Kabali is a very good movie.
(Warning: Spoilers ahead!)
The movie effectively borrows several Rajinikant tropes and uses them meaningfully within the script. For example, Rajinikant's movies almost always begin with an opening song. Where he introduces himself to the audience. No one knows why this is done. It's quite a bizarre thing to sing, dance and introduce yourself without any particular reason. But here, the character Kabali is released from prison after 25 years. So there is celebration among the Malaysian Tamil people. And they sing about Kabali, their struggle and how they think he could make their life better.
Kabali isn't the kind of gangster film we often are familiar with. It certainly is not an action movie. It is a lot similar to the Korean or Hong Kong gangster movies which have a certain brooding quality about them. The character Kabali has risen from the level of a migrant, low class, low caste labourer to a powerful representative of the Tamil population in Malaysia. And he has lost it all. And the movie begins when he starts his search to regain all that he has lost.
So he is pensive, insecure and brooding. And Rajinikant does a brilliant job portraying this. For a very long time, Rajinikant has been mimicking his own younger self in his movies. But in Kabali, he makes an earnest effort to give his gimmicks a rest and play a character. There is this one extended sequence where Kabali imagines seeing his lost wife everywhere. Rajinikant was so brilliant doing that. What amazed me is how he pulled off a character that was both invincible and vulnerable at the same time.
The women characters were both well written and well enacted. They are sensible, assertive and at times, even more powerful than Kabali himself. Kabali's wife addresses him as 'nee' and not 'neenga'. Rajinikant movies have often suffered from varying degrees of misogyny. So the portrayal of such empowered women in Kabali is a welcome change for a Rajinikant movie and for Tamil cinema in general. Radhika Apte appears in relatively fewer scenes but plays a very remarkable role as Kabali's wife Kumudavalli.
The secondary characters too were well etched and in particular, I liked 'Attakathi' Dinesh's role. As a loyal, enthusiastic and clumsy side-kick, he was such fun.
The antagonist here aren't like in Basha (several reviews made the comparison). He is not one single, super powerful Antony (Film: Basha). But the antagonists here are several and they keep coming. You destroy one and a few more appear. If nothing, Kabali's own comrades become antagonists. Which is slightly different from what we often see in Rajinikant movies. We are used to one bad Antony or Neelambari (Film: Padaiyappa). And to destroy them is the protagonist's goal. But in Kabali, the goal is to survive the continuous onslaught of antagonists of various sizes and shapes.
I loved how the movie pays attention to the details of the Malaysian Tamil life. Whether it's a temple festival or a setting around a deceased person's home or the characters' costumes or the streets, shops and houses. The movie also seems well researched and throws light on the history and the changing socio-economic conditions of Malaysia.
Being a Pa Ranjith movie, it wasn't surprising that several of the social commentary were drawn from Ambedkarite ideology. Naming the movie and it's protagonist as Kabali - a name often associated with a uncouth side-kick to the antogonist in Tamil cinema, the politics of Kabali wearing suits, the rise and assertion of a low caste labourer, empowered women characters and a commentary on a society which resists the social or economic mobility of the oppressed. Pa Ranjith makes his politics quite clear through his narrative. Historically, Tamil cinema used marginalized and oppressed communities as props, victims or as exotic beings. But in Kabali and in general, Pa Ranjith breaks this sterotyping and humanizes these communities and it's members.
The only time the movie falters is in the pre-climax portion for around 10-15 minutes. That apart, I thought the movie was quite terrific. But am surprised that several critics are claiming how they found Kabali unsatisfying and how they thought Attakathi or Madras were flawless. Which I think is a little too random criticism. Pa Ranjith's strength lies in creating a certain geographical and social reality and filling it with very believable characters. And he does it here too. Also, even in Attakathi and Madras, he did falter a bit in the pre-climax or climax portions. He certainly has some trouble wrapping up a narration effectively. Which is something he should work on, I guess.
That said, go watch the movie. Don't expect a gangster action movie. Because this one is certainly not that. But expect a movie about the personal life and travails of a gangster.
I will end this long note with a small detail about my most favourite scene from the movie. Kabali at-last finds his wife's location and nervously waits to meet her. He has shaved after long to appear more like his younger self. And while he is filled with emotion and anxiety, he still manages to correct his hair and clothes as if he is on a first date. I think in the last two decades, this must be the loveliest Rajinikant scene.
In Kabali, Rajinikant has quite successfully reinvented himself. Maybe it's time for his fans too to reinvent themselves. Probably then, they too would experience some real magizhchi.
Rajesh Rajamani is an ex-banker based out of Chennai and writes a webcomic series called Inedible India.