Your previous films, Attakathi and Madras , were raw and realistic. It’s tough to place a Rajinikanth film in that continuum. Was it difficult to balance your vision with the necessities of a Superstar film?
This was a concern I had right from the time Rajini sir agreed to work with me. I started doubting my role in a film that had to accommodate his mammoth image. But at one point, I decided that instead of changing my story, my characters to suit his image, I’d work on bringing him into my narrative.
So you made no changes to the film to suit his image?
I didn’t have to. The ‘Kabali’ character is a very strong one. He’s a Tamil migrant in Malaysia, who has risen from nothing after an endless fight against oppression.
The actor in Rajinikanth has remained unused for long. Have you used his acting talent as much as his stardom?
There’s a lot of difference between who he is on screen and how he behaves off it. I wanted to bring the ‘real’ Rajinikanth into my film.
Was it tough to keep his performance real?
Not really. Whenever a dialogue seemed too cinematic, I would just ask him to tone it down. At one instance he said, “ Naan nadigane illenga (I’m not an actor at all). Why are you making me do this?” To which I said, ‘You’re a great actor sir, but you don’t realise it.’
Was there a particular role from his earlier films you could reference for Kabali ?
Kali from Mullum Malarum ! Naan parthu viyandha padam adhu (It’s a film that has astonished me). If not create a new Rajini, I thought I could try to re-create that Rajini. After Rajini sir watched the film, he said it’s a film that has risen above the clichés one associated him with, like the pace at which he walks. I’ve made him walk slower.
Was the 1980s flashback with a younger Rajini always a part of the script?
Of course! The story deals with the problems of Tamil plantation workers in Malaysia before the 1990s. It’s about a man named Kabaleeswaran who fights for their equality.
The title Kabali is an interesting one. How would you describe the use of this name in earlier films?
Characters who’ve been named Kabali have either been comedians or villains. Even in theatre, a character who comes from a kuppam , speaking Madras slang with evil traits, was always called Kabali. But the Kabalis I grew up with were not like that at all. I wanted to break this stereotype and prove that a Kabali could be a hero too.
For a director who has set his films in places he’s grown up in, did the Malaysia setting make you feel like an outsider?
I first went to Malaysia when I was working as an assistant on Venkat Prabhu’s Goa . I felt like it was the land of Tamils because they were everywhere. As I understood more about the land and the Tamils there, I noticed that their problems were the same as ours. I met Tamils who’ve remained plantation workers for three generations. The story of the oppressed is the same everywhere.
And how did they fight this oppression?
Mao (Zedong) emphasised the importance of art in bringing about political change. For the oppressed, emancipation can only come through sports and arts. Their mind and their bodies are their only weapons… their only capital. Just see how the Blacks have evolved. It’s their English we speak now. It’s their music we listen to, their style we copy.
Did you notice a cultural distance between Malaysian Tamils and Tamils in India?
The last remaining bridge between us and them is cinema. Our cinema continues to be a major influence on them. For instance, Dhanush’s ‘tsunami’ dialogue from Aadukalam is a part of their daily discourse. Their entire understanding of Tamil culture and our issues comes from cinema. So, we must be responsible in our depiction of it.
Has our cinema under-represented Tamils who live outside the state?
It has. Tamils are everywhere, but barring rare exceptions like Nayagan (set in Mumbai), how often do we see the real lives of Tamils? Like Mumbai, Malaysia too is a land that was built on the efforts of Tamils. Our cinema cannot overlook them.
So can Rajinikanth, arguably the biggest force of popular Tamil cinema, spread awareness about their lives?
Cinema cannot change the society. If it could, wouldn’t we have changed right from Parasakthi ? Cinema can provoke. It can raise questions. We’ve raised important political questions in Kabali and who is more powerful than the Superstar to make sure they get heard? One of his first lines in the film is a demand for equal wages.
Finally, where are you planning to watch the film’s first show?
I want to watch it in a semma local theatre. Actually, I want to watch it in Albert. I watched Madras there and the response was such that I started tearing up. I felt my film had reached the people I had made it for. That was enough.