'Kabali', a Great Rajinikanth Experience if You Know What You're Looking For

Don't get hung up on Rajini's superhero-isms; these are old grounds for someone who instituted the post-superhero tradition in which, corny as it was, it didn't matter how the superhero flew but only why.

A poster of the Rajinikanth-starrer 'Kabali'.

A poster of the Rajinikanth-starrer ‘Kabali’.

Spoilers ahead.

There was a time when I’d been bruised trying to get the famous ten-rupee ticket in Chennai’s Albert theatre ahead of the release of Chandramukhi (2005). The film, a Rajinikanth-starrer, followed the actor’s disastrous Baba (2002) and pressure was high on the superstar to deliver. Thankfully, it did have a better cast of actors and a better script, derived from Manichitrathazhu (1993). We – those who fought for the ticket, danced around the movie hall before the show began, and whistled every time Rajinikanth appeared on screen – were only hopeful that the story, the cinematography and the rest of the cast wouldn’t drag down our superstar’s performance.

We knew he was a man of the masses, has been since Baasha (1995), that he was doing what he was doing – living out a struggle of some sort but often using implausible means to triumph – for our appeasement. That is the only road Tamil cinema – rather, mainstream cinema in general around the country, Bollywood included – offers to ageing heroes who, in the eyes of their admirers, cannot transition to playing fatherly roles. Rishi Kapoor did it; Amitabh Bachchan tried it and failed; Rajinikanth has deliberately and irreversibly achieved cult-status with the chances that have come his way. ‘Deliberately’ because the actor has cultivated a culture of humility and unpretentiousness around himself that shapes the expectations of his fans from him as well as from themselves. ‘Irreversibly’ because, for Rajini, there’s no going back now – definitely not after Kabali (July 22, 2016).

A film is the product of many forces – of cinematic technique, the market and society – and it matters, when reviewing a film, to consider them all together. The risk otherwise is missing the broader discourse within which a film might find greater relevance than simply as a product. This is exactly the case with Rajini’s films and what they seek to deliver – as well as what feels off, in my opinion, in getting hung up on superhero-isms. These are old grounds for someone who, long ago, began to institute the post-superhero tradition in which, corny as it was, it didn’t matter how the superhero flew but only why he flew.

In fact, Kabali doesn’t have enough Rajini-isms to this end, doesn’t have enough of himself and his massive persona dominating the screen-time, but it does have a powerful performance nonetheless. Apart from his often-overlooked acting, his depiction in the film has allowed him to be an aged, ageing, sometimes vulnerable man. And in all it is way better than his other films off late (perhaps with the exception of Sivaji). This is not an admission of mediocrity but an evaluation of what sorts of characters Rajini has chosen to play. Ask yourself: when was the last time a film about labourers’ rights and union struggles dominated Bollywood’s box office?

There is a political tradition attendant to what roles strike a more resonant chord with Tamil filmgoers, too, pioneered by former Tamil Nadu CM and our first ‘superstar’, M.G. Ramachandran. M.S.S. Pandian writes in The Image Trap: “By employing a carefully constructed system of mise en scéne, the films celebrate [MGR’s] subalternity and create an ambience that makes it possible for the audience to identify themselves with him.” Actors like Rajini, in turn like MGR before him, are participants in a politics centred on populism even as it is tempered by the Dravidian principles of self-determination, eliminating caste discrimination, and empowering the worker.

In Kabali, Rajini, who plays the titular character, runs a foundation to rehabilitate young adults whose lives have been affected by rising levels of gangsterism in Kuala Lumpur. His group’s rivals are called Gang 43, whose only intention is to seize complete control of the vices of KL. The film begins with Rajini’s release from prison 25 years after the ‘death’ of his wife and a friend. Immediately after his release, and despite exhortations from the police to not do so, Rajini escalates the conflict, starts eliminating traitors and commences on Kabali‘s most beautiful sub-plot: the search for his wife’s body, amid flashbacks of the few years he spent with her before her disappearance, years he spent coming up as a champion of Tamilian workers’ rights in Malaysia.

His wife is played by Radhika Apte, wonderfully in her element, quietly dignified, quietly passionate, although a bit rough around the edges during her attempts to nail Tamilian mannerisms. Rajini’s earliest memories are of Apte as a comrade during his first protests, unreservedly in his support. However, there is something invisible at work here: Apte in the eyes of some may have come across as puerile but she also falls in line with some discomfiting but-it-is-what-it-is tradition.

How we choose to fill in the blanks – of what she didn’t do on screen – is based on our awareness of and comfort with the form and function of a gangster’s wife in Tamil cinema: her being okay with her social subduction, and her eventual wilful distancing from her husband’s activities. This gnaws at many of us, and this doesn’t gnaw at many of us. The sides we choose to take on this – and there are more than two – inform our opinions of Apte’s role. Personally, I’m not surprised but I am disappointed. This is not the kind of role for which you cast Radhika Apte, who would’ve been perfect for something more complex and shaded, and so this is what has been truly squandered when she comes on screen.

But then some of her scenes, while cheesy, are worth watching for their unexpected power. There is one when Rajini reunites with her after a long period of separation. Apte enters a room to find Rajini and their daughter standing up to greet her, and breaks into a stammering, shuddering sob. Rajini walks up to her and they embrace, his once steely eyes melting over her shoulder as she breaks down and regains herself at once against him. That was it – but we couldn’t roll our eyes. Overall, it was unfortunate that the quietude in Apte’s character was necessary: Apte could’ve done more, had a bigger role to play, instead of simply having to provide some familial character to Kabali the gangster’s life.

But such are the limits set on Anyone Else in a Rajini film.

Another loss, though not as major, in Kabali relates to the director, Pa Ranjith. Ranjith is only two films old now, three with Kabali. His first was Attakathi (2012), which featured a bunch of low profile actors, including debutant Dinesh in the lead, and a really flat script about young adult romances and rebellion brought to life by a focus on its details. The film is devoid of any mass-appeal moments – it aimed closer to what many of us have felt growing up in a small town, middle class family. Ranjith’s second film was Madras (2014), also devoid of mass-appeal and infused with a distinct preference for function over form. Its story was of a big wall in a lower middle class area in Chennai, a privileged and much-contested space within which the posters of local leaders were featured – and a fight over who gets access to the wall.

With Kabali, Ranjith’s confrontation and treatment of class struggles in different spaces continues. But with Rajini, it could only ever have been more grand, and 150 minutes of such grandeur will quickly lose sight of its finer details and start to gyrate in favour of the superstar who is its mover. Rajini’s first scene in the film is of him reading Y.B. Satyanarayana’s My Father Baliah, a book about Dalit struggles in Telangana, in prison. Parables from the book are never mentioned in the film even as Rajini makes incessant references to how injustices can be inherited the way titles are – a central theme of the book. However, the Chekhov’s gun fires differently around Rajini. The implications are bifurcated: either Ranjith played it too subtle, in which case the scene is a misfire, or that Kabali the gangster reads books like My Father Baliah and is aware of its attendant sociopolitics.

In all, Kabali, like its predecessors, might try to be self-contained but it doesn’t work. In fact, if this is your idea of a Rajini film, you will be disappointed. As a standalone product, it’s very run-of-the-mill. Then again: in the fight sequence immediately following his release from prison, Kabali enters the den of his rival and reintroduces himself after having been gone for 25 years in what has now become an iconic scene from the film. With a wry smile: “You think I’m the servant who shows with bowed back, folded hands and a subservient demeanour when a landlord calls out ‘Kabali!’? [draws self up straight, frees hands and shouts as camera looks up at him] I am Kabali!“* The cinema hall goes up in cheers not because it’s one actor in one film but because it’s the perpetuation of a regionally, linguistically exclusive tradition. On this count, either you’re an insider or you’re an outsider, and your experience of the film will unfortunately but inescapably hinge on your view of what a good film is.

Moreover, like all traditions, this one is flawed, too: most perceptibly in its ironical treatment of women – as still unable to transcend the patriarchy even as it glorifies all other kinds of struggle. And many Tamil films, starring Rajini or no, make this mistake when they take themselves too seriously. Flaws abound in the broader economic context as well: the cinema hall where I watched Kabali (PVR Anupam, New Delhi) did not provide subtitles for the non-Tamil audience, and my friends would’ve missed the more stylistic attributes of the film if not for realtime translations. Kabali‘s distributors billed the film as a pan-state cultural experience but did not do enough to ensure it would be consumed as such. So, if the goal was to get it across to as many people as possible, then there are bound to be transmission losses.

*I am Kabali is not exact. Behold Kabali, or Know that this is Kabali, is closer.