Director: Pa Ranjith
Cast: Rajinikanth, Radhika Apte, Dhanshika, Kishore
It's a recurrent anecdote heard from fathers and grandfathers — a fan in rural Tamil Nadu once threw a sickle at the theatre screen while watching an MGR movie after the swashbuckling star's weapon slipped through his fingers during a sword-fight. He didn't want his demigod defenseless against the goons. Such was the mythical stature of the star-turned-politician.
It has been going on for a few decades now, but today, perhaps, one can say with confidence, that he has been surpassed. With Kabali, the mythos of Rajinikanth has scaled never before heights. The irony is, it was not meant to!
For all its hype, Kabali is not the film it could have been — a reprise of Baasha or an Annamalai. Instead, Pa. Ranjith attempts to give us a return of the prodigal son, who strayed into stardom only to return, 'almost' repentant. However, there's only so much you can do to humanise a god.
As the film opens, you see a Rajinikanth who is broken and bruised. Of course he still beats up goons to a pulp, but there's something that's not the same. The difference is, this time around, he is more convincing than ever as the ageing don, who returns with vengeance in his heart after 25 years in jail. It's clear that Ranjith is at the helm and that is new. You don't often get to notice the influence of a director in a Rajinikanth film, not in recent times at least. Even before his gritty Madras hit the screens, Ranjith had established his potential to play with undertones in the critically acclaimed and appreciated Attakathi.
And credit should be given where it is due. There are no needless songs and even the over-the top punchlines have been toned down. It is Ranjith's genuine attempt at showing us the Rajini that K. Balachander discovered. However, it's only an attempt; not a success.
Ranjith's choices for cast seem to be a little skewed as John Vijay as Ameer and Attakathi Dinesh are largely unimpressive and Dhansika's character loses its punch in the second half.
As the plot starts rolling, you get glimpses of the past that spurred the vengeance in the present. The younger, goosebumps-inducing, nostalgic version of Kabali (an ode to Mullum Malarum's Kali) is spurred into taking up a life of crime for social good. He rises quickly through the ranks of Malaysia's criminal underworld, much to the scorn of many others. Here, there are undertones of Dalit struggle and a subtle invocation of Ambedkar, in the way Rajini takes up wearing a suit. There are also familiar tropes of Cassius and Brutus or even Don Corleone and his sons. There's even a part where Kabali says, 'Neeyuma da!', which means 'You too?' after being stabbed by his best friend. But the real treat here is the way Radhika Apte's character has been treated. A plain-jane Radhika (who is stunning in her role as Kumudhavalli) is shown as the power behind Kabali. In a predictable turn Valli is supposedly killed along with the child she is bearing and Kabali ends up in jail.
As the don shoots back to the reality of his loss, there's a look of tenderness apart from the thirst for vengeance. He even enquires after a girl at the charitable school he runs and even considers adopting her, giving the idea that there is thirst for a new, reformed life and not just blood.
Here on, Ranjith seems to be struggling to come to terms with which theme he wants to follow. And in one scene, where Rajini shows a taunting goon who's boss by running him over with his car (One of the few thoroughly whistle-worthy scenes), there's a premature indication that he is going to buckle under the weight of Superstar's mythical image. This is reinforced again in the second half, when Rajini is shot five times but returns unfazed almost immediately!
Ranjith tries pulling the brakes once more when When Kabali and his daughter, played by Dhansika, re-unite with Kumudha. In spite of the few frames she's given, Radhika Apte once again proves here why she's hailed as one of Bollywood's best finds. She plays the part to perfection. The seeming flaw is that you can't have a revenge drama and have the hero maintain his resolve for vengeance even after reconciling with his loss. But once Kabali returns to Malaysia, the brakes are all let go off and once again we see Kabali as the omnipotent hero.The Taiwanese import, Winston Chao has been treated well and doesn't fall into the mould of the caricaturish chinese baddies we've seen in previous Tamil films. He holds his own as a convincing villain, especially in one scene where he retreats even as bullets fly past him.
The lead up to the final scenes strike the final nail and by now Ranjith seems to have already buckled under the superstars weight. By the end, you end up getting the pure, escapist thrill of watching a Rajini film, giving us the sense that it's a film that could have been more, but was only destined to be another 'historic blockbuster'....