I saw Kabali! It was SO GOOD! Okay, the second half lost track of itself a little bit, and there were some character bits that could have been better, but overall it just had so much more depth and excitement and energy than the other movies I have seen lately!
I was watching Kabali thinking “this is a good movie, but also it has that distinctive flavor of a movie that wants to be about something in particular, but isn’t allowed to say it straight out.” Mostly the songs, that’s where I was getting it, there were these little things dropped into the lyrics that sounded really specific in a way that they didn’t need to be, “lend me your ears or I will cut them off with the same scissors my mother used to cut cloth”, for instance. I mean, this isn’t just me being psychic obviously, the promotions for the film and some of the comments on my other articles kind of gave me a heads up that this film was going to be dealing with a political issue while trying very hard not to make it obvious what it was doing.
In grad school, I took a film class on films from conflict torn areas. It was a really interesting class, we talked about Pol Pot documentaries and Taiwanese historicals and German WWII movies. But all of this talk about filmmakers trying to get their message out to the audience and refer to hidden histories under the eyes of the censors felt kind of like “well yeah, no duh!” to me.
I talk about this more in my book, but Indian film has always always done that. Back when the British were in charge, it was all about sneaking in pro-Independence messages, and then it went on to talking about the License Raj and the Emergency and all sorts of other taboos, without really obviously talking about them, because then the censors will shut you down. And, of course, the southern film industries go much farther and are much braver in being directly political than the northern industries are.
So, before writing this review I did a quick scan through JSTOR looking for journal articles on Malaysia, and a quick dip into wikipedia and some news sources to get some up to date info. I know there is a lot I am missing, feel free to fill me in in the comments, but here is the basic outline I can see so far.
In the colonial era, thousands of Tamilians were brought over to be low level unskilled laborers. At the same time, the colonial elites brought in other Indian (and Chinese) workers to be government bureaucrats and hold higher level positions. After independence, there was a concern that the power in the country should be returned to the native Malays, rather than the elites who ran it during colonialism. In order to fix this power imbalance, the government passed laws giving massive advantages to native Malays, defined as someone who “professes the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language, conforms to Malay customs and is the child of at least one parent who was born within the Federation of Malaysia before independence of Malaya on 31 August 1957, or the issue (off-spring) of such a person.”
These native Malays received advantages in buying land and housing, founding companies, getting government jobs, basically every area of life. Some government contracts will only go to Malay owned business, only companies with a 30% Malay ownership are allowed on the stock exchange, and so on and so on.
These policies were wildly successful in upending the power structure in place during colonialism, making the native Malay population quickly the wealthiest and most educated one. On the face of it, this was a good system for re-dressing the wrongs of colonialism. However, there are two huge problems with it.
First, these policies are still in place to some degree years and years after the initial inbalance they were meant to address has been fixed. Secondly, and more importantly, while there was a proportion of the non-Malay population that had an unfair advantage during British rule, there was a much larger proportion that was suffering under the British and has continued to suffer under local rule, with these laws just serving to keep them further beaten down.
While the exact details and background may vary for the Tamil-Malay population from the details for other oppressed communities, it looks like the end result is depressingly familiar. The best, or really only, economic opportunities are in illegal businesses. The male population is over-incarcerated, the state removes children from their parents and breaks up families at a higher rate, and the female population tends to be left as the primary bread winner and primary caretaker, trapped in domestic service level jobs. There are clear parallels with what America has done to its African-American population, or what Germany has done to its eastern European population, or what South Africa did to it’s native population (I did find some references to “apartheid” being used to describe the current Malaysian situation).
The avenues of hope for these populations tend to be religious. When traditional secular routes to power are closed, religion can take a primary and potent role in community organizing. I found an interesting article from the late 80s talking about how Hinduism developed differently in Malaysia, more based on small local shrines reflecting local miracles, than on huge temples and formal priests and so on. And that there was a bit of a divide between Hinduism as it was practiced by the lower class manual labors and by the more educated upper classes. With that background, I am guessing the current temple demolition movement by the Malay government is partly a move towards an Islamification of the country, but also an effort to cut off a means of moral support and organization for the lower class Tamil community?
And speaking of religion, this brings me to Rajinikanth! Just as temples and worship practices can be a source of strength and moral support for an oppressed people, so can art, especially popular culture. Again, it’s not an exact one to one comparison, but watching this movie I was reminded of the Blaxploitation films of the 70s in America, when the Civil Rights workers were able to see their struggle painted out in broad strokes onscreen. Or Judy Garland’s many gestures towards her Queer fans. Or the recent move in popular music in America to address the Black Lives Matter movement.
I know from tracking the box office records that Tamil films always do spectacularly well in Malaysia. And, if Tamil films are popular, I assume Rajnikanth is as well. I think it’s wonderful that he took the opportunity to make a film that addresses, as directly as possible without getting censored, the problems of this forgotten group of fans. I mostly think it is wonderful because he is giving much needed support to this group that is desperate for hope, but I also think it is wonderful because he is getting audiences, like me, who never really thought about the problems of Malaysia, to watch this and go “wait, what was that he is talking about?” and then do a ton a research and learn all sorts of new things about these issues.
Okay, that’s the big thing I wanted to get out of the way right at the beginning, what about the film itself? First, I loved the way Rajnikanth was aged up but kept relevant. His character may have been part of an older generation, but his message was aimed directly at the youth. He cared about young people, and at the same time he treated them as equals, not discounting their concerns or abilities. We see that right at the beginning, in the first song sequence, which was a great new Tamil rap style song (someone reminded me recently that the Punjabi hip hop may be the latest craze, but the Tamil films have been using hip hop and rap since the 90s), when the young dancers and singers who have been presenting this song try to get Rajinikanth to dance with them. Rajini’s friend Amir slaps the kid for his presumption, but Rajini stops him and dances with the young people anyway. In his own style, not trying to imitate their modern moves, but still happy to dance with them and be their equal.
Through out the film, that’s what really struck me, all the groups who are normally subservient to the hero are respected and treated as equals. Women, young people, even those of other races. All the main characters (except the villain) are Tamilian, but there are the occasional characters in the background who have different heritage and are still included. And just as some of the “good guys” are non-Tamilian, so are some of the Tamilians “bad guys”, there are no strict ethnic or racial lines drawn.
Gah, I keep getting sucked into the political analysis whirlpool and losing track of the straight aesthetics! Okay, trying again. The music was excellent, and turns out I know this composer, he did the music for the Tamil Lucia remake Enakkul Oruvan, and also Iruthi Suttru/Saala Khadoos, and I really liked both those soundtracks. He’s got kind of a raw muscular sound to his music, at least in the soundtracks I have heard, which worked really well here. Plus, there were a lot of “international” touches, a lot of English language thrown in and of course the very rap and hip-hop sounds. Although there was also a very melodic love song.
There was definitely a divide between the “kid” actors and the older generation. I was impressed with the Jeeva and Yogi and Meena actors (especially Dinesh Ravi who played Jeeva), but they didn’t feel like big “stars”, and they were definitely there to support Rajinikanth, not challenge him. But Radhike Apte playing his love interest was wonderful! And I actually believed their marriage of equals and that she forced him to be a better man. I’d only seen her in Badlapur before this, which was hardly a chance to see her shine, but now I am excited to see what she does next!
It was especially noticeable since I had just watched Baasha, where Rajnikanth’s love interest was more of an after thought, never part of his main hero’s journey. Plus, in both Baasha and Dishoom, which I saw the night before I watched Kabali, our action heroine was a spoiled pretty rich girl, constantly getting into trouble and forcing our hero to save her. But in this, Radhika is a worker who suffers and labors alongside her husband. She has no illusions about her life, and in fact can see the realities of their situation more clearly than him. She is his partner in life, not just a distraction or a reward.
And I love that they gave her the speech explaining why he wears a suit. I don’t know if this is the reason Rajinikanth himself has been wearing a suit onscreen for decades, but on some level it could be. Certainly it was powerful here, for her to explain that wearing a suit tells the world he is just as good as those who oppress them, that such things shouldn’t be out of reach of the lower classes, that nothing should be out of reach of the lower classes, that they can’t be ignored. Again, going back to the Civil Rights struggle in America, it reminded me of the way the first people to break through color lines, whether they were office workers or high school or college students, were careful to dress as well or better than their white colleagues, to force them to treat them with respect. Giving Radhike that speech shows her as a partner in his fight, and even wiser than he in some ways. She was his strength, not just in an ephemeral way, but in practical advice and encouragement.
(Obviously not the most important part of this picture, but look how nice Elizabeth Eckford’s dress is! Much nicer than the dresses of those horrible women behind her)
Let’s see, what other aesthetics? There were some cool filming touches, I liked the cut from Rajini walking through his house and seeing his old friends and family to him sitting alone at a table. I really liked how the past romance was shown, not through a full flashback, but just quick glimpses of her talking to the camera. Actually, I liked that as a recurring theme, images of Radhike looking straight at the camera and talking. It gave her character strength, centering her in the screen talking directly to the audience, and it also helped us get into Rajnikanth’s mindset, knowing this was his vision and memory of her.
The fight scenes were great. They kept a nice balance of realism and fantasy, being cool enough to make you go “OH YEAH!!!”, but at the same time real enough that you felt like there were actual stakes. And I liked how Rajini was shown to be reasonably the best, very good at sudden moves and quick displays of strength, but not leaping around and throwing people around like the young people did. Most of all, he was shown to be the best at strategy, using cars and improvised weapons instead of taking the more obvious route in any fight.
Okay, that’s it, I’ve got to go into spoilers now! So, SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER
There are two parts to the plot, the personal and the public. In the public plot, Rajinikanth is released from jail after 25 years. In the meantime, his best friend has been running multiple charities, including a school to teach young people and try to keep them out of gangs and a lending house to give money to help start Tamil businesses, and Rajini’s enemies, the Chinese run 43 gang, have taken control of the city. Rajini gets out and immediately goes to war against the other gangs.
But, at the same time this public war is going on, Rajini is also tortured by thoughts of his family. An enemy tells him that his wife might have survived the attack he thought he say kill her, and he can’t stop thinking about it. He also starts building a fatherly connection to a young girl at the high school, and a young man who volunteered to work for him. Slowly, these personal issues take over the plot and become more important than the “public” war that is happening.
The turning point is at a graduation ceremony for the high school, when Rajini sir invites the students to ask him any question they want. This scene feels very familiar from fan meetings and Q&A sessions actors hold in real life, really the whole way Rajini interacts with the younger characters feels very kindly and paternal in a way similar to how he interacts with his young fans. And definitely the younger characters (especially Jeeva) work as wish fulfillment for the young Rajini fans who wish they could get a chance to serve their idol.
The lesson Rajini sir wants to pass on to these young fans/students/movie characters is not about violence and style, but about substance, why we fight and do these things. And that’s when he starts talking about his family and his private experiences. That’s when we get the cool flashback to his wife talking to the camera, telling him she loves him. But also, that’s when we fill in the gaps in his history and learn that, although he may seem well-spoken and educated, he came from generations of field workers, and he married a field worker. It was only after successfully leading a local labor movement that he was invited to come to the city and meet with the Tamil leader who, if my wikipedia’ing is accurate, was probably a member of the elite educated class brought over to run the colonial government, not the indentured servants. And Rajinikanth’s downfall and imprisonment came about not because of the enemy gang, but because of a failure to unite with members of that elite educated class, who continued to look down on him, when his mentor’s son arranges for his ambush in frustration that Rajini took over leadership after his father’s death. What drives Rajnikanth is not a need for power, or vengeance, or a better life, but a need to help raise up his community, the field hands and others like them. And he is driven to this not by abstract concepts, but by working in the fields and seeing his wife work in the fields, and seeing his loved ones killed for daring to speak up and demand more.
It’s after this speech that the personal story line kicks into high gear. Both onscreen and off, suddenly the audience cares much more about poor Rajinikanth’s wife and what happened to her than any kind of “vengeance!” story. The film changes gears completely for a bit and turns into just a family drama.
I was a little frustrated with this at first, that Rajinikanth would miraculous discover that not only his wife survived, but she successfully gave birth and he has a daughter. I wanted the weight of a sacrifice and loss on his character. And I wanted the film to not be afraid of the unhappy ending.
But then as the story unfolded, I realized it works better this way as a parable for the overall social situation. Sure, if his wife and child died it would be sad, but making them alive the whole time he was in jail, but him unaware of this fact, means they were lowered to suffer just as the family of any other man in prison would suffer. His wife worked for a series of families, sent around the world from Malaysia to Chennai to America to France to Pondicherry. And his daughter was taken away and raised by a foster father. It’s told in a very dramatic fashion, but at the heart of it you have a simple story of the primary wage earner for the family being set to jail, resulting in the mother losing custody of her children and being forced to provide domestic services for other families.
Plus, his wife and daughter are awesome! I already talked about how I liked his wife’s straight-forward strong attitude. And I really liked that she was able to pick up the threads of their marriage without missing a beat, still matching him one on one.
I kind of saw the daughter reveal coming, but I still loved it! Of course his daughter is now an amazing assassin and warrior woman! She has his genes, after all! And I loved that she is a daughter. That the screenwriters made her a woman, but also made her short-haired and jeans-wearing and brilliant at gun play. And that she was taken away to be raised by the man who “killed” her mother, because he had no children, and who wouldn’t want a daughter?
It didn’t feel like one of those obvious “Save the Girl Child” inserted messages. It felt like ages ago, back when they were first putting together the script, they said “Oh! And what if he discovers his long lost daughter is the very assassin who has been chasing him!” and no one said “wait, that’s not possible, a girl can’t be an assassin, and anyway wouldn’t it be ‘happier’ if he discovered he had a son?”, they all just went with it because a daughter is wonderful and girls can do anything.
(And, of course, in real life he has two daughters and seems very happy about that)
And then they doubled down and gave him another daughter, with the troubled girl he wants to adopt from his charity high school. If his first daughter was too modern and dangerous to fit in the usual “perfect Indian girl” framework, his second daughter is too soft and broken. She is not only an drug addict, she is an unmarried mother. And he doesn’t meet her after she has recovered and become “better”, he meets her when she is still broken, still trading sexual favors for drugs, lost and heartbroken in the world. And that is the girl he wants to adopt and make into his daughter.
This gets into a bigger message about recovery and change that I really appreciated. That kids aren’t going to become perfect right away, that we can’t expect perfection, we have to just give them time and support and trust and wait for them to succeed. Or not, just because you put in all your love doesn’t mean it will work out. I liked it that the kids in the high school included aspiring gang members and drug addicts, and their teachers put up with them and let them keep coming to school. And Rajinikanth talked to them and gave them his wisdom and patience, in the hopes that someday they would get better.
The second half is kind of abrupt, moving from big action scenes to a sudden focus on this dreamy journey to find his wife. And then, bam! Back to action! As he easily defeats his enemies and takes control of the whole city. It felt weird watching it, just as I was settling in for the human drama there would be an action scene, and just as I was getting into the action, we were back to the human drama. And it felt odd that after all these messages of despair and loss, in the end, he wins all his fights and gets his family back.
But ultimately, it was all a set-up to trick you in the end. He needed to win on his own merit, he needed to have everything, he needed to be ready to move on to new challenges, because he needed to have something to lose. And just when it all looks good again, when he is sitting with his wife, looking at their two beautiful daughters, when he is listening to young people talking about their problems with lack of economic opportunity and possibilities and considering how he can move his crusade onto a new level, we see one of those young boys he tried to help in his school, sitting in a jail, being pulled out and handed a gun by the police. And then we see him walking into the crowd at the celebration and hear a gunshot as the screen goes to black.
The goal, as I see it, is to feel the frustration of the minorities who have been fighting and fighting for something, only to have it taken away every time they reach the top, because they are just high enough for those in power to notice them and cut them down. We have seen this character overcome terrible adversity, to finally gain the happy ending he deserves, and now he has lost it all again. Or has he? There is always the possibility that he survived, against the odds, that his sacrifice was something else. It’s an intriguing artistic decision, similar to the ending of The Sopranos, to give the idea that even if he survives this challenge, his life is going to be one long series of survival challenges.
Unless you are in Malaysia, in which case it was followed by a disclaimer reminding us all that crime does not pay, and the criminals will ultimately be punished. Only, forcing the filmmakers to insert that disclaimer isn’t exactly helping their argument that they are a kind and benevolent government.