Kabali: Not the great film it needed to be

The man in prison is shown reading ‘My Father Balaiah’, Professor Sathyanarayana’s book about the rise of his Dalit family in the face of discrimination. Instantly, you recognise this isn’t Rajinikanth; this is Kabali. But you are not allowed to see his face yet, and so you hold your breath. It’s the day of his release, and there’s a telling moment when he hesitates before stepping out of his cell. Almost as an afterthought, he does a pull-up. No, you can’t see him just yet. Not before he gets to wear a tailored suit (there’s a great story behind this), not before he gets to strut in a hall large enough to accommodate the stylishness of his persona and the explosion of Santosh Narayanan’s guitar riffs. Instantly, you recognise this isn’t Kabali; this is Rajinikanth. This duality, this awkward attempt at pleasing both Kabali and Rajinikanth, is the chief problem that haunts the film… like the ghost of Kumudhavalli does Kabali.

Genre: Drama
Director: Pa. Ranjith
Cast: Rajinikanth, Radhika Apte, Dhansika, Riythvika
Storyline: A lonely don gets a chance at redemption

The bitter rivalry between the dons, Kabali and Tony Lee, (Winston Chao) stems as much from the latter’s sense of entitlement to his land and its means, nefarious and otherwise, as it does from their choice of business. Tony doesn’t mind cashing in on drugs and prostitution, while Kabali is a bit like Vito Corleone. He’s the ‘good’ don, even if he uncharacteristically, unconvincingly proclaims himself to be a ‘kettavan da’ in one of the film’s many weak moments. Naturally, owing to his lack of investment in these lucrative opportunities, business suffers. Incidentally, the problem plaguing Kabali is also one of investment… in its characters. In his eagerness to do justice to the half-a-dozen characters he has brought forward from Madras and shoehorned into Kabali, Ranjith doesn’t quite have the time in which to flesh out any of them in detail, in order to make us connect emotionally to them. He almost seems to believe that emotional investment is a simple matter of knowing who’s good and who’s bad. It really, really isn’t. That’s why when Kabali runs over one of Tony’s enforcers, you don’t feel satisfaction. That’s why when Kabali narrowly escapes one of many, many assassination attempts, you don’t feel the relief. That’s why when Kabali reels from the gun shots and slumps on the road, you don’t feel the shock. If you aren’t attached enough to Kabali, what then of the fringe charactes like Dhansika, Riythvika, Attakathi Dinesh, Kalaiyarasan, Nasser…

The best portions of the film, for me, were those in which Ranjith seemed home, even if there weren’t as many of them as one may have hoped. I relished that aura of loss that hovered over Kabali as he struggles to cope with life outside prison, and more importantly, without his Kumudhavalli (“Evlo azhaagaana paeru illa?”). This don who aims to do good for his community, but is fast running out of vitality, owing to the apparent death of Kumudhavalli, the love of his life, the source of his energy… This is the Rajini we signed up for when we learned Ranjith was making Kabali. When he sits at the dining table, consumed by nostalgia, and asks for some alone time. His request is rather ironical because you know that no matter where he is, who he is surrounded by, he is already dreadfully lonely. Or how about when he sees her phantasm, and excuses himself from his friends to sit beside her? How about when he’s deep in discussion, and hears somebody singing ‘Thendral vandhu’ in the background, and cannot but be momentarily transported to a beautiful time in the past when he was with her? Trust Ilaiyaraaja’s songs to have that effect. Or how about when he’s restless and breathless about meeting his Kumudhavalli again after decades, and cannot, despite his age and fatigue, catch a moment’s sleep? Or best of all, how about that weight of loneliness and renouncement that seems to hang over him throughout the first half of the film… almost as though he couldn’t bear to spend a minute living without her, almost as though every minute was torturous, every step unbearable. “Aduththa janmam nu onnu irundha, manushanaa mattum porakkave koodadhu.” Such is the resignation, such is the pain. This is what Rajinikanth is capable of, when he plays his age and relegates showmanship to the background. No matter what our thoughts are about the film, we owe it to Ranjith for showing us these rare glimpses, for giving us proof that the actor has still survived underneath the Superstar.

Unfortunately though, Ranjith, it seems, has bitten a bit more than he could chew with Kabali. Perhaps the immigrant subtext needed to be handled in a different film. Perhaps he should have gone easy with bringing in the whole battalion of artistes from Madras. Or perhaps, he should have just stuck to his guns and focussed just on the unglamorous love story of an aged don, zealous fanboys of the Superstar be damned. However much Ranjith reiterates that Kabali is, in fact, the same love story he set out to make, it is hard to agree with him considering all the various directions in which the story gets pulled. If it were indeed that love story, Kumudhavalli (leaving aside that explosive scene of their reunion) would have had a lot more to do than just the occasional line of sartorial advice. Their daughter, Yogi (Dhansika), would have felt more important. When Kumudhavalli hugs Yogi for the first time, the scene wouldn’t have felt as cursory. The album’s best track, ‘Maya Nadhi’, would’ve left us gasping for breath. More time would have been spent on the beautiful awkwardness of the reunion… of the tentative, almost embarrassed steps back into romance. But Ranjith seems to have been in a hurry; perhaps somebody was paid to keep reminding him that he was working with the Superstar. “Sir, it has been a while since we did a stunt sequence.” “Sir, it has been a while since he said Magizchi.

His attempts at making the film explosive—in other words, a Superstar film—are half-hearted at best, and unoriginal at worst. Almost none of those memorable moments from the teaser hold up in the film. His Nambiyar line comes out of nowhere. The now-famous “Magizhchi” punch seems awkward every time he uses it. It’s a great choice of word to convey his quiet resolve, his implacable spirit, but it doesn’t sit organically in the exchanges, and lacks the understated power and menace it should come loaded with. The same problem persists in the scene that has Kabali calling Tony to tell him that he isn’t dead as presumed, that he is very much up and about. It must have seemed like a great masala moment in writing. But the actual conversation is anything but. You are all ready to break into applause, and wait for a great dialogue, but it doesn’t come.

The biggest disappointment of all is how uninventive the stunt choreography is… especially in that unending climax portion that occurs at a fellow don’s 100th birthday celebrations on top of a Malaysian skyscraper. My spirit soared when Kabali is shown taking Tony down, without breaking a sweat. He has already made plans for the destruction of Tony’s empire, and sent forces to that end. Let’s, for the moment, ignore that in a previous scene, we learn that he’s severely depleted in resources. The idea of a climax fight sequence without a fistfight, I thought, was intriguing. But of course, Ranjith was probably reminded that it’s a Superstar film, and so, he tries to end the rivalry all guns blazing… literally. It is utterly unmemorable, and made me wonder if this was the same director who gave us that pulsating pre-interval sequence in Madras. There’s another bad line when Tony expresses his wish that Kabali be born as his dog in his next birth. One of Tony’s henchmen even does a ridiculous ‘woof woof’ just so we know what a dog’s bark sounds like. It’s all rather crass and dull.

The night after the film, I slept with a heavy heart. Kabali isn’t a great film, it’s probably not even a good film, but surely, it isn’t bad enough to warrant the infamous Lingaa meme treatment? Questions flooded my head. Does Kabali’s response mean that Rajini goes back to his loyal, outdated, veteran directors again? Does it mean that the door to Rajinikanth is shut for, say, a director like Karthik Subbaraj? Does his Superstar status even allow for the making of meaningful films in the first place? But what I’m sure about is that Rajinikanth, the actor, needs an encouraging pat in the back. And in order for the pat to register, Kabali needed to be a great film. You have to wonder if a glorious opportunity is forever lost now.

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