Kabali fever has gripped the nation. Offices declared holidays, airlines paid for first day first show tickets, theatres opened before sunrise, torrent sites collapsed, bus strikes were declared in Karnataka, schools were closed, Kabali da the only explanation.
Swept away in the wave of fandom, not wanting to miss out on what was surely going to define dialogue, thought and catch phrases for the nation I too trooped off to a multiplex to be part of the phenomenon.
From the very beginning, I realised that this was going to be different. Rajinikanth’s films to me were loud, melodramatic and overtly stylish to a fault and pure entertainment. But this was different. The quiet introduction of Kabali in a cell reading My father Balaiah promises intelligence, subtlety and much more. The style quotient of Rajinikanth is there but drastically cut down; gone are the cigarette flicks and the shoulder towel stunts, here is a cooler, suaver Rajini. Dressed to the nines in every scene, credit to the fashion designer for creating suits that stood out, yet fit in; just the right amount of sass.
Rajini is comparatively subdued for most part of the film, his style reduced to sitting cross-legged on chairs and uttering ‘Magizhchi’ with pointed nods and gestures. Playing his own age has enabled the actor to sink his teeth into a role and he does justice to the part. A near-permanent scowl on his bearded face, that breaks into a smile without warning adds to the persona of the feared and revered don. No songs and exaggerated action sequences break his character and most fights are with guns or props that ensure physicality is not questioned (exceptions exist though).
Radhika Apte is underused, her primary job being to walk past Rajinikanth in slow motion giving him disapproving glances for the variety of reasons mentioned above. She brings her best to the film and does all she can in her curtailed role, her eyes expressing grief, regret, pride, wisdom, love and more.
The supporting cast is a mish-mash of characters; backstories are explained but only just. For all the constancy displayed in Kabali’s character, the supporting cast swivels from extreme devotion to him to enmity in seconds. A druggie girl who sees him as a father, an outspoken druggie boy named Tiger whose importance is revealed only in the final scene, their teacher; the grandson of Nasser who is conflicted over his relation to Kabali all see-saw between love, helplessness and hate in almost consecutive scenes. Mention must be made of Jeeva (Dinesh Ravi) the son of a beholden mother who puts him in the service of Kabali to improve his prospect only for him to fall to his doom and Yogi (Dhansika) the assassin with a secret, modelled on a cross between Zeenat Aman in Don and Chitrashi Rawat in Chak de India. Her relationship with Rajini begged and deserved more time and attention. Winston Chao as Tony Lee is initially glib but his charm soon wears thin as he becomes a caricature. Nasser in a brilliant, powerful cameo captures the heart of the viewers both in Malaysia and those watching the film.
The cinematography is crafty, shifting smoothly between present and past, from the glitzy building studded Kuala Lumpur to plantation ridden scapes. Action scenes are slick and well sequenced but I felt the movie could have done with a little lesser slow motion.
The music lifts the film and makes up for the subtlety in Rajini’s style. More soundtrack than song, the music flows well with the film. The catchy Neruppa da and multiple multilingual rapping chants add the demigod factor to Kabali. Maya Nadhi and Vaanam Parthen provide the reminiscences of love and longing. The rap particularly makes multiple references to the other worldly persona of Kabali bringing Rajini to mind immediately.
Loopholes in the scripting abound but most can be filled with a bit of imagination and leniency. Jumps of logic and absence of logic are present but it is the most complete and logical Rajini film in the recent past. Characters appear in spurts in scenes far apart, at key plot points forcing one to suddenly think back and make connections. A stronger screenplay and script could have tied all the threads together and prevented those irritating, “whose son is he again?” and those puzzled moments for the viewer.
A shout out to the subtitles of the film, inspired and entertaining, my eyes kept slipping down to the subtitles. Detailed to a fault, they described Kabali’s chuckles and laughs with adjectives ranging from the inane ‘Contented’ and ‘Arrogant’ to the more out there – ‘doting’ and ‘indignant’ to the absolutely genius ‘pink tickled laughter’. Emoticons added for the hearing impaired add a new high to the subtitles. Kudos to Rekhs and team.
Pa Ranjith’s restrained hand prevents the over dramatization of each scene setting it apart from recent Rajinikanth films and allows him to pay attention to minor details such as the Malaysian Tamil lingo.
The violence is vicious and gory begging the question as to how and why this film was given a U certificate. Unnecessary hackings, shootings, slashes and bone breaking abound especially in the second half making you cringe and hope that the child behind you is asleep. Artistic sensibilities seem overcome by pure bloodlust.
Coming to the story which is surely by now common knowledge or myth depending on where your loyalties lies, here’s a short synopsis-
A voice over preceding the introduction sets the scene of a don due for imminent release in Malaysia whose family was slaughtered in a Mafioso coup causing premonitions of escalations in gang violence among the police debating his emancipation.
Kabali serving 25 years in prison, imprisoned for defending his family and Tamilian migrants is freed to a Rehab foundation established by him for druggie and misguided gangster youth. He returns to a changed Malaysia full of drugs, controlled by a Chinese don (Winston Chao) and his 43 Gang; memories of his wife (Radhika Apte) haunt him berating him for his temper and dirty collars. A tip off to the feminists in the audience, Kabali or not, all men bow to the Yin in the relation.
A flashback takes us to a brazen, young Rajini (Kabali) fighting for the rights of plantation workers impressing the then voice for the Tamilian, Tamilnesan (Nasser). Brash and passionate about the plight of Tamilians in Malaysia he inspires Kabali to take a stand against ever larger foes. His untimely death over black market drugs pushes the reigns of the Tamil hopes into the hands of Kabali and pushes Kabali over to the dark side. In only a few years he rises in spirit and stature and becomes the sovereign of all in Kuala Lumpur.
A coup orchestrated by Nasser’s jealous son chided on by the Chinese leads to the slaughter of his pregnant wife and sends Kabali packing to prison. Hints of Radhika Apte surviving are scattered to keep the audience guessing.
Kabali on returning from jail immediately sets about destroying the nexus created in his absence. Shocked into acting, the Chinese don hires an assassin to end Kabali. Kabali in the meantime, on the lookout for the person responsible for killing his wife, realises that his daughter is alive (in true Filmy Ishtyle) The search for family occupies a large part of the film and the gleeful violent revenge exacted by Kabali completes the film. Special mention of the vaguely open-ended finish which I hope doesn’t herald Kabali-2.
All in all, Kabali is definitely a one-time watch for the normal and calls for repetitive views by the teeming masses for its decent storyline, good execution, great music and ample performances, but most importantly for a mature, well-aged Rajini who attempts to cast off his over the top persona (to some extent at least) and brings his gravitas to the film. Magizhchi.