Unmediated

Kabali da

Print edition : August 19, 2016

Fans celebrate the release of the film at a theatre in Chennai. Photo: R. RAGU

Rajinikanth as Kabali in the film

PA. Ranjith, director of film. Photo: V. GANESAN

THE Kabali phenomenon is like a defiant sequel to Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. In the fairy tale, two sharp weavers spin a fine yarn and not only fit the arrogant and gullible emperor out with it, but spread the word that only the nincompoops in the kingdom would not be able to see the wondrous new royal attire. So, as the emperor walks, actually stark naked, on the street, showing off his make-believe new clothes, his fawning subjects match imagination for imagination and exult about their quality and texture, until a child speaks up to point out that the man has nothing on. The emperor suspects that the child is right, but strides on….

In a Kabali ending of the story there would be no scope for any such reality check. Dress-less-ness would become the new style statement, universally acclaimed and celebrated; so much so that anyone who thought otherwise would quickly begin to himself feel grossly overdressed. Not that Rajinikanth is or needs to be, even remotely metaphorically, stripped of hubris like the king in the story. As a matter of fact, he strides through much of the film in a three-piece suit, and there is a quick gratuitous reference, somewhere in the screenplay, to the contrasting sartorial preferences of Ambedkar and Gandhi to explain this.

But seriously, as a person he is, from all accounts, nowhere near being vain or conceited. He is known to be naturally and un-self-consciously modest. He conscientiously shuns the made-up visage of stardom off screen, appearing in public as balding and as greying as he naturally is. (But with him, all of that too, and it is no fault of his, becomes part of his legendary body language lore.) He can be, as he has shown us time and again ( Mullum Malarum and Thalapathy are two fine examples), a fine actor. So, if in and as Kabali, he is, for the most part, walking the gauntlet as if he is walking the fashion ramp, it is obvious enough that it is because he cannot, at his age, run it anymore, and not so obvious that he is not at liberty to draw in too large a measure on his resourcefulness as an actor for fear that it might detract from the apotheosis of the star.

That is the humungous nature of his stardom. To caricature something said by our former philosopher President, S. Radhakrishnan, when the star becomes aware of his destiny, destiny ends and the fans take charge of his future (What Radhakrishnan said was, when man becomes aware of his destiny, destiny ends and man takes charge of his own future). The brand overtakes the person. And with Kabali, the brand raced way, way ahead from the word go. It did not matter that the star himself could not keep pace with the brand. It was a marketing scream, all cylinders firing—as strident, raucous, unrelenting and demanding as the theme number, Neruppu da. It came at you from across the media. There was no escaping it. It was both wholesale and retail publicity which grabbed anyone the moment she opened a newspaper, or turned a TV or radio FM channel on. It was the surround sound in the weeks building up to the release. It set the Cooum on fire.

As we have seen happen with earlier Rajinikanth starrers, this dizzying momentum ratcheted up well before its release saw the film pretty much pre-sold, not only in terms of music rights or area-wise distribution rights, but in advance house-full bookings in the hundreds of screens in cinemas across India. The collection figures both in India and abroad, as variously and excitedly reported in the press, border on the fantastical—and that is probably part of the psywar the industry wages to further boost a film’s box office fortunes—but what seems pretty clear is that the film has already recovered multifold its spend, which industry estimates put at between Rs.75 crore and Rs.100 crore, with as much as Rs.50-60 crore being the star’s own fee. What is less clear, post -release, is how long the film will run on its own steam and beyond the impetus of the concerted marketing push that set it on its roll. Here again it is not so much the media reviews, which have ranged from the lukewarm to the outright adverse, which matter as much as the multiplier effect of the word-of-mouth opinion of those who have seen it. What also seems clear from the still confident, even if more subdued, mood even after the film’s release is that Kabali is home and safe for all its stakeholders and won’t have to share the fate of Rajinikanth’s Baba or Lingaa, where the star was under pressure to bail distributors or theatre owners out by recompensing them for their losses.

Director Pa. Ranjith, who has, with just a couple of films, already established himself as a discerning and different filmmaker, does, however, seem to find the material on hand in Kabali unwieldy. Not that he gives the impression anywhere of being intimidated by the mega stature of his protagonist. He is not. On the contrary, he humanises and tempers the star into a nuanced character with a tentative wistfulness about him, whose yesteryears, and the toll taken by age, weigh down on him, even as the future beckons to him for its liberation; whose slowed down movements and conflicted silence are more evocative than the hyper action bits and punchlines or pronouncements like the, or particularly the, big takeaway terms from the film gone viral, “Magizhchi” and “Kabali da”, which look and sound chillingly clinching in the promotional snippets and trailers, but kind of jar every time they crop up in the context and course of the narrative.

At one stage, well into the film Ranjith has Kabali mulling profoundly about every bird carrying a seed in its beak and every seed containing a forest. Those words also seem to point to Ranjith’s dilemma in handling the film. The seed of an idea of his plot has proliferated into a forest and he seems often lost in it. The bursts of fight sequences are routinised to become almost nondescript.

The Chinese rival gang leader played by Winston Chao is a throwback to the standard issue villain of Bollywood, only more wooden. A fine actor like Kishore is wasted as the co-villain. Long-winded dialogic scenes with people flapping about are thrown in with terse deliberative ones and make the tenor of the narrative irritatingly inconsistent. The flashback departures occur from trite scenes which seem set up solely for that purpose. Ranjith, it seems, devotes almost all his attention to Rajinikanth, and between the two of them they do get Kabali just about right. But just about everything else becomes also-ran in the process. But then, again, who is looking at or for anything other than Rajinikanth in a Rajinikanth film?

A bold motif Ranjith takes up but leaves underdeveloped is that of Dalit identity and politics. He seems hesitant to let it really surface from the level of subliminal suggestion. For a film which generally wears its message on its sleeve such oblique referencing of Dalit struggle and resistance becomes incongruously subtle. So if we expect the book Kabali is reading in his prison cell when we are first introduced to him— My Father Baliah by Y.B. Satyanarayana, about the struggle of four generations of his Dalit family in Telangana—to lead on to something organically more significant in the film, that does not happen. It is as stand-alone and impressionistic as the three-piece suit. You need mental footnotes to make more meaning out of them.

But then a Rajinikanth film, as we have seen, is not only about what happens in it. It is about what happens before, after and around it. The media not only avidly dish out every scrap of information or rumour they can muster about the film and its star, they enthusiastically feed into the frenzy. If the industry here were as savvy as Hollywood about merchandising , the book Kabali read, the sun glasses he wore, the vintage car he rode in, the copper bracelet, the greying beard and hair style, would all be material for a range of Kabali byproducts on sale. Reports suggest that the book he act-read is already in big demand. And that, resulting from something as confused and indifferent as this, is surely to be welcomed. Because it takes you to the true story.

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