Cinema

Kabali: Neither here, nor there

Rajinikanth in Kabali  

When Pa. Ranjith was chosen as the director for a Rajinikanth film, it was welcomed as a sign of change. A sign that the superstar is stepping out of his comfort zone and willing to give in to the vision of a young director who had made raw, hard-hitting films ( Aatakathi and Madras) marked by good writing. There was the promise, going by the teasers and trailer, of watching a film that will not merely pander to Rajinikanth’s superstar status; but also perhaps bring back the actor to the fore.

As Kabali unfolds, one observes Ranjith doing precisely that. The introductory scene is like nothing we’ve seen in recent Rajinikanth films. You first see him in a prison room reading ‘My Father Balaiah’ by Prof. Y.B. Satyanarayana. The book lingers in view for a few seconds and much later, Rajinikanth will make a fleeting reference to dalits, B.R. Ambedkar and why he too chooses to wear smartly tailored coats. It’s an archetypal story of an outsider rising to a powerful position. The setting is Malaysia, and Kabali is a don aged 60, looking to pick up the ropes of his life after 25 years in prison.

The high point of the film is seeing the actor play his age, for the most part. Brief flashbacks place him in the late 70s/early 80s mode and is a nod to some of his best films like Mullum Malarum. Minutes after his release from prison, when he settles a score in an animal farm and delivers the eponymous ‘… kabali da’ dialogue, the emphasis is on the fact that he hasn’t lost his verve in the last 25 years. The statement rings true not just for the character but also the superstar whose reign remains unparalleled.

There’s a solid story of a do-gooder gangster brooding over the loss of his wife and child, and having to reclaim his authority over the underworld in Kuala Lumpur. How much one connects with the film will depend on how much we are clued into the socio-political situation in Malaysia. Ranjith stays on the periphery, not wanting to delve deep and thereby alienate the larger section of the audience. He skims the surface with gang wars, drugs and caste politics. As a result, you never empathise with the characters. The screenplay unfolds at a leisurely pace. Whistle-worthy moments are few and far in between and the emotional thread that has to hold it all together gets lost in the hotchpotch of a gang war muddle.

Rajinikanth’s characteristic swag and arresting screen presence hold attention as the film meanders along. Mano does a remarkable job of the Telugu dubbing. But despite all this, the inescapable underwhelming feeling sets in as Kabali falls somewhere between being a mass vehicle and another Nayagan/Thalapathy hopeful.

Radhika Apte is commendable and holds her own, unflustered in the presence of Rajinikanth. That re-union scene involving her, Rajinikanth and Dhansika (in a brief role, ably performed) is the only bright spot in the largely uninteresting later half.

G. Murali’s cinematography, Praveen’s editing and Santosh Narayanan’s music give the film the required finesse. Kishore and Winston Chao are apt in their roles.

Kabali offers many moments to savour, and some gutsy ones at that as Ranjith doesn’t pander much to the fandom. But did that also become the film’s undoing? If only the storytelling had been gripping enough to make up for that.

The film doesn’t give you the high of saying ‘Manchidi’ (‘Magizhchi’). If one’s looking for a story of an aged don or a do-gooder don, there’s still no beating Nayagan and Thalapathy. Those are tough benchmarks to breach.

Kabali

Cast: Rajinikanth, Radhika Apte, Dhansika

Direction: Pa. Ranjith

Music: Santhosh Narayanan

Rating: 2.5

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2021 1:12:18 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/cinema/Kabali-Neither-here-nor-there/article14503016.ece

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