First day, second show in Bangalore. The parking lot outside Urvashi theatre in Bangalore was packed. Not just with people who wanted to watch the movie, but also with people who were filming the people who wanted to watch the film. TV vans were everywhere.
The movie itself begins with a voice-over narration, about gang wars in Malaysia, setting the stage, as it were. It's an interesting opening. Normally, voiceover narrators are chosen for voice quality - it has to be deep and sonorous, with clear diction. This one was nothing like that. It was the voice of an ordinary Tamil blue-collar worker, not especially resonant or memorable. The language itself was colloquial, and stumbled a little, like a kid in school having to recite an ill prepared history lesson. It was an interesting subversion of the narrator trope, but it didn't quite come off. In a way, it set the tone for the film, full of interesting attempts that don't quite come off.
The scene shifts to a group of Malaysian cops discussing whether Kabali's prison term should be extended. It's like a parole board meeting, only without the prisoner. The language shifts, seamlessly, between Malay and Tamil. And then we cut to Rajini's introduction, in his prison cell.
And here, as in every Rajinikanth film for a long time, you don't begin by showing Rajini's face. But instead of focusing on the feet, as is tradition, the camera pans out from a book, the back of a head, and on to the cops opening the door. The man in the cell closes the book he's been reading- My father Baliah, by Dalit activist KB Satyanarayana. It's a piece of trivia that's meaningless if you don't know who Satyanarayana was, or what the book was about, but it's a powerful hint into the identity of the reader if you do. Rajini gets up, comes to the door of the cell, and does a quick pull up before he leaves, to thunderous applause from his fellow inmates. He goes and picks up his belongings - which include - joy of joys, a copy of Terry Pratchett's Sourcery
It's an economical scene. It establishes that Rajini may be old, but is still fit, that he has kept his mind active while in prison. The so-called "genius bonus" comes from the choice of books. The Satyanarayana book tells you that he either is a Dalit himself, or has empathy for them.The Pratchett says that he is an omnivorous reader (and, as a Pratchett fan, testifies to excellent taste). Later, we find out that he was a plantation worker, and you begin to consider the eclectic taste in books implies autodidactism, providing an explanation for his sometimes stiff use of English.
Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn't quite live up to the promise of the introduction. There's a song, a celebration of Kabali's release from prison, and then there's a quiet scene where Kabali returns home to see the memory of his dead wife chiding him. Then before you know it, there's a confrontation with a gangster miniboss at a petshop. There's an interesting line that happens at this time, one that Baddy comments about in his fine review here. Kabali and his friend are walking through a row of cages of brightly coloured birds, and Kabali says that the birds should be flying free. The friend says that it's probably for the best, because otherwise they may become prey to larger predators. Baddy was struck by the first part of Kabali's reply, "Unnoda karunai adhoda saavai vida kodooramanadhu". I was more struck by what he says afterwards. "Let them free, so that they make the choice whether they want to flourish or perish."
This scene ends with the first boss fight - you'll have to excuse my language, I've begun to see narratives through the lens of video games, some seepage of jargon is inevitable. The bad guy is suitably obnoxious, saying that Kabali's wife would have been sold into prostitution if she hadn't died. Needless to say, he dies.
And here's are a couple of things that become problematic. One, there are too many villains. We're told that the big bad is a guy called Tony Lee, but we have very little idea of where the others feature in the backstory. We're given short flashbacks, explaining the context, but it's almost as though the flashback is like a quick primer, like a recap in long running TV show. And after a point, it becomes difficult to keep track of each minor villain's role in the overall narrative.
There are a couple of slightly longer flashbacks, which establish that Kabali was a plantation worker, who fought the plantation's owner to get Indian workers equal pay as Chinese workers. This brings him to Tamilnesan's (Nassar) notice, and while its clear that Tamilnesan is a big deal, its not clear exactly what he is.
There's a sequence in Citizen Kane, where it cuts from Joseph Cotten saying "He entered this campaign", to Orson Welles completing the sentence "With one purpose only". We get something similar here, where Tamilnesan moves from private conversation to public address, and back and forward again, but it's there, without moving the story forward, without establishing the growing rapport between Kabali and Tamilnesan. So when Kabali takes over Tamilnesan's organization, we don't really see the misgivings of Tamilnesan's son, Tamilmaran (Charles Vinoth). And when Veerasekaran (Kishore), over the course of drink, incites Tamilmaran to go against Kabali, it seems a little abrupt.
There are a few scenes that are visually stunning, but they're left dangling. There's a scene of Yogi (Dhansika), in a red swimsuit in a circular swimming pool at night, and she's there, suspended on the surface, a silent scarlet splash in a blue green circle. There's another scene where the camera pans out from Kabali's safe house, a lovely place surrounded by trees. But both these scenes are isolation. Yogi's swimming pool isn't how she prepares for a kill, or unwinds after it. The safe house scene isn't a long tracking shot that ends with the revelation that the safe house isn't that safe. That comes later, and is much less impressive.
The villains are another problem. While Winston Chao is ok, he would be more consequential if the race angle was explored more deeply. But then, the movie wouldn't have played in Malaysia - I understand that it was censored pretty heavily there. There's subtext, but never explored. There's the section when the story moves from a straightforward revenge story to a search, and it loses steam.
There are some good scenes, of course. The reunion with Radhika Apte is stellar. The cross cutting of Kabali and Lee dressing up for the showdown and Jeeva's death and excellent. But the overall effort falls short of the intent.
Now, I've obviously lot a lost of the references that make the movie so significant to Malay tamils - according to this, it's the Malay Tamil's film. I caught the pointers to Kabali's character from the books, but I missed the significance of the opening scene where the Malay cop says "If Kabali begins to be too much of a problem, we will take care of him in our own way," a line that sets up the final scene. So, its quite possible I missed a great deal
In the end, it's like Ranjith wanted to do too many things, and it ended up with a cluttered film where effort falls fall short of intent.