Pa Ranjith sealed his reputation as a stylish and thoughtful filmmaker with Madras (2014), in which a long-running feud between political parties over a wall became a nifty metaphor for Tamil Nadu politics.
The Malaysia-set Kabali, starring Rajiatnikanth as the eponymous don, opens with the promise of similar messaging tucked into a regulation gang-war drama. After being in jail for over two decades, Kabali is going to be set free. He snaps shut the book he has been reading: My Father Balaiah, YB Satyanaraya’s biography of his Telengana Dalit family.
It’s not only the guns that are loaded in Kabali. Ranjith, who has done his homework on the centuries-old journey of Tamil labour to East Asia, locates Kabali as a possibly lower caste or Dalit union leader from the rubber plantations of Malaysia who turns to crime to protect his community. One of Kabali's gestures of defiance is to wear a suit – he no doubt has the writings of Bhim Rao Ambedkar tucked away somewhere too – and he gives stirring speeches on the social ladder that must be scaled by any means possible.
“I am not from a ruling family but I am born to rule,” Kabali says in one of many whistle-inducing assertions of the challenge his subaltern self poses to the gang run by Chinese triad boss Tony Lee (his father is hilariously named Ang Lee).
Tony Lee (Taiwanese actor Winston Chao) and his henchman Veerasekaran (Kishore Kumar G) are the ones responsible for murdering Kabali’s pregnant wife Kumudhavalli (Radhika Apte). They hire the short-haired and mean-looking mercenary Yogi (Dhansika) to complete the task. Up until the slickly shot first half, which is backed up well by Santosh Narayanan’s peppy songs and a suitably menacing background score, the suspense over Yogi’s real identity and Kabali’s quest to learn about his wife’s fate holds firmly.
The promise of a crime drama with a political bent is abandoned in the post-interval portions, especially after the pile-up of contrivances brought on by the need to portray Kabali as an omnipresent and omnipotent superhero. The sound effects that accompany Kabali’s hand movements and scenes of his invincibility prove that for all the back story that Ranjith has dredged up, we are watching Rajinikanth in an iteration of Rajinikanth.
Rajinikanth gives Kabali his full attention and commands the screen whenever he is on it. The various ways in which he says “Magizhchi” (Cheers) proves that he can throw a line like few other actors, but the character is too underdeveloped and unidimensional to be more than a Rajinikanth riff.
A magnetic and gifted actor who started off by portraying villains and marginalised characters in Tamil cinema, Rajinikanth became a meta-star in the 1990s. Not many filmmakers have successfully channeled the mythos of his screen persona into serviceable plots. Kabali makes a half-hearted attempt to rescue the actor who has now become the stuff of Gifs, but its filmmakers are unwilling to pass up the opportunity to milk Rajinimania for as long as they can.
Kabali may have the thickest skin in all of Malaysia, even surviving a near-fatal spray of bullets, but there are inescapable moments when the 65-year-old actor’s movements appear slower and less sure than usual. “Why waste time talking about an old man?” a thug contemptuously and perilously tells Kabali early on. Immense care has been taken to conceal the screen idol’s inability to sashay across the screen in his trademark forward shoulder strut, and in many scenes, he holds forth from a sofa that doubles up as a throne.
The overly heavy reliance on Rajinikinath’s presence to carry the day means that the rest of the acting ranges from strictly professional (Radhika Apte) to passable (Kishore Kumar G, John Vijay as Kabali’s henchman Amir). The action is ultraviolent in parts for effect, and the plot twists are clunky. It is never clear why Kabali needs to become a gangster in order to serve his people better, just as it is never revealed how the crime boss funds his activities after vowing not to run prostitution or drug rackets. Kabali is less of a hoodlum and more of a righteous outlaw in the mould of Rajinikanth’s Baasha (1999) – a Robin Hood figure who is steeped in charity even as he drops bodies by the sidewalk.
Take Rajinikanth out of Kabali and what do you get? That was a rhetorical question.
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