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.
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!