films with Dalit subtext. But on the other hand, he makes sure it’s all just… subtext. It doesn’t rise to the surface and grab us by the throat, the way it does in the films of Nagraj Manjule. A Fandry or Sairat is inconceivable outside of a Dalit framework: the films can be viewed no other way. But because Ranjith transforms all his Dalit references into Easter eggs, they become some sort of elaborate did-you-spot-this? game rather than an integral, inextricable part of the narrative. Madras and Kabali can be viewed as Dalit films. But to many, they are simply generic star vehicles – “generic” because most hero-centric films are built around people oppressed due to their class rather than caste. When we first set eyes on Kabali, he is in prison, reading My Father Baliah, by YB Satyanarayana, a book rooted in the Telengana Dalit experience. We want it to mean something. We want it to inform the protagonist’s actions in a meaningful way. But the way the film ends up, this is really no different from the copy of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces Rajinikanth was seen reading in Lingaa. A seed is sown in the audience’s mind, but very little sprouts from it.

One of the most distinctive bits in the much-viewed Kabali teaser had Rajinikanth imitating MN Nambiar, whose sidekicks on screen were usually named Kabali. But think back, also, to the Dalit gardener Nambiar played in the MGR vehicle Naadodi. He transforms into the head of a group of bandits (in other words, a gangster of those times), and utters lines that Rajinikanth could have uttered in Kabali: “Yenna endha samoogam midhichu thuvachadho, adhaiye naan etti odhakkaren. Andha samoogam ippo en kaaladiyil kedakku.” There is little doubt that this man is an “untouchable,” because in an early scene where this gardener steps into his employer’s house, the latter throws him out and orders a servant to clean up the place where he stood. But in Kabali, when we hear the words “untouchable, a.k.a. Kabali” – sung in a seductive hip-hop style in the song Veera Thurandhara – they could simply mean that no one can touch… the man’s gangsta coolth. Maybe a mega-budget star vehicle cannot really accommodate a filmmaker’s personal politics. Maybe we have to wait for Ranjith to make a small movie without a Karthi or a Rajinikanth to see him tackle these issues in an overt manner. (Only the smaller films like Gouravam seem to talk about caste openly.)

But where Ranjith scores over Manjule is in his refusal to show stereotypical portrayals of Dalits (that is, if we want to read his characters that way.) These characters aren’t in villages, performing lowly jobs that no one else will do (or touch). In Attakathi, they harbour naïve ideas of romance (just like everyone else) and go chasing women, without a care that caste might come in the way. In Madras, they work in software companies. And now, we have a gangster-don. Some dialogues are undeniably powerful. I especially liked one that comes early on, when Kabali and his friend (John Vijay) pass a large cage filled with exotically plumed birds. Kabali says that birds should be free. The friend says they have been caged for their protection; if set free, they will be devoured by bigger birds, birds of prey. Kabali replies, “Unnoda karunai adhoda saavai vida kodooramanadhu.” The line stings like a whiplash, and it echoes the lyrics in the song Ulagam oruvanukkaa: Every man gotta right / To decide his destiny / I’d rather die standing up than / Living life on my knees. But there just aren’t enough of these lines, these scenes, these whiplashes.

The primary narrative thread in Kabali deals with the (gang) war between Kabali and Tony Lee (Winston Chao), a purring Malay (I’m assuming) who wears his silken suits with the entitlement of generations of privilege. This conflict is, of course, a metaphor, for the antagonism between Malaysian-Tamils and natural-born Malays – but the way all this plays out is hardly new or interesting. One of the strengths of Ranjith as a writer is the way he shapes the supporting characters – but no one registers here. Kabali is filled with familiar faces. Kishore. Attakathi Dinesh. Kalaiyarasan. Riythvika. But Ranjith could have cast unknowns and nothing would have changed – they all get so little to do. A lot of the film looks as though epic-length subplots were compressed into one or two shots. It seems a great idea (a great Rajini-film idea) to have a Merc mow down a bad guy – but we don’t know this man yet, and we don’t get the primal satisfaction we should get from on-screen revenge. Or take the scene where the Riythvika character rails at Kabali for abandoning his pregnant wife. It harks back to her own pregnancy, which is referred to so casually that a scene that should have slammed down on us like a ton of bricks floats by like Forrest Gump’s feather.

At least some of the lightness, the lack of amped-up drama – I think – is intentional. Even within the cage of a Superstar movie, Ranjith is trying to be subtle. Another filmmaker would have given Yogi (a very ill-at-ease Dhansika) a rousing introduction, given the weight this character carries in the story. But she comes in like an afterthought, and it isn’t until interval point that we realise who she is, what she’s doing here. But again, this sounds better than how it plays out. Kabali unfolds like those noble-minded Hollywood biopics that try to do a lot, say a lot, and yet end up being not very distinctive, because the specifics that could make the story special are sacrificed to the bland broader beats. We aren’t emotionally invested in anything, anyone.

Except, maybe, Kumudhavalli, Kabali’s wife. Radhika Apte, who plays the part, looks ridiculously young beside Rajinkanth. (She looks like a little girl in old-age makeup. He looks like a sexagenarian in a wig.) She is a part of what is ostensibly the second (and far more interesting) narrative thread of Kabali, about the man’s personal life. But Ranjith doesn’t seem very invested in it (he keeps cutting away to shootouts and rather graphic violence for a U-certified movie) and Apte is wasted. But she gets one scene which makes you see why Ranjith wanted an actress of her calibre. It’s a scene where she breaks down after seeing Kabali after a very long time, and she makes us see a long-dormant volcano erupting suddenly with everything that was buried deep inside. Unlike many actors, she’s not afraid to look ridiculous – and that’s why she’s so convincing. This is the only time the film touches us. It’s a mystery why so many juicy emotional possibilities are left unexplored. If the fear was that taking these detours would make Kabali more of Ranjith movie than a Rajinikanth movie, then what about films like Dharmadurai or Nallavanukku Nallavan, where action and emotion were equally important?

Even the songs – an excellent album by Santhosh Narayanan – aren’t used as vehicles of emotion. They are relegated to the background. The film you imagined after listening to the soundtrack or even watching the crackling teaser isn’t the film on screen. Ranjith’s filmmaking is different too, and not in a good way. Kabali does have some of his trademarks – the way he introduces characters and their circumstances in a prologue-y rush at the beginning, or the way he uses little flashbacks to fill us in on what really happened. But the life that infused his earlier films is missing. The directorial confidence is no longer visible. You sense uncertainty, cautiousness. Kabali doesn’t have the lovely rhythms of Attakathi or Madras, where Ranjith gave us a sense of life being lived with micro-shots of people just… being. Here everything is a full-fledged scene. There are no moments. This isn’t to say Ranjith is coasting. He’s still trying to stage scenes. A scene where someone tries to assassinate Kabali could have just been about the assassination but the way Ranjith stages it carries an element of surrealism. But yet again, it works better on paper than on screen. The film doesn’t look very good either, which is something you find with many Indian filmmakers. They are brilliant when they shoot in India, but when they step outside the frames end up looking bland. (Another pet peeve: with rare exceptions like the nun in Anbe Sivam, foreign actors perform horribly in our films.)

And what about the big star at the centre? He does well, though his age is beginning to show – both in his physicality and dialogue delivery. There’s a scene where someone asks Kabali why he is a gangster when he is so educated. He removes his glasses. The camera moves closer. He gives this look, at once hard and wistful. He makes you wish for more such shots that studied his face. What a great still camera subject this face makes. Still. Another favourite shot of mine came when Kabali is in a hotel in Chennai, and the camera captures him not as a gangster but a father. The earlier edge is gone. There is so much warmth here, you feel this is what he must look like with his grandkids. And though we have the slo-mo walk and the staccato laugh, it is nice to see this star act his age – he kicks ass and yet, he’s vulnerable. He could use someone looking after him. Kabali doesn’t pander to his fans. No comedy. No punch lines. (The punch lines are all Ranjith’s). One of the songs in the soundtrack has this line: “25 varushathuku munnale eppidi ponaano Kabali appidiye thirumbi vanthutanu sollu.” I hoped that was an indication that we were going to see the Rajinikanth we saw in Thalapathi, which was released 25 years ago. There too, he played a low-caste gangster. There too we wondered if it was going to be the star’s film or the director’s film. But consider this. Mani Ratnam, at that point, had made nine films. He’d made Nayakan. That the two-film-old Ranjith is inviting these comparisons is proof enough that Kabali is just a small misstep. But a misstep it is. For now, it must be said that Rajinikanth does more for the movie than the movie does for him.


  • Jagat = see here
  • adimai sangili” = chains of slavery
  • Sairat = see here
  • Madras = see here
  • My Father Baliah = see here
  • Lingaa = see here
  • Naadodi = see here
  • Yenna endha samoogam midhichu… = The society that crushed me now lies at my feet.
  • Gouravam = see here
  • Unnoda karunai adhoda saavai vida kodooramanadhu.” = Your compassion is crueller than the prospect of its death.
  • Anbe Sivam = see here
  • 25 varushathuku munnale eppidi ponaano Kabali appidiye thirumbi vanthutanu sollu.” = The Kabali from 25 years ago is back.

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Posted in: Cinema: Tamil