Been a fan of Rajni Kanth (written as Rajini in Tamil and as Rajani in Malayalam) since his earliest films, for no reason other than his antics and mannerisms. In most films, he plays the same character under different names. I think Baasha (the return of a ganster after trying to lead a reformed life as an auto-rickshaw driver) is one of his best films so far.
When I go to see Kabali, another gangster film (where the ganster returns from prison life), I expect it to excel Basha. When it doesn’t, I get disappointed. This is just to make it clear that I am unlike a novice who watches a Rajni film (or, even a Tamil commercial movie) for the first time. I know that all his films have (laughable) topical social messages which mean nothing after The End. Basically, he is a hero not taken seriously for any political reason unlike many of the yesterheros of the tamil screen who were damn serious when it came to political beliefs right or wrong.
Coming to Kabali, let me say about the positive things first. The camera. Specially in the night sequences. The editing. So slick. The background music, which sometimes becomes an irritant and resembles the score of SRK’s Don. The songs. The locales. Overall, a slick production which drags on the storyline after the interval.
What is negative is mainly the script. The storyline is so thin and cliché that the director-cum-scriptwriter, who is wax eloquent about the film outside the confines of the film and is pretty strong about his political beliefs as a dalit, fails to put all that into the film which is yet another slickly produced saga of vendetta which Rajni films are familiar with. What the fans may miss is the polish and glitter given to their super hero minus his usual ribald nature of characterization. The punch dialogues lose their punch when repeated hundred times.
How much of a social message can be put into a film is determined by the compromise between the writer, director and the super star and also by the people pumping crores of money into it. Pa Ranjith’s intentions made clear in an interview are clear and need to be applauded. But, how much of it can be executed how well is the problem. Anything put into a commercial film venture of this magnitude is valid only as something that will return to the coffers and not make changes in society. Rajni’s characters can be a dravidian, gandhian, gangster, cid, policeman, rowdy, devotee of some godman or even a dalit enthusiast, but the ultimate criteria is how much money is made out of it. Pa Ranjith confuses this commercial system with art, even quoting Mao (not Ambedkar) to prove that art needs to be socially relevant. Is it a good idea to spend 100 crores to prove something that we already know?
Some zealous dalit intellectuals talk about not seeing the film through a `savarna’ eye, but what is the `commercial’ eye employed in the production? Isn’t it too hasty to call it `our’ film or a `political’ film over enthusiastically? I remember that when a Malayalam crass commercial film named `Angadi’ (Market) was released, many Marxists claimed that it was their film. The same seems to happen to this film too. There are four elements quoted to prove this.
First – Kabali reading the book My Father Balaiah by Prof. Satyanarayana, published by HarperCollins, at the moment of his release from prison.
Second – Poster portraying Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar at the school run by Kabali’s men.
Third – The importance of wearing a coat as a political gesture.
Fourth – The beauty of black skin.
The book is a deliberate intervention on the part of the director and the art director which will, however, be noticed and recognized only by English-reading public familiar with dalit literature. It is also too fleeting a visual to have any impact on anyone except the aforementioned section. Will the dalit masses appreciate it?
We see not only the poster of Ambedkar, but also the poster of Che Guerra in the school. This has not been explained properly by Pa Ranjith in the interview. I believe that Dalits see Marxism as an opposing ideology with its ignorance of caste as a factor which even Marx himself failed to see.
“There is a kind of politics in Gandhi removing his coat and Ambedkar wearing it,” is the dialogue that is held high as a case of dalit assertion. It is true to some extent. Especially so since the name Ambedkar is quoted for the first time along with Gandhi in a commercial movie. It needs to be applauded. But, it soon loses its political significance in the Malaysian context as it is seen as the dress style of the gang leader. This is buttressed when two coat-wearing scenes are intercut as the two gang leaders prepare for the final battle. Both Kabali and Tony are shown to dress up in an elaborate fashion in their coats. Also, it becomes clear that only Kabali, the leader, wears the coat while the rest wear only shirts.
The myth of the power of the black skin is not anything new and has been oft-repeated in Tamil movies. There are songs even singing paens to the colour black. But, as a symbol, it is immediately exploded as the wife of Kabali is a fair skinned damsel who proves the proverb that `behind every successful man is a woman.’ It is again exploded as the daughter born to Kabali is even a fairer skinned girl. The director could have proved his `political correctness’ by making at least the daughter dark skinned.
The screen play generally suffers from a lack of clarity in political events. What I have read of Malaysia is that much of the immigration of indentured Tamil labour took place in the first four decades of the last century to tea and rubber plantations. Reforms came in the 70s. Armed Communism was rooted out in the 80s. Given Kabali’s storyline, Kabali was arrested for murder in 1990. He rose from the ranks to be a union leader. But, there is some confusion here as the trade unionists are also portrayed as belonging to gangs. Thus, Kabali is described as a gang leader of one of the two factions, the Zero Zero (00) gang. The other gang Four three (43) is lead by Tony, a local Malay. Many of Kabali’s earlier Tamil associates are with 43. Was there such an intricate connection between trade unions and criminal gangs in Malaysia?
Kabali’s trade union action and subsequent events are shown in such a picture book manner that they totally lack conviction. Kabali is supposedly running a Goodie goodie gang which doesn’t deal in booze, drugs, extortion, flesh traffic etc. Then, what’s their source of income which enables them to maintain spanky houses and drive spanky cars and also possess latest fire arms and ammunition? Running rehabilitation schools?
Much time is wasted on Kabali’s quest for his wife assumed dead. It is astonishing that his loyal members did not feel the need to enquire after their beloved leader’s family. I am sure they were paying regular visits to him in jail.
And, apart from the reference to Ambedkar, caste is never a factor in the goings on in the film. At the most what we find is a clash between the immigrant tamil labour and the rubber and palm oil companies which favour the local Malays. Even in a gang-talk, Kabali is referring to Tamils as a whole which covers labour from Kerala and Andhra too.
In the culmination which takes place in the dark, a boy gang member of Kabali, is shown to be released from jail and given a firearm to do a job. He approaches Kabali with the gun. Black out and a gun shot. Apart from the suspense, what does it say? That Kabali is felled by his own man when the enemies have been destroyed?
On the whole, the film draws a blank on several platforms. To the credit of the director, his political faith is crystal clear in the interviews, but it does not show up in an out and out commercial film. The VCK leader Ravi Kumar makes a point when he says, “the attempt is commendable. But, there is a risk of commodification of dalit politics and the references in the movies are reduced to mere props.”
I can say this also in favour of the director by listing what Padmavibhushan Rajni Kanth does not do in the film. 1. Rajni doesn’t dance 2. He doesn’t make women compete for him 3. He doesn’t make misogynic comments 4. He doesn’t maintain a comic side kick 5. He doesn’t play with his goggles 6. He doesn’t bow before Gods and smear vibhuthi on his brow.