(Some spoilers ahead)
A search for salvation. A search for love lost. Holy Grail. That’s what makes up the best part of Pa. Ranjith’s Kabali. The film is set in Malaysia, the power struggles between Chinese and Indian gangsters and the common people whose lives they cross. But Pa. Ranjith and Rajinikanth reserve their best efforts for a plot point set in Chennai that stretches till Pondicherry. Kabali (Rajini) and Yogi (Dhansika) are, for all practical purposes, Malaysians. They’ve fought and struggled through their way over the racial and class politics in that land. Now they are back to what was once “home” and they feel like fish out of water. They doubt the guys who’ve come to pick them up, their place of stay and everything that happens around them. Suddenly we feel like this is what they would have gone through when they escaped this unwelcome home of oppression and landed in Malaysia – birds out of their cages but still having to face other birds. Yogi wears it in her sleeves (she’s even asked “Kabali ponna irundhutu parakka theriyadha? Parakka bayama?” before making the trip, sort of foreshadowing. She is one person who’s probably never been to India and has no reason to call herself Indian) while Kabali finds quiet comfort inside his armor of suits. He doesn’t want to be the Kabali in Malaysia. His Magizhchi in Tamil Nadu doesn’t have the same zing – almost an afterthought – and he makes a nervous joke about what sarakku means in Tamil Nadu and what it signifies in Malaysia. Is it a traditional set up of wanting us, the audience, to prepare for a shock? Should their fear be reflected in our feelings? Should our palms sweat? They are, already, but is that all?
Ranjith doesn’t stop here. They need to wait. Be patient and not deal this with fire (instructions passed on to Kabali by his wife Kumudhavalli decades ago when he was dealing with labor rights issues in Malaysia). An ageing gangster who still has a few tricks up his sleeve restrains himself. For another bit of foreshadowing, just moments ago, Ranjith makes Kabali repeat his almost namesake Kali’s famous lines. But they are made to go around in circles, physically, emotionally and via bandwidth. All this is after Yogi’s elaborate search in Malaysia to get a single Chennai address. From here they are transported to America, electromagnetic waves this time, to get another contact who is really French. Rajini is a treat here when he insists frantically that the call has been picked up just as the caller is about to give up (it’s late night in the US). He isn’t the same confident man who can pull out a weapon from his cuffs. He can’t sleep at night and he is reduced to being servile to his caretakers in Tamil Nadu. He does as they say. The destiny he escaped. The destiny he found again in his adopted land and helped break out. But is their salvation in France now? Maybe not. It’s in nearby colony Pondicherry. Trust Ranjith to meander but return home to make the point. They go there only to be disappointed again by the French white people. But a local worker there runs to their aid. He knows about the existence of the holy grail. He knows where they should go. He’ll take them there. For all the caste and racial politics in Kabali, this sequence of events almost forms a micro story of their struggle. They are always on the move. They go in search of salvation and things aren’t always easy for them. Neither at home nor away. The Pa. Ranjith we know shines in these portions. Even after finding the place there are long walks through the premises to get to a living room. Kabali waits out some more time. It mirrors an earlier scene soon after his release from jail. Now he’s sitting in one place and waiting for things in his head to manifest themselves in front of his eyes. If this is not an allegory to the oppressed moved around like footballs, searching for a better place, a better life elsewhere, I don’t know what is. Bala has already given such a story of salvation – a lot of people read into Naan Kadavul as a fable loosely based on the Sri Lankan Civil War. Ranjith here tries something similar but to go the whole way, every moment he has to learn and unlearn that this is a Rajini film. A most dangerous job, if ever there was one, in Tamil cinema.
That unlearning is what he does wonderfully in the full Chennai sequence. This frees our star to pull out an outstanding performance that’s been lying in the ruins for more than two decades now. Ranjith manages these in few other portions as well. It’s in some of the familiar stylistic flourishes Rajini still has – soon after getting out of jail he asks “epdi irukken!” (How do I look?!) We dismiss this as usual Rajini idhu epdi irukku (how is it?!) trope but only later we find how much this is important to him, Kabaleeswaran the gangster he plays. We are told this too is a trait that comes from Kumudhavalli who has pretty much molded him from the sidelines. With the same casual air we associate Rajinikanth with, he schools his jealous friend on why Gandhi switched to loincloth and why Ambedkar had to don a suit. That’s a Ranjith-Rajinikanth punch as good as any. You can imagine an invisible Ramachandra Guha behind, nervously applauding.
But you cannot brush off the feeling that at some point during course of filmmaking, Ranjith lost it. Lost the film he wanted to make, lost himself to Rajini’s aura or grew tired of balancing the wheel. I can’t tell what it is. I don’t want to comment on the Malaysian Tamizh representation because I am no expert but I’ve been hearing only good things about it. Adding that to what we already know of Ranjith, it is not surprising. But do they all together form a film that has its politics unconcealed, its Superstar shining light on it and more importantly, is it also a bloody well made film? That last criteria leaves a lot to be desired. Some moments, and these moments are already shoehorned because they tick the Rajini mass moments box, don’t have any sort of build up. They are just wham bham and over. One example is the scene where Kabali finds out about his daughter and soon after a gun fight breaks out. This could be choreographed in so many ways and it has been done very well before in Tamil cinema. But what we get are reaction shots, one shot of Rajini catching the gun in disbelief (still the only man doing his job here), another of Yogi and it repeats couple of times as they fight through the house to get out. Where is the Ranjith who gave us that glorious pre-interval portion in Madras? Scenes don’t segue naturally to another and there are deliberate cuts. Some scenes are held longer than they should have. The film is constantly battling Ranjith’s art/ideologies and Rajini’s persona and both of them end up losing. Rajini the performer sure does win and without him, it is difficult to even imagine Kabali.
I’ve wondered here about other actors, directors in similar positions. Where does Ranjith go from here? Where does Rajinikanth go from here? Ranjith is reportedly making his next film with Surya. He at least will be out of his shackles and can make his own film, start to finish. Surya’s acting chops are a bit expensive these days but Ranjith’s films always end up being about an ensemble. Again, from Kabali it will be interesting what Ranjith learns and unlearns. That he is still interested in representation of different subsections of Tamizhs in his films is very good. We’ve had North Madras, we have Malaysian Tamils. What’s next?
As for Rajinikanth, it will be tricky. Everybody wanted him to act his age, act in a film by a real director. He did. Mixed results critically. Financially, doesn’t seem to be an issue. I am a big Enthiran fan and I believe it is Rajinikanth’s best film since Thalapathy. I still believe that outside of the pipe dream that Rajini go actor-for-hire, it is Shankar who can get that aura really going on. This doesn’t mean it should be a lesser film. All this buzz, all this disappointment is because people expected a Ranjith film so that they would get art as opposed to money making entertainment cliches. That’s pretty daft way of looking at cinema, if you ask me. Do you think Enthiran cannot be read into? Try Umair Muhajir here talking about garbage and Enthiran (it’s not what it sounds like). Till then we have 2.0 to look forward to. Dot.