I must admit I am a Chennaite and yet have only just realised the intensity of a Rajini release – thanks to Pa. Ranjith’s much-hyped Kabali. Though the posters, singles and fan-made sketches were doing the rounds on Facebook and Twitter (not to mention my office and neighbourhood) I caught the Kabali fever only a couple of days prior to the release – not a fatal illness, as in the case of many of the demigod’s fans, but just a mild, paracetamol-curable fever.
You must have understood by this time that I am not a fan of Rajini, nor his ‘style’, which is so blandly recurrent in all his cinematic ventures; but yes, I do respect the personal side of the man, and importantly his decision to shed his filmy image while stepping out of the screen, and appear just as he truly is.
The Kabali fever, however, blanketed me more from Santhosh Narayan’s ‘Neruppu da’ than from Rajini’s newly defined look for the film; the latter did make a substantial contribution though. The more I was listening to the song, the more I realised Kabali occupying my mind and, regrettably, the little time I had outside of my work.
Thankfully, my company decided to takeus all for a corporate show when the film released. We were booked for the weekend show immediately following the Friday release of the film, much to the envy of countless of the star’s fans who had felt cheated out by the bulk-bookings of the corporate giants in and around Chennai. I stepped into the theatre expecting the film to satisfy me wholly and convince me enough that I become a Rajini fan too, vaguely feeling left out from the crowd of my colleagues engaged in a feverish discussion about the ‘Man in the Suit’. From the moment the film started playing, there were claps and ‘Oooohhs’ emerging from all around me (mostly for the wrong scenes), but I brought my hands together, a few times, only to rub my palms against one another to wade of the freezing chillness that the walls of the theatre were giving away.
The film is not your typical Rajini film. You have the star sporting greyish beard. You have him walking at only the pace permitted by his age. More significantly, you don’t have infuriating punch dialogues, or surreal dance sequences with a woman more suitable to play his daughter than heroine. It is the film of a Malaysian-Tamilian who rises from being a mere worker raising his voice to demand more salary for Tamilian estate workers to becoming a revolutionary figure for the holistic upliftment of all Tamils in Malaysia; though what he does to get to that level other than joining a prominent revolutionary (Nasser in a short role) is left for us to figure out. Also left in darkness is what Kabali does after becoming that revolutionary. How does he support his kindred? How does he fight the growing menace of drugs and child-trafficking? Does he keep in touch with the outside world and its progress (or deterioration) while in prison for crimes that he didn’t commit? It is all very nebulous. We even have an introductory song with a cohort of Tamils singing and dancing and celebrating the release of Kabali – a man they had as their leader for just two years and had not seen for the next 25 years.
Now what the man does after coming out is the story. His wife and the child within her are killed by the bad guys before packing Kabali off to prison. So now in addition to the existing plot thread of protection and upliftment of Tamils, we have a familial thread for Kabali to hang onto. The initial scenes after his release where he reminisces his beautiful past with his wife (Radhika Apte in a grippingly emotional role) are superbly conceived and shot. Next, he learns of the growth and spread of a rival gang called ‘43’, and then goes to one of its top members to talk him out of selling drugs. It is here that he learns of the possibility that his wife could still be breathing, and thus starts Kabali’s search for Kumudhavalli. And this is what could have been pursued till the end. The flashbacks that tell the story of his life with Kumudhavalli, and how she mentors the rough and sartorially mindless Kabali to transform him into a figure that the masses could come to respect are neat, but lacking. How the simple hothead Kabali becomes ‘The Kabali’ could have included his revolutionary story too, so that we could at least understand the people’s care for the man, and also wish him to win in the war against the dogmatic Malaysian businessmen. But we are only shown Kabali’s love for his wife, not of his fight for the Tamils. So that makes us wish for Kabali to find his wife soon, it makes our eyes well up with happy tears when the duo finally meet (oh yes, his wife is alive!), but it does not make us cry our heart out when he destroys the business of his rival. And that too is done in the climax in a way that could have been executed anytime during his stay in Malaysia, even after coming out of prison, but we are asked to wait till the climax for the Tarantino-style execution.
What really stands throughout the film is Kabali’s love for Kumudhavalli, and the powerful acting of Apte. The many backstabbings within and across gangs, the heavy but vain attempts of the villain to kill Kabali and his family, and even the bullets-flying denouement fail to attract any sincere attention. The screenplay is a rollercoaster with slow-paced scenes unapologetically coupled with racy action that play no part in the progress of the story.
Kabali, in all, merits our 120 rupees only for the sake of Rajini’s first major on-screen change (to quote Mr Baradwaj Rangan, ‘Rajinikanth does more for the movie than the movie does for him’); okay, let’s be good enough and include the excellent acting of Apte also. But at the end, every serious filmgoer would be left wondering how better the film could have been.