Warning: Here be spoilers
After a more-or-less obligatory, yet absolutely rousing introduction to its eponymous hero (Rajni pretty much defines the word ‘swag’), Kabali parachutes us into the middle of a plot that has been unfolding for over twenty five years. We hear names of characters, get snatches of dialogue and flashback scenes that tell us who they are, but it doesn’t help. While it is admirable to avoid having the characters tell each other what they both know just so the audience would understand what’s going on, I found myself having considerable difficulty following the plot.
The immersion is not just into this story but also into this milieu — the Tamilian community in Malaysia. This whole section is not without its rewards, but is hamstrung by a severe lack of two things: narrative fluidity and the ability to evoke a sense of empathy with this community. It feels as though there is a story here that requires a more old-fashioned treatment than the one we get.
It is close to the end of the first act, in an extended interaction between Kabali and an assembled group of youngsters, that the pieces fall into place. This whole sequence, involving a Q&A interspersed with flashbacks, is so effective that one wonders whether the man who could conceive of something like this is the same man who made the 30-odd minutes preceding it.
This entire sequence, and the few scenes that follow, are a prelude to a quiet and surprisingly affecting second act, a lot of which is set in India. These scenes are somewhat reminiscent of Yennai Arindhaal, in the way a leading man puts away his gun in order to focus on something else equally valuable to him. Rajni’s performance here is a thing of beauty — you still see the man you know, but his transition from dreaded gangster to family man feels utterly natural.
And yet, that is not all there is to this segment. Upon landing in Chennai and Kabali makes a comment about how he is first since his grandfather to set foot in India. You wonder for a moment what conditions would have driven the old man, and so many like him, to take up the job of wage labourers in a plantation in a faraway land. You wonder how they would’ve dealt with that strange land with its own language and customs, how they would’ve tried to make a home there, tried to find their own slice of happiness. And you wonder if these visitors from Malaysia realize that they are going through the same process in reverse, back in the land of their forefathers.
The idyll is interrupted by yet another fight sequence, one that heralds the beginning of the last act where Kabali takes care of business once and for all. This section isn’t any more violent than the average gangster saga, but for a Rajni movie it feels positively blood-soaked. It is also, sadly, the weakest portion of the film. Apart from wrapping things up, there is hardly anything here to admire here. The ending especially feels tacked on. It is not implausible given the world these characters inhabit, but it feels less like an organic development and more like a nod to an earlier, acclaimed film involving another man who rose from humble origins as part of a Tamil community in another place to become a dreaded gangster.
The trouble with watching any Rajni starrer, especially one with the kind of pre-release hype this one has come with, is that it is difficult to divorce the experience of seeing Rajni from the experience of seeing this film. A lot of it has to do with the gravitational field of the superstar, which bends space, time, screenplays and performances around him.
By far the most interesting thing about Kabali is that the relativistic effect of Rajni is kept to a minimum. There are scenes that pander to the screaming audiences, but we’re not simply watching an awestruck director paying homage to a star he’s grown up worshipping. We’re watching a storyteller with a point of view and a lot of things to say, and there’s not a lot of room for hero worship on that agenda.
And that, unfortunately, is also what makes this such a problematic film. Ranjith wants to tell the story of a gangster trying to regain his place after coming back from prison, and an old man searching for relevance. But he also wants the film to be about this place, these people, this subculture of Tamilians who have lived in Malaysia for generations and are still clawing their way up a long, slippery slope.
It is possible to make a good, even great film that is about all these things and have Rajni in it. But this film is not it. But if Kabali‘s most egregious fault is that its conception is not matched by its execution, that is not such a bad thing.
ps: Oh, and there’s a sly little Iron Man reference. And in a Rajni movie at that. Especially apropos, don’t you think?