No other Indian Tamil film in recent memory has paid as much attention to constructing an ideological mise en scène, especially when the medium is a gangster drama. When the setting becomes an iconographic gallery, it cumulatively augments a narrative about the struggle for dignity by those betrayed by both colonialism and post-colonialism.
Tucked away in the top left-hand corner of one frame is a pastiche of Frantz Fanon, the camera floats past posters of Chinua Achebe and Karl Marx in another, and the image of Che Guevara appears in multiple frames. There’s also a fleeting shot of the architect of India’s constitution, jurist, and activist against untouchability, B.R.Ambedkar. The political significance of Ambedkar’s accoutrement during India’s struggle for independence is invoked more than once in dialogue.
In the foreground is the living icon, whose aura appropriates and reifies that of the others. In director P.A.Ranjith’s Kabali, Indian screen legend and Tamil megastar, Rajinikanth shows just why he is as much as an artiste as he is a star and a countercultural symbol.
After two recent duds that called into question the bankability of the 65-year-old Rajinikanth, he has attempted to shed his anachronistic action hero image. After the posters, pictures from the set, and a rocking teaser trailer on Youtube piqued the interest of fans and film buffs alike, there was heady talk that the puckish superstar, gyrating with actresses half his age, had made way for Rajinikanth the thespian. Hopes were high that he would follow the trail blazed by fellow screen legend, Amitabh Bachchan. A multi-million dollar marketing blitzkrieg followed, with tie-ins involving a commercial airline, a finance firm, a telecommunications services company, and even a chocolate brand amongst others, in the wake of a successful social media campaign.
In Kabali, Rajinikanth makes an exhilarating return as the eponymous mobster and protector of the Malaysian Tamil community, who is set free after a 25-year incarceration (nods to Nelson Mandela). Kabali’s search for his family amidst gangland warfare in Malaysia’s underbelly forms the plot of the film The delightful Radhika Apte plays his wife Kumudhavalli, Taiwanese star Winston Chao is the snarling antagonist Tony Lee, and Kishore stars as Tony’s chief lieutenant Veerasekara. Edited by the award-winning Praveen K.L. and set to a critically acclaimed score composed by Santhosh Narayanan, the V Creations produced Kabali retains most of the youthful team behind Ranjith’s previous films.
Edgy, gritty, and raw, Kabali is a captivating indigenization of the gangster drama that avoids the clichés while fulfilling expectations we have of the genre. Disavowing the kitschy vaudeville of recent Rajinikanth films, Kabali strives for economy in narrative through a taut screenplay (seamless comedy, no lengthy song interludes, or over-the-top fight scenes). However, the question arises as to whether it may have been too circumspect in its storytelling and there’s an inconsistency in pacing across segments of the film. Still, it’s a thought-provoking film about the struggles faced by all oppressed subaltern communities. Read against the grain, one might even call Kabali a cerebral political film masquerading as a gangster drama.
Unlike Tamil films in the past set in Southeast Asia chiefly for exoticism, the strength of Kabali is its rootedness in a working class Malaysian Tamil milieu. The local inflections, culture, and identity captured with near-ethnographic detail. There’s no caricaturing or stereotyping of the underclasses, but an uncompromising granularity. Meticulous research has gone into the representations of the lives of Malaysian Tamils. The juxtaposition of glistening skyscrapers and travel brochure images with those of urban squalor and plantation complexes is a spatial allegory of income inequality, which adds to the layered quality of the film. Although it might be too early to call the three-film-old director an auteur, Ranjith’s authorial inscriptions are clear in the commitment to realism.
However, the extended flashback scene to the ’70s and ’80s remains the only unsatisfying segment of Kabali. The same attention paid to maintaining period verisimilitude is lacking in the staging of how Kabali, a labour activist fighting for the rights of exploited plantation workers, becomes a social bandit. There is an ‘ascent to power’ montage but the film neither sufficiently explains the basis of Kabali’s power and influence, nor elaborates the premise of his legitimacy and appeal. The retro sequence leaves far too much to the suspension of disbelief.
While the throwback touches on the marginalization faced by underclass Malaysian Tamils historically, under both colonial masters and postcolonial leaders, it goes no further. There are gestures to the economic transformation from rubber to palm oil industries as the catalyst for the disenfranchisement of working class Malaysian Tamils, but nothing about structural causes like Malaysia’s New Economic Policy and the constitutionally enshrined racial discrimination. Perhaps, the filmmakers wanted to avoid the censure of authorities in Malaysia, a lucrative market, and so evaded controversy.
Rajinikanth monopolizes the screen space as Kabali. He lends the older avatar of the character gravitas, charisma, and a Brandoesque charm — the director admits The Godfather was an inspiration — but the similarities end there. With the exception of Kumudhavalli, whose spectre haunts the film, the rest of the characters appear perfunctory in contrast. There are no other characters to empathize with or emotionally invest in. Everyone else seems to come and go but leave no impression; we root for the protagonist and his search for his wife because no one else seems worth it.
Nevertheless, Rajinikanth throws in a virtuoso performance playing a greying, dignified, but still brooding, version of the angry young man roles he performed with panache in films between the late ’70s and the early ’90s. Shades of the rage with which he fought various depredators on screen, to the vicarious joy of his hordes of fans, return in Kabali. When in the final scene Kabali refers to himself as nothing but a ‘rowdy’, it self-reflexively homages the actor who first humanized and stylized the lumpenproletariat in Tamil cinema with great success. Rajinikanth as Kabali reminds us that angry young men never die, neither do they fade way, they just grow old and world wary.
Yet, by far Ranjith’s finest achievement is to conflate the plight of Dalit castes (formerly known as Untouchables) in India with the Malaysian Tamils. The allegory works because both marginalised groups confront structural oppression at the hands of other communities with both economic and political power. Many critics have used references to Dalit politics in Ranjith’s previous films to read Kabali as a story of Dalit empowerment. Therein lies the brilliant conceit of the film: what the director really wants to do is avow solidarity between all downtrodden communities left behind by modernization and nation-building: ostracized ethnic minorities, exploited, immigrants, neglected refugees, and the poor; Dalit or underclass Malaysian Tamil.
Here, Kabali shares a similar thematic preoccupation with the critically acclaimed French film, Dheepan (2015). Directed by Jacques Audiard, Dheepan is a thrilling drama about Sri Lankan Tamil refugees who relocate to France only to be trapped in a gang war between rival druglords. Their displacement from one conflict zone to another ends with the conclusion that violence is the only weapon where the law of the jungle prevails, regardless of whether it is the Third World or the Third Estate.
Likewise, the only way out of the cycle of poverty and potential racial extermination, Ranjith intimates in Kabali, is a bloody revolution. The shootout at the denouement is not just a gangster film trope, but also a metaphor for the communist dictum that power comes from the barrel of the gun. The gangster drama frame merely provides the ruse for an agitprop film dedicated to Malaysian Tamils that would slip past authorities. It’s easy to misunderstand the film and miss the point about the setting in Malaysia. The real purpose behind the narrative is more profound than most people give it credit for, regrettably so.
Kabali is no generic gangster drama but an intellectually provocative political statement. After all, only a cerebral Tamil film would be bold enough to visually reference Frantz Fanon, who championed the revolutionary potential of the lumpenproletariat, without overtly calling itself a political film.