There are no cliched 'Superstar' elements in Kabali, said Pa.Ranjith in an interview to The Hindu on the upcoming gangster slick starring Rajinikanth and Radhika Apte. The two-films old director speaks about his first meeting with Rajinikanth, his experiences of putting the script above the actor and how he is sure that 'Kabali' will be loved by all.
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Here is the full transcript
What is your state of mind right now?
The expectations for the movie are very high right now. And a bit unexpected. When the film took to the floors, many wondered if I would be able to pull off a Rajini Flick. But as the teasers came out, I have been getting a pat on the back from various quarters. The songs and the teasers are a hit. And am sure people will love the film. And while my confidence levels have risen following the phenomenal response to the teasers, I am also scared about the outcome. Will it fulfil expectations? Makes me wonder how people will connect to it… as the film is not just an action flick.. but also has a good emotional value to it.
On meeting the Superstar
The chance meetings I have had with the superstar are instances when he did not know me: while watching Goa (produced by Soundarya and I was working with the team then) and before that I have been in a group photo with him.
How did the project come about?
Soundarya Rajinikanth was supposed to produce Attakathi. But somehow it did not work out. She called me one day asking me to give a script for Rajini’s next film, as he wanted to work with a young director. I was taken aback and unsure as the films I have worked till now (Attakathi and Madras) are raw and realistic scripts. She reiterated that her dad and family loved Madras and that I should come up with storylines for him to consider. So I gave two options: the story of a Malaysian don and a supernatural movie of the sci-fi genre. They immediately picked the don story and asked me to develop the script. After a while, by which time I had decided that they were not interested, Soundarya called me again to invite me to tell the storyline to Rajinikanth. I was nervous as I was not at all a good narrator of scripts. But when I met Rajini sir, he immediately took over the conversation and heaped praises on ‘Madras’. And slowly I became comfortable and the narration became like a conversation. He openly said that he liked many points in the story: the fact that his character is aged, Kumudavalli’s role and the sequencing of the movie. But still it was not confirmed. Later, Soundarya called to ask me if any comedy could be added to the film as Rajini sir felt it was too raw. My answer was a no. I reiterated that there will be nuances in the film that might have comic value. Then when I met Rajinikanth sir next, he said “Hello director sir. You are my next director and Thanu is the producer”. And it was done.
While I was very happy about him liking my script, I was scared and nervous while thinking of the responsibility bestowed on me. I wanted the film to happen not because it is a Rajini film. But I should be able to bring him into my role. This was my aim. I loved the title Kabali and he picked that too.
On fitting Rajini in his character
No changes had to be made because it was Rajinikanth-starrer. Kabali is a strong character. The character is that of someone who is coming from an oppressed Tamil community in Malaysia. The character itself spells mass. So when an actor who already has mass value takes up the role of a character that carries weight – it is bound as an evolved role. I wanted to bring out the real Rajinikanth via Kabali.
Was the balance tough?
Not really. Whenever the ‘Superstar’ elements came out, I was able to control it. He would laugh it off saying “I am not at all an actor”. I wanted to recreate that Rajini in Mullum Malarum. He understood the role. His acting is so natural and intense in many scenes. He brought to life the pains of Kabali. After we wrapped up, he told me that none of his clichéd scenes were not there. For eg: his specialty is his fast walk. But in this movie he walks slowly.
When it comes to reality-based cinema, the acting will have to change obviously- as the character will make sense only then.
Was there a flashback in the original script?
Yes. The 80s portion was part of the script and is crucial to the storyline. The labour and land woes in Malaysia before 1990 had to be captured. Coolies, people who worked in ‘semmanai’ - which they call ‘red farms’ - were not given wages equal to those of Malaysian citizens. This is the story of a person, Kabaleeswaran, who fights for the rights of Malaysian Tamils.
So this in scenario, the flashback is an important part of the story.
Tell us about how the name ‘Kabali’ was used before, in other films.
Usually in Tamil cinema, the Kabalis have always been villains or rowdies. In some films, they have been comedians. And Tamil cinema has always showcased people who live in slums as such. Even in plays if you see, if there is there is a villain, if he’s speaking in the Madras slang, then he’s a Kabali. I was very surprised.
Back where I come from, the Kabalis I know are not like this. This version of Kabali is only represented in everyone’s minds. I wanted to break that perception, so that’s the name of Kabali came around.
There are good Kabalis too, hero Kabalis, the Kabalis who fight for the people. And I also knew that naming Rajini sir’s character as Kabali and the film too, will definitely change that perception.
You are somebody who makes films that are very rooted, and you are very familiar with those settings as well. Malaysia is an unfamiliar setting and even though are there Tamilians there, they are a very different people. What were the things that you could connect with them?
No, the emotions are always the same.
I went to Keri Island for a shoot where I met a grandfather who told me he had never been to Kuala Lampur. KL is just 200 kilometers away from Keri Island but he had never been there. People like him are born, live and die in the same place. That grandfather had no house, just a hutment on the estate he was working in. He didn’t have land to his name, just living rights.
So the land might be different, the problems they face might be different, but the emotions are still familiar to us. These are the issues that let us identify with people.
That said, I did find it a little tough to speak about that land. I went to Malaysia ahead of time, read about it, speak to people about the issues they face, about their government. My assistant director, Vikram, is Malaysian. I spoke to him a lot. Vikram comes from these estates, his parents worked in these estates when he was young. So we could easily identify the problems they faced earlier, as well those faced by the Malaysians of today - their clothes, their habits, their food - we learnt about them.
Finally, for a creative person, a different land or a language is never a barrier. When you start working with it, we’ll learn a lot. We will just have to pick what we need from it.
Could you find some kind of similarities though? For example, the hip-hop culture there is very similar to the hip-hop culture of North Chennai.
Mao has said we can change politics with help of the arts. He encouraged use of the arts in the political field.
If you take any oppressed community, for example the blacks, their art is very pure. They uplift themselves through their art. If you take gaana songs, there’ll be dancers, there’ll boxers… They employ body politics, as in their body is their weapon. The evolution of the black people all over the world is tremendous, right from the language they speak, their clothes, their music… All of it speaks the same language, the language of freedom, the language of being able to fight against oppression.
So in this case, art becomes very powerful, it is ingrained in their very lifestyle. There is no artificial-ness to it. When they put out a song, it’s from their life. Their words, their pain - all of it goes into their art. This is true for all depressed communities.
So was it easy for you to set this film because there were things you could relate to? For instance, is Malaysian Tamil something we can follow easily?
Some of it is difficult to understand. We’ve used a lot of Malaysian Tamil in the film. The Tamil they speak currently - we’ve used quite a bit. You know how the Madras slang is very important to showcase Chennai? It’s like that. It’s a mix of Chinese, Malay and Tamil, and Rajini sir has spoken all of these languages.
Oh he speaks Malay?
Oh yes, he’s speaks a lot of Malay in the film. And he’s done it superbly too!
The Malaysian ‘slang’ as such is quite difficult. I could only understand what some people were saying, so I’ve put in as much as I could, as much as it needed to sound real. If you see this film, you’ll be able to understand at least a little of what Malaysia is - from their language, food and landscape. At least, that’s the hope.
You would have gotten opportunities to speak to Tamils there during the course of the shooting. Did they describe how they were represented in cinema?
Seriously, cinema is the only bridge between the Malaysian Tamils and the Tamils here. Cinema is their biggest influence. Dhanush’s famous tsunami dialogue from ‘Aadukalam’ - they’ll be mouthing it there! It’s everybody. Heroes, heroines, comedians, songs - everything is influential. There are people who believe that some of the problems showcased in our films are actually real.
That’s why I think directors need that sense of responsibility. Because a film we direct goes all over the world, and people take it to for reality.
Being a fan of Rajinikanth and having followed his career for so long, did you think this film could lend a voice to some of the causes he supports or issues he has raised?
No, I don’t think so. We can speak about certain issues through the medium of films, we can make people think, but I’m don’t think we can change things much. If that was the case, our society would have changed long ago. Take ‘Parasakthi’ for example, there is no social issue that was not raised in that film.
We can ask some questions of society, make them think. Some might not want to think about those questions, but there might some people who will be motivated to find answers to them. That in itself is a big success. We can definitely use this opportunity to make people think, that’s for sure.
But do you agree Rajinikanth has a strong political image? You could have put across any message you wanted..
The movie does have a strong political message. The script deals with problems faced by Tamils world-wide. And when such an issue is portrayed by an actor like Rajini, it is that much more powerful. In fact, in his opening line in ‘Kabali’ he speaks for increase in wages for Tamil labourers. I believe the reach of this message will be pervasive. Cinema is a mass medium. In cinema, he is a mass actor and when he speaks of such issues it is bound to have an impact.
Do you feel that Tamilians living outside Tamil Nadu are under-represented in our cinema?
Maybe a little bit. There are tamilians in Bombay, Singapore but movies on these people are not many. However, the role that Tamils play in the character of that city has always been important. Tamils have contributed a lot towards creating Malaysia’s identity. Movies like Kabali may give rise to conversations on issues surrounding Tamils living outside the state.
Does the film bridge the gap between the Superstar film and the dream film of a director?
Yes, definitely. I have written what I wanted to write. And I have brought Superstar into my script.
So the fans needn’t be worried?
No! There are lots of things for fans to be happy about: emotional value, his acting, his mass appeal.
Your third movie is a Rajinikanth film. Budget would not have been an issue. And you have already scaled Mt. Everest. What next?
No, I don’t think of it like that! I have done three films. No one should judge a film based on its budget. For me, all my creations are films. Atttakathi is also my film, so are all my other films. I want to do films. That’s all!
Where are you planning to watch Kabali First Day First Show?
I want to watch it in a sema local theatre. I saw Madras in many theatres and then I saw it in Albert theatre (in Chennai). The audience enjoyed every moment of the film. I felt content. I was happy that my target audience enjoyed the film and it had reached them. I came out of the theatre crying.