Pa Ranjith’s Kabali is a film that could have been made in 1986 and that is not entirely a bad thing. Rajinikanth stars as Kabali, a gangster released after 20 odd years in jail. His wife and unborn child are dead, killed by rival gangs. What will he do? It’s a lumbering gangster vs gangster story on a large scale, but with a very traditional approach to conflict resolution. A less extravagant looking film than Rajini’s recent outings, it makes up in international locations what it lacks in CGI pyramids.

Rajini is such a good actor I was pleased to see him in a more pared down movie. When Kabali was speaking to foes or minions he laid on the mass mannerisms with a trowel. But when he was with friends he was more nuanced, even funny, and I could kind of see why people loved and followed him. I liked the slightly anachronistic feel, as though time took a while to get going for Kabali again so he was still acting like it was the 80s. Kabali always wore a suit, and that is explained in more detail than almost anything else in the story. I did like the outfit with the scoop necked double breasted waistcoat and hat. Sidenote – I am pretty sure I saw a guy wearing one of Kabali’s pre-transformation 1970s shirts in a 2016 scene.

Now free, Kabali has flashbacks to seeing his wife. He would see Kumudhavalli (Radhika Apte) around the house and familiar places, chiding him then breaking into a loving smile. The way he drifted back to his past or lost track of where he was during these visions made his love and the depth of loss evident. Although his future and present never quite seemed as clear or in focus.

Radhika Apte had the small but important role as Kumudhavalli. Their relationship was established back in the day when Kabali was getting started as a community leader, and she left everything to marry him regardless of their class or caste differences. Unfortunately Pa Ranjith has little idea of how to structure a narrative taking place in multiple time periods and does a lot of telling before showing a flashback, then more telling again. Their scenes together are really nice and Radhika gives her character enough spirit to make an impression even in a limited time. She is 30 playing as a contemporary of a 65 year old, but the make-up team did what they could to remove those differences and Rajini’s wig guys got to trot out some old favourites.

I liked Dhansika as Yogi, although her character went off the boil once she had established her true identity. I couldn’t quite believe an ice cold mercenary could so quickly forget how to deal with a stranger at the door, and her kill rate dropped alarmingly. But Dhansika played her with more edge than I’m used to seeing, and I liked her performance. I also liked the guy assigned to look after them in Chennai who believed there was never not enough time to flirt a bit with the hot gun toting chick.

Kabali is a leader of a gang that only did good deeds (for Tamil people only, of course), but still killed his enemies without hesitation. He was a hero to Tamilians living in Malaysia and committed to helping them stay and thrive, but his views on other races in Malaysia went way past pro-Tamil jingoism and into bigotry on a number of occasions. And how was he going to actually make any money to keep things going? He had rules about not getting into drugs or hookers, but no clear business plan.

Kabali-Winston Chao

Rival (and Evil) Gang 43 had a business plan (import ALL the drugs), and a leader who may have been auditioning to be a Bond villain. Tony Lee (Winston Chao) had an inexhaustible supply of brocade jackets and contrasting bowties (I liked the high buttoned big lapelled peacock blue ensemble best, or maybe the pink), a robust vocabulary of curse words in multiple languages, and a desk shaped like a komodo dragon. Winston Chao looks like he is having a ball and really goes for it in the big moments, while generally being cool and psychotic. He and Rajini play off each other well and despite Tony being utterly despicable I looked forward to his scenes.

Santhosh Narayan’s soundtrack is firmly of the present day, and it suits the fast and crunchingly aggressive world of the story. Also I liked the blending of hip hop and more usual blokey Tamil hero dance styles. Rajini stuck to enigmatic walking and meaningful pointing.

Pa. Ranjith didn’t quite solve the problem of how to reveal the various twists so he had a crack at everything multiple times. Rajini did most of his acting sitting down, which made this quite a talky gangster flick. And these two things combined to make this a bit slow, and not as suspenseful as it should have been. There is a distinct lack of logic that means people and things are there or not there just because. I gave up wondering if the school actually did anything education related! All any student seemed to learn was The Free Life Salute which I don’t believe would be very useful. The fight scenes felt quite slow and sometimes repetitive. A better fight director or sharper editing might have made the difference, and at least given more variety of ways to splash the fake blood around.

The supporting cast is almost a who’s who. Nasser, John Vijay, Kalaiyarasan and hyperactive Dinesh Ravi are among the ranks of the notional “goodies”. The baddies boast Kishore, Mime Gopi (yes he was a mime) and a host of others. But remember this is a Tamil gangster movie so don’t go getting attached to anyone. That’s all I’m saying.

The subtitle team did a great job (thanks rekhs and harini!). Maybe because there wasn’t much challenge in the dialogues, there were also some descriptive captions of all the many types of laughter Kabali had at his disposal. Some of my favourites were: “Smug chuckle”, “Sarcastic laughter” and “Tickled pink laughter”. Yours?

If the film was a little shorter, and some of the show and tell had been show OR tell, Kabali could have been very good indeed. See it if you miss the mid 80s gangster genre, or you enjoy watching a larger than life on screen superstar. When it’s good it’s good, and when it isn’t you still have Rajini and Winston Chao…and those natty outfits. Magizhchi!

8 thoughts on “Kabali

  1. Hi Heather,
    You got it spot on. The movie was a bit slow. It was neither a full fledged Ranjith film or a full fledged Rajini movie, it got struck in the middle which made it quite difficult. However, I watched it twice FDFS and yesterday just for the introduction sequence, the interval fight sequence, the family reunion where it breaks into the beautiful mesmerizing ‘Mayanadhi’ song followed by a fight and the Climax fight sequence.

    The movie had a lot if scope since many Tamil movies have only dealt with the problem of Sri Lankan Tamils, this movie went on to show the plight of Malaysian Tamil people who contributed a lot to build the country that it is today and were stamped down as minority pushed into drug peddling and other stuff. But it got lost somewhere.

    I really like the dialogue in the climax before Thalaivar pulls a gun off his sleeve. It sums up everything the movie stood for. Also the dialogue where Rajni says ‘There are political reasons why Gandhi did not wear a shirt and Ambedkar wore a suit’. Truly Masterclass that one.

    Dinesh V


    • Hi Dinesh – Temple here (since I wrote this review!). I’m glad you liked it enough to see it twice 🙂 I certainly liked it more than Lingaa, and really enjoyed Rajini’s performance in this. That final climax fight with Kabali and Tony Lee on the rooftop was impressive. The subtitlers did a good job I think, and tried to capture the flavour of the dialogue. The theme of clothing as a political statement was interesting, and I liked that it was a deliberate choice of Kabali to present himself in a very specific style. Cheers, Temple 🙂


      • Hi Temple,

        I’m sorry, since most of the recent Tamil movie reviews were done by Heather, I assumed it was Heather, my Bad. A nice review though.

        The movie could have been much better given the Story-line it had. However, nothing can be taken away from Thalaivar’s acting. Can’t get enough of it how many ever times you watch.

        Dinesh V


      • No worries Dinesh! We do have our names at the top of the review, but since some people can’t tell us apart in person despite us looking and sounding NOTHING alike, I am kind of used to it 🙂 I keep thinking back on the film, especially Rajini’s scenes and his performance. I was also happy to see him playing a role a bit closer to his actual age as I think that will be more sustainable for him (rather than say, a Sivaji style movie). I hope there are many many more movies to come!


  2. Good review. One small point though. The biggest problem was that most people just watched the movie as some mindless action flick. That’s not the truth. Just like the director’s other movies, Kabali is loaded with Dalit(lowest caste; untouchable) subtext. Here are a few things you missed in your review. In Kabali’s introduction shot, he is seen reading the book “My Father Baliah.” This is about the life of Dalits in pre and post independence India. After his initial fight, he frees a caged bird. This mirrors the oppression that low caste Tamils faced in Malaysia. The fact that Kabali always wears a suit is a silent protest showing that caste isn’t defined by what you wear. Even some of the song lyrics are about this(Kabali aka untouchable).

    One last point. The last scene is foreshadowed by the crab story Kabali says earlier in the film. He says that crabs will fight and kill each other, comparing them to Tamils. This is what eventually happens in the end. (SPOILER). Kabali isn’t shot by some Japanese gangster. He is shot by one of his own.


    • Hi MG – Yes, I agree all of that is really obvious in the film. I think the purpose of a review is more about the response as a viewer and analysis of what worked and what didn’t rather than listing every incident and reference, which is more the job of a recapper. I don’t like the recap style of film writing as I don’t find it helps me decide whether I would want to see the film, and it usually just spoils the plot. So I often leave a lot out either because I think anyone who sees the film will get those elements (like the bird which I thought was a total cliche, very cheesy, and overdid the metaphor) or just as I generally prefer to avoid spoilers (hello to everyone who now knows how this ends thanks to you 🙂 ) Cheers, Temple


  3. Hey, Temple, catching up on all the reviews that you and Heather wrote up while I was away. Had to comment on this because I watched it in India. In a theatre, which I believe is the only right way to watch a Rajini movie. 🙂 Kabali had been panned almost universally by critics so I went in with absolutely no expectations at all. Perhaps that is why I was pleasantly surprised to find that I quite enjoyed the film. I agree with you about the retro feel; but must confess that I much preferred the locations to the often needless CGI that I get a surfeit of, these days.

    The depiction of Malay Tamils was quite spot on, and of course Rajini got to spout some fabulous dialogues about it. But I did like that both women characters in the film had agency, and that the daughter, especially, was not downgraded to a dhavani-wearing, flower-in-her-braid, Tamil ponnu once she discovered her father. Also, that fond father does not go around ‘protecting’ her; he looked quite proud of her when she protects him.

    Rajini does look his age, however, and ailing in some of the scenes, so one wonders just how much he had to go through to film this role.


    • Hi Anu! I was wondering where you were as you hadn’t updated your blog in a little while and you are so prolific. I’m glad to hear it is because you’ve been travelling 🙂

      I’m so pleased you got to see this in a cinema. You’re right – there is something really special about the Rajini experience when you’re watching with a mass of fans. I think they tried to work around his physical stamina by having Kabali sit and declaim a lot, but nothing can hide the signs of mortality no matter how much people may wish to ignore them.

      Did you get a chance to see Pelli Choopulu? I think you’d like that.


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