Pa Ranjith's Kabali, starring Superstar Rajinikanth, Radhika Apte, Kishore, John Vijay and others, is a special film for multiple reasons. Despite the promotional campaign being the stuff of nightmares for other stars, as it threatened the return of 'the only one, the super one', the film razed its star's reputation of the 'No one can complain when they watch a Rajini film da' to the ground. It said that even Rajini is human, that even he needs a Yogi for his eyes to lighten up and a Valli to let go of his beard; which is equal to saying that WWF is fake to an 11-year-old. There were extreme reactions. For the first time (at least in my lifetime), people started taking sides with respect to Rajini in a Rajini film, something that would have never before happened with this star. There can't be ifs and buts when you watch a Rajini film. You just go to the FDFS, get strapped onto your seat for the astronomical Hero-Introduction shots™, the mandatory thathuvams™ sugar-coated as punch dialogues, and the feeling that "Maranam, massu maranam, toughu tharanam, adhukku avan dhaan porandhu varanam", which featured in Petta, which released much later, was actually written the moment this man was born.
But Kabali (the film) decided to take on all these things at once. It decided to take the risk of showing this star as the most brazenly existential gangster in a film which was (then) supposed to launch Brand Rajini™ into the stratosphere. The fact that it was done by a politically and socially aligned filmmaker makes all the more sense. He saw an existential man in Rajini, and it is evident in the way he frames Kabali, even in the 'mass' scenes. Kabali earns his place in the '00' gang by getting fair wages for the Tamil workers working in the fields of the rich and powerful as opposed to Tamil Maaran (who's second generation royalty) or even Veerasekharan (Kishore) who finds it much easier to sell his loyalty as opposed to our protagonist.
It treated the star's face (especially in the close-ups) like the wet dream of an existential photographer (reminiscent of, perhaps, Ram from 96). The film in itself warrants this analysis because even though we've seen existential gangsters before, most popularly in Mani Ratnam's Nayakan; this seemed to be a much more difficult prospect to pull off, especially because it was Rajini and it had that sense of a creator finally breaking through all the shackles of the producers, distributors and exhibitors to tap into the sub-conscious of his Star.
I also say this because the lead of Nayakan (Kamal Hassan), would later go on to write screenplays whose core used to somehow sneak in a truckload of existential questions in films where you would least expect them. My favourite of these is Kuruthipunal, directed by PC Sreeram. The most popular scene of the film (which also happens to be its 'massiest') has Adhi (Kamal Hassan) and Badri (Nasser) on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea, with Badri's life in Adhi's hands, but all they seem to be doing is taking part in what might have been the most choreographed stretch of dialogue in any action film until then, at least in Tamil.
So naturally we aren't surprised when this writer-actor builds on the aforementioned existentialism in films such as Hey Ram, Anbe Sivam and even a (wrongly marketed) comedy like Manmadhan Ambu. But when you get a star who's known to be the equivalent of what Sachin Tendulkar used to do to a billion households across decades, you're always going to be bound by the business and other related aspects. There's always a sense of a letdown in the post-Padayappa phase of Rajini which has resulted in mostly half-baked efforts, barring the rare Enthiran (which built on another kind of Brand Rajini™, to its own advantage) and Kabali.
Even for a master such as Martin Scorsese, it takes almost a lifetime of reckoning to finally realise that he has reached the sunset and has to now find the right fit to his long list of a Man's man. He does that by adding an ageing hitman, Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) to the list in The Irishman. Who could imagine that the most efficient man in the mob, the man whose practicality preceded his own conscience, wasn't able to survive the scars of THAT one hit? Eventually, Frank decides to confess to his sins, not to cleanse himself of the guilt of killing Jimmy Hoffa but so that he can earn our empathy.
In this sense, Kabali too feels like a glorious introspection of a man who may have made some mistakes in his life but his Gangsta beard™, and sunglasses suitably occupy almost every inch of his face when needed. But the mask will come off. Even Kabali (read: Rajini) will realise that he has to face the loss of his Valli (read: actor image) in the fight for what he believes is his rights, thereby converting this movie into some sort of meditation on Rajini. Throw in the directors' Ambedkar-isms and his excellent character arcs which are deposited into minimalist scenes and dialogues, and we have the audience twisting itself into knots trying to figure out where the director took over from the star and if this star would ever agree to do a role like Kabali.
Of course, Rajini went on to do films such as Petta and Darbar where he gave the audiences exactly what they wanted. It is indeed true that there are very few stars in this era of disposable stardom, who can make that kind of astronomical comeback (purely in terms of coolth) the way Rajini did in Petta. But for the few people who found Kabali one of the most interesting films of the decade, it feels like, maybe, there is a subconscious to Rajini, and it was indeed aching to reach some sort of a resting place to make peace with the actor vs. star image. Ranjith clearly got something from Rajini which we hadn't seen this star do in a long time. Is it too late to wish this star chose actorly roles more often?