Cast: Rajinikanth, Radhika Apte
Director: Pa. Ranjith
Let me begin by saying that I don’t have enough context to review Tamil cinema. I’m not an expert on the oeuvre of Superstar Rajinikanth – I’ve only seen a few of his 158 films. Kabali is his hundred and fifty-ninth outing and honestly, I just didn’t get it.
I saw the Hindi dubbed version and I’m sure much was lost in translation. But not Rajinikath’s charisma. At 65, that is absolutely intact. It works beyond tonalities and geographies. It’s thrilling to see him enter the frame and put the world in its right place. Six years ago, Slate writer Grady Hendrix had put forth the following hypothesis about Rajinikanth: If a Tiger had sex with a tornado and then their tiger-nado baby got married to an earthquake, their offspring would be Rajinikanth.
Grady was right. Rajinikanth isn’t an actor. He’s an experience. Any narrative he’s in has to serve the experience rather than the other way round. In Kabali, writer-director Pa. Ranjith, creates an incredibly convoluted tale of gangsters in Malaysia. The story spans several decades and begins with Kabali being released from jail. He’s been in prison for 25 years and survived 13 assassination attempts but that hasn’t dimmed his prowess or his panache. He still strikes fear in the hearts of his rivals – and there are so many of these that I soon lost track of who was fighting whom. My favourite was Tony Lee, the Chinese leader of a powerful gang called, for no discernable reason, 43. Tony wears beautiful suits and bow ties. Actually all the gangsters seem to be hugely invested in being stylish – Kabali is so big on suits that even in the midst of a life-threatening situation, his wife implores him not to take it off. The wife is played by Radhika Apte who is utterly wasted here. She’s either pregnant or watching proudly from the sidelines or nagging him to look after her better.
According to this film, Malaysia is the Wild West where shootouts happen in broad daylight and on busy streets. Here an aging don named Ang Lee throws a birthday party where all gangsters gather and give each other murderous looks. The police function like junior artists. Obviously Ranjith isn’t overtly occupied with logic and coherence. It’s more about posturing and creating dramatic set pieces for the superstar. The Rajinikanth magic is in full force but the script is too repetitive and banal to milk his persona. And how do you make sense of dialogue like – kala hoon, takatwala hoon. Yes, Kabali says that. But his signature line is ‘bahut khoob’.
I was hoping to say that after the film but Kabali left me bewildered and exhausted.