Kabali leaves you with a feeling that it is a film of lost opportunities. On the positive side, the film plays down on the obvious masssy ‘Rajini’ isms, which isn’t a bad thing at all. It also largely makes the superstar play his age for a good chunk of the film and even gives us a more human and gasp, dare I say it, vulnerable side to his character. The flip side is that all this needed a better film and a more innovative story to be truly effective. However, Kabali gets lost in that neither is it Rajini enough for his fans, nor is director Pa. Ranjith able to put his authoritative stamp on the film.
One can totally understand why Rajinikanth went in for a new age director for his follow up film to the disappointing Lingaa. Directors, barring Shankar, were at a loose end on what to do with him, and in his worst moments (the portions of the younger Rajinikanth in Lingaa), he was reduced to little more than being a sad parody of himself, a star persona that took decades in making to reach the incredible heights it has. But when you put yourself in a film where the director’s stamp is more important than the star, then the film needs to sustain itself completely in all departments of filmmaking and not merely function as a star vehicle for the star’s fan base. Kabali is let down in this respect by at the beginning stage itself – by settling on a ‘safe’ story and a familiar character that are both not just time tested but also badly dated and hackneyed. To give both Rajinikanth and Pa. Ranjith the benefit of doubt, maybe they felt it would be too much for the Thalaivar’s fans to go the whole hog and hence, decided to take the reinvention of the super star in smaller baby steps.
So we have kind hearted ‘don’ Kabaleeswaran aka Kabali (Rajinikanth) released after serving 25 years in jail. Kabali fought against the oppression of the Tamilians in Malaysia, climbed up the ladder to become the leader of his people but was then set up by his enemies, who not only frame him but shoot down his pregnant wife, Kumudhavalli (Radhika Apte), left for dead. How Kabali gets back at the villains who framed him and is reunited with his wife and daughter, Yogi (Dhansika), forms the backbone of the film. In other words, a standard lost and found revenge drama and one that is surprisingly sluggishly paced to boot.
Both Rajinikanth and Ranjith are sporadically visible in the film. The mega star is not bad at all even if struggling at times to break free and be THE Rajini his fans look up to. He shows us enough glimpses of the actor he was, especially in his early innings of filmdom, and generally acquits himself pretty well. Of course, it helps a great deal that he plays his age for a large portion of the film. Even his younger bits, it has to be said, are handled far better than the disastrous ones in Lingaa even if his age shows. Personally, I prefer this subdued Rajinikanth to the other larger than life one but yes, for his hard core fans, it is likely they will find no ‘magizhchi’ in Kabali.
As for Ranjith, though I had issues even with Madras, the film still had enough in it to mark him out as a director with much promise and a fine understanding of his cinematic craft. Kabali reconfirms that to a certain extent. There are some sequences that do stand out. The suspense build up in the scenes of hunting Kumudhavalli, still alive, and being privy to the human side of Kabali, as he can’t wait to be reunited with her, work extremely well. But what works in Ranjith’s favour is his politics. Himself from the Dalit caste, he effectively works in the struggle of a Dalit hero against all odds through Kabali’s character. If only, the film was more coherent.
Of the rest of the cast, Radhika Apte is fine enough but let down by some very OTT dubbing in her otherwise well-performed breakdown in the key reunion scene. However, their relationship, in spite of having its ‘Satya-like’ moments, doesn’t come anywhere close to that of Bhiku Mhatre and his wife Pyaari, in the earlier film. Dhansika looks like she can kick real ass and makes enough of an impact but the others including main villain, Winston Chao, are let down by sketchy characterizations. Surprisingly, the film is a really big let down in terms of its less-than-expected lavish mounting and its technicalities, which are just about adequate.
Overall, it has to has to be said Kabali is finally a mixed bag and an average one at that. If at all, it succeeds in the long run at the box office office (the opening has naturally been record breaking but reactions to the film are mixed), it could be just the thing Rajinikanth is looking for to break free. For now though, one can safely say that as a film, Kabali falls disappointingly into ‘no man’s land’ and is neither here nor there.
Tamil, Action, Drama, Color