I cannot believe the backlash for Kabali – the YouTube reviewers, the fans saying it wasn’t a ‘usual Rajni movie’, the non-fans saying it was too slow or he was too old. These are also the people who liked Pasanga-2 for the ‘message’, who thought Rajini Murugan was funny.
What do they mean when they say ‘too slow’? If I think about it, I feel the movie went by too fast. Too many characters, too many incidents, too many ideas compressed into two and a half hours. Take for instance the sequence in which a young
Rajni Kabali fights for the rights of Tamil plantation workers. What if we had been given more detail? No, not Bala-movie-level of detail, we don’t want to feel like life isn’t worth living, we just want to understand better the motivation behind their agitation. What if we had been allowed to register why they were angry? The question and answer session in the school provides us with a bit of context – we are shown how gangs were a means of achieving political agency in a nation that was determined to treat an entire race as inferior. The stories of the oppressed are the same everywhere, but we would have been able to form a better emotional connection with the characters if the setting hadn’t been so broad.
There is a reason why Kabali dresses so well – the fantastic suits and that Michael Kors watch. He is the most well-dressed Tamil man in the movie by any means, not because his wife likes to see him in suits (and not because he is Superstar). “It is the difference between Ambedkar wearing the suit and Gandhi rejecting it,” he says. We needed more of this sharp dialogue that the lyrics seemed to suggest. Unfortunately, it appears to have been lost on a majority of the audience, who thought it was hilarious that a suit should be so important. “It’s not about the suit, it’s about what the suit signifies,” I explained to some people at work, who thought I was clearly the kind of Rajni fan they should all stay away from (I’m really not).
I imagined a different movie when the music came out. What is Ulagam Oruvanukka, if not a war cry in poetry? It is a demand for equality, it is a plea that there shall be no more discrimination. It was full of fire, it stung in all the right places, but watching the song on screen left me feeling…I suppose ‘meh’ would be an apt qualifier. Yes, it is a nod to the Tamil hip-hop/rap culture, but nothing more.
Kabali plays out like a personal revenge saga instead of the social commentary it set out to be (in my opinion, usual disclaimer, etcetera). Or did it set out to be a drama about lost love, a drama that was sidetracked by demands of a ‘punch line’ and action sequences? I liked the movie the most when it shows us snippets of the relationship Kabali and Kumudhavalli shared, their all too brief courtship, their happy marriage. When he is released from prison, he walks through what used to be their home, imagining her everywhere. He is lonely, and Rajni’s face showcases this loneliness beautifully. He isn’t the man he was, not without her by his side. When he finally finds out where she is, and he has to wait one more night to see her, his face is once again a joy to look at. (If only we could see this face more often on screen, this face that is old and weary, that is stripped of layers of costumey make-up.) When they finally meet, she cries the way someone would actually cry, small sobs at first, then the pain bursting through. She doesn’t come to him immediately, the shock is too great to bear, and the disbelief paralyzes her. She cries uncontrollably, in the manner of someone who has known pain. I would watch the movie again just for their reunion. I have always loved Radhika Apte – she of the expressive eyes and a talent that looks effortless – she is extraordinary in this one scene.
Of course I cried too, and I cried some more the next day when the song came on the radio and caught me unawares:
Naan unai kaanum varaiyil, dhaabatha nilaiye
Thesangal thirindhen thaniye…thaniye
I was floundering until I saw you again
I roamed across nations alone, all alone
The first time I listened to Maya Nadhi, I thought the above lines could refer to the despair and loneliness she must be feeling, that she roamed the landscapes of her heart, reliving their moments together, looking for him all the while. I realize now that the lines also refer to actual nations – she moves from Malaysia to India in the course of these years.
But even this scene comes up short. The movie is in a hurry always, quickly moving on from scene to scene, from mood to mood. One minute, a father and daughter reaching out to each other, the next minute a plot development, and the very next minute we travel elsewhere. ‘Magizhchi’ (which is Pa. Ranjith’s word really, he’s just gone ahead and immortalized it with this opportunity) seems to pop up at the most random moments. It’s as though they thought, “Okay, let’s make him say his signature word now, we need some whistles at this point.” It’s not a bad movie, no, I’m just sad it wasn’t better.
Anyway, I wish Tony Lee hadn’t been made to speak Tamil. And that Dhansika was given more to do – it isn’t often that we see a woman who is a gun for hire in mainstream Tamil cinema.
Note 1: I cannot believe how long it has been since I wrote about Tamil movies. This is not to say I am out of touch with that world. Of late, I have been feeling that I would need to write about a movie as soon as it is out, else my blog post runs risk of becoming dated. Frankly, this is a ridiculous assumption to have, because there is nobody imposing these deadlines on me. And it’s more fun to write like no one’s reading.
Note 2: I shall try to be more regular.