Kabali fails as a movie on almost all counts, especially for a Rajinikanth film.
It is boring, thanks to a loose script which drags on forever. There isn’t enough of Rajini’s style, and the direction is shoddy. To say that this was a movie in which ‘Rajini the actor’ re-emerged is the fan’s way of apologizing for what is quite a drab movie. His performance was average. He is rusty in almost every scene, and what keeps us going till the end is the Rajini euphoria.
It wouldn’t be unfair to say that the director Pa. Ranjith squandered away a wonderful opportunity to make a mark as a commercial director.
Where Ranjith does score is on the socio-political underpinnings of the movie. A Dalit man from North Chennai who worked his way up on the strength of his talents, in an industry dominated by the powerful intermediary castes, Ranjith’s grasp of Ambedkarism and Tamil identity politics is written all over the movie, and that comes as no surprise. (Read Arun Janardhan’s story on Kabali’s predominantly Dalit film crew)
But it does deserve closer attention, and is one of the reasons why Kabali must get a sequel, after which Rajini should retire.
On two counts, gender and caste, Kabali gets a 5-star rating. Much thought has been put into the dialogues and the plot in terms of the social messaging. Look closely enough, and the movie is replete with Ambedkarism – not just when he mentions Ambedkar, but also as sub-text, masked in emotions and mired in the bad plotting.
Ambedkarism and Dalit defiance
There are numerous instances where Rajini speaks the language of Dalit defiance of the savarna order, and brings out the issue of caste in our everyday lives.
It begins with the opening title murals. When the title ‘Kabali’ appears in Tamil and English, look closely at the art in the background – it’s a depiction of slaves and farm workers, men and women doing hard labour.
There is of course, Rajini reading the book ‘My Father Baliah’ by YB Satyanarayana, a biography of the writer’s experience as a Dalit in Telangana.
The popular dialogue, featured in the wildly viral teaser of the movie and endlessly repeated by fans everywhere, has Rajini asking, ‘Do you think I am the kind of Kabali who says, “sollunga Yajaman”’. This is nothing but a not-so-subtle challenging of the savarna hierarchy. ‘Yajaman’ is the term for upper-caste landlords, and these lines are a declaration of intent, that we are not subdued slaves anymore.
Later in the movie, when young Rajini is fighting the estate owners for better pay, he says, “We are not slaves, we are employees. Treat us like that”
And the film backs these big declarations with elements of succinct diagnosis of caste too. At one point, when Rajini walks out of jail and is talking to his friend Ameer, a lady named Bhanu comes to meet him and tells him of how her husband had promised that he would be by her side despite the caste differences between them, and then deserted her.
The seriousness of this issue in India cannot be minimised in any sense, and is the reason why the law was changed to allow children of inter-caste parents to choose the caste they want to be in, as opposed to the automatic donning of father’s social status.
Ranjith also brings up another modern day Dalit problem in the form of a student telling Rajini towards the end of the movie that no matter what they study, they are never given the jobs they deserve.
Then there’s Rajini’s observation at one point in the film that, Indians may leave the country, but take their caste and religion with them everywhere they go. There hasn’t been a stronger indictment of the savarna NRI elite in Tamil cinema.
The one aspect of Ambedkarism which jumps out at the audience throughout the movie is Ranjith’s fixation with dressing. Rajini makes several references to why he, a man from lower strata of society, must wear the suit. That is a key element of his defiance of the savarna order. Thus, when asked why he is wearing “mel-jaathi” (upper caste) clothes, he replies there is a lot behind Ambedkar donning the suit and rejecting Gandhi’s loin cloth. For anyone who fails to grasp the volumes being said in that pithy response, read about it here.
As Karthikeyan Damodaran points out here, all of this is an illustration of a succinct Ambedkar quote, “It is your claim to equality which hurts them. They want to maintain the status quo. If you continue to accept your lowly status ungrudgingly, continue to remain dirty, filthy, backward, ignorant, poor and disunited, they will allow you to live in peace. The moment you start to raise your level, the conflict starts.”
And finally, towards the end of the film, there is the glorious rant by one of the villains that characterizes upper-caste frustration with Dalit empowerment. The villain tells Rajini, “Do you think you have god’s bloodline? (Harijan?). Do you know who you are, where you came from? You had nothing, no land. And you want to rule? You should be my dog.” (Read Wendy Doniger’s Dogs as Dalits in Indian Literature). This harangue is only a distillation of the anger of the villains, present throughout the film, that Rajini has disturbed the savarna order, that only sons of bosses should become the bosses, no one else. In fact, the main villain character Tony Lee is a son of privilege, benefitting from his family’s legacy.
Rajini’s response to the villain’s rant is yet another illustration of Dalit defiance. Thus, another of Rajini’s powerful declarations: “I am not from the ruling class, but I am born to rule.”
In fact, the name Kabaleeshwaran itself speaks to an idea of avenging disrespect. The legend goes that the Kapaleeshwaran temple in Chennai was the result of a tussle between Shiva and Brahma – when Brahma disrespected Shiva, Shiva retaliated by chopping off one of Brahma’s heads (kapalam). Brahma then installed a lingam in his temple as penance.
As for the film’s treatment of gender, as Sowmya Rajendran points out, the portrayal of women as strong characters is a welcome departure from Rajini’s usual moral spiel of how a woman should ‘behave’. Rajini gives due credit to the women in the movie.
Radhika Apte plays the strong woman who is not diminished by becoming Rajini’s wife. She admonishes her husband fearlessly, sees him as an equal. “Go fetch warm water, my legs are aching,” she tells him, and he does so obediently, without thereby becoming less of a man either.
And in Dhansika’s first scene – her tomboy character yet another welcome departure from the damsel-in-distress typical of Tamil cinema – she tells a man staring at her body, “My face is here, so look here.” And remember, it is the daughter who saves Rajini’s life in the movie.
Being from the stable of conscientious directors of Tamil cinema, there are no doubt some mild parallels to Tamil identity politics and the Eelam struggle.
The constant refrains on how Tamils are seen unfairly as ‘bad people’, the ‘porattam’ for the people, the internecine battles among the Tamils, the thrust of workers’ revolution, the portrayal of one man’s freedom fighter becoming another man’s terrorist, and most importantly, the justification of violence in the cause of politics, all speak to these sensibilities.
Why we need Kabali 2
And it is because of how this subtext was presented that the movie failed, and we need a Kabali part two.
Thanks to shoddy direction and a loose script, all of this subtext gets lost in the meandering narrative.
What we need is a Kabali 2, that plays up its sub-altern context more confidently, but a movie that is stylish and characteristic of a Rajini movie in every sense.
What Kabali did not have was a director who understands action sequences, and the histrionics of a Rajini movie. Perhaps Kabali 2 could correct that. It could even have a younger star (Dhansika?) carrying on the legacy. A sequel of that nature would be a super hit, and socially responsible. And then, Rajini could retire in peace.
Ranjith did fail on many counts, but thanks to his ideology, the Kabali hype was worth it – only not in ways we had imagined. Never before have so many people got an exciting dose of Ambedkar on the silver screen on a single day, and that too from Thalaivar.
And to all you Rajini-haters, Magizhchi.
Edited by Rakesh Mehar
Inputs from Vignesh Vellore