I don’t look for holidays to release a film, I just release the film and it becomes a holiday.
— Rajini Puran (2016)
Rajinikanth Superstar may or may not have said this. The makers and producers of Kabali may or may not have said this. But this snarky snapping of the south at the north was not just delicious. It is a fact.
Several offices did declare Kabali release day a holiday, theatres ran back-to-back 24×7 shows, special planes took special flights for special screenings of the film.
And so, on Friday morning, there I was, all ready and geared up to bask in the awesomeness of Rajinikanth — a superstar whose stardom doesn’t just tickle and amuse me; it repeatedly smacks my gob as well.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a cynic. Not at all. In fact, I find the staggering madness, addled-brain adulation, the monumental myth-building preceding and accompanying the release of his films stunning. I’m certain I’ll never see it again in my lifetime.
There is another reason why I adore Rajini Sir — a heady dose of schadenfreude.
It delights me no end to know that the biggest star of Bollywood, Salman Khan, is beatable. Not by the Khans in his neighbourhood, but by a man who is 15 years his senior and often appears in public in a white shirt and mundu, without a wig. I bow to his swag.
Given all this, it’s no surprise that Kabali the film itself is a fan. Director Pa. Ranjith’s Kabali doesn’t star Rajinikanth, The Superstar. It hosts him — as the esteemed guest of a genuflecting, much-obliged, much-overcome-by-its-own-good-fortune host.
The opening sequence, thus, is like a warm Indian welcome to a much revered and loved guest. Rajini Sir is welcomed first, at the gate, with hugs and hand-on-chest life-long allegiance, then surrounded by singing men, dancing dragons, presented with a cake to be cut, followed by men arriving with bouquets.
The film’s plot is inconsequential, but here it is.
Kabali opens in Malaysia where Kabali has been in jail for 25 years.
The backstory is that there once was a gang, a good goonda gang, that had, amongst its members, a union leader, Ramprasad (Naseer). He was an Indian fighting for the rights of Indian labourers in Malaysia.
Ramprasad did good work and saw in Kabali, a farm worker, his successor. But this turned Ramprasad’s son into a disgruntled element and that led to mayhem in Kabali’s life — which, by then, included a pregnant wife, Rupa (Radhika Apte), he adored, and who adored him even more.
But Kabali wasn’t around to see the outcome of the mayhem. He was whisked away to jail, bloody and holding a sharp weapon.
And now, after 13 attempts on his life, he is out.
But mind it! All these years in jail were not spend twiddling thumbs. From jail Kabali ran Freedom Foundation — an NGO devoted to fighting “gangsterism”. It reforms budding gangsters and their victims, i.e. drug addicts.
Now that he is out, his main focus is to look for his family and the men who betrayed him. This search — of piecing together what happened, where his wife and child are, in a graveyard, or suffering somewhere — is constantly interrupted by the men who want him dead. They call themselves Taintalis (43).
Within 43, the task of killing Kabali is assigned first to the junior-most member, then his senior and so on till it eventually falls upon the man on top, Tony Lee (Winston Chao), a bow-tied goon who is very camp but no fun at all, to try and get the job done.
In Kabali, Rajini Sir strikes all the poses he must to remind us that he’s still worthy of all the craziness outside the hall. He does pull-ups to show us, right at the beginning, that he is still the killing machine he once was.
And when he points an angry finger, it has the sound of whiplash. He also sits and kills with style.
But there’s a problem.
As stars get older, no matter what the fandom claims, the men encased in superstardom do get slower. Their gestures may be the same, but they are not sharp. The glow begins to fade, stride gets slower, the face begins to change. Though they gain gravitas and their grimace has more power, they need a proper role, a solid story, a strong director.
Simply pirouetting on their stardom while throwing in some signature moves just doesn’t do it. Yet that’s what Kabali is. A trite, and rather bare film but for Rajini Sir’s darshan.
Despite all this, I was desperately trying to extract some joy, some excitement from the rather mundane, dull and decidedly B-grade film. I was waiting for a wow moment, watching Rajini Sir keenly, waiting for him to blow my mind, and that’s when I remembered what my friend Jodhu said: “You don’t watch Kabali. Kabali watches you.”
Well, I dozed off out of sheer boredom at least six times while Kabali was watching me. I’m not sure it’s very happy with me.
Apart from one very Korean fight sequence, involving Dinesh Ravi who is really good, there are only two things going for Kabali: the very warm and very charming chemistry between Rajini Sir and Radhika, and the political sub-text in a film written and directed by Pa. Ranjith, a dalit.
Radhika Apte’s character is crafted like all Radhika Apte characters are crafted — one part mother goddess, one part mother, one part frisky beloved. But she’s good. She forges a very strong bond with Rajinikanth with very few words. Watching them exchange love smiles made me go aww.
And then there’s dalit politics. In jail, Kabali, the educated farmworker, son of a bonded labourer, reads My Father Baliah, a memoir by dalit thinker Y.B. Satyanarayana, on dalit lives and the need for education. And when free, he wears suits. His sartorial choice always invites snide remarks — a constant warning to not overreach, to stay in his aukat.
Despite the remarks and the hot weather, Kabali wears his expensive formals that cover his entire body with pride, even invoking Bhimrao Ambedkar and his suit.
The suit then becomes a metaphor — for discarding an identity and fate presumptuously handed to him, and grabbing and asserting an identity of his own choice.
I found this political undercurrent very interesting.
Apart from that, all Kabali has in the hall is ear-splitting and raucous music to keep the myth of the now creaking-at-the-joints superstar going, and outside the hall monumental and ridiculous craziness. I’d rather sit outside and watch the fans. They seem to be more fun.