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Rajinikanth in a still from ‘Kabali’
Rajinikanth in a still from ‘Kabali’

Film review: Kabali

Rajinikanth's latest movie Kabali is a disappointing stab at a gangster film

Getting shot on film sure isn’t what it used to be. Time was someone would be hit by a bullet and they would just die. The Godfather changed that, with Don Corleone getting hit five times and still surviving. At least that don had to fight for his life in hospital. When the don in Kabali is shot twice, everyone reacts as if he’s dead, not even bothering to call for an ambulance. One scene later, he’s alive and on the phone. Elsewhere in the film, a pregnant woman struck by a bullet survives a ride to the hospital, gives birth and lives on.

They say logic isn’t the best yardstick by which to judge a Rajinikanth film. But any film ought to obey the laws of its own universe. If it’s Enthiran we’re talking about, it’s perfectly acceptable that “Superstar" Rajini should be able to talk to mosquitoes. But Kabali is set in the real world, one in which people shouldn’t magically survive shootings, or have amnesia one minute and be cured of it the next. The film is an uneasy hybrid: You get the wish-fulfilment of a Rajinikanth blockbuster and the gritty gangster drama that director Pa. Ranjith seems to want to make.

Also read: First day, first show of a Rajinikanth movie

After 25 years in prison, Kabali (Rajinikanth) is released from a Kuala Lumpur jail. Even before we get a glimpse of him, he’s a cliché: the gangster with the heart of gold (a police officer argues in favour of his release, saying his Free Life Foundation helps keep Indian children off the streets). Once out, he celebrates by going to the home of one of his rival’s henchmen, beating him up (to send a message that Kabali’s back) and freeing a parrot. What a great guy, the film seems to say. He helps troubled teens and he’s a bird-lover.

With Kuala Lumpur having come under the control of his rivals Tony Lee (Winston Chao) and Vijay Singh (Kishore), you would expect Kabali to set about dismantling their empire. Instead, he’s distracted by visions of his late wife, Rupa Devi (Radhika Apte), and driven by revenge. We learn the circumstances of her death in an extended flashback that also serves as the Kabali origin story. Though it has shades of the Kamal Haasan-starrer Nayakan, this is one of the stronger passages in the film, showing us how Kabali became the people’s leader on a Kuala Lumpur estate run with Indian labour, then a strongman for a local crime boss and, finally, the boss himself.

As I watched Rajinikanth as young Kabali, clean-shaven and looking like the Superstar of yore in his trademark shades, I wondered how these scenes would have been received in Chennai. Rajini flicking his hair would probably be greeted with delirious cheers there, instead of seeming—as it did to me—faintly ridiculous. I also wondered whether Hindi-speaking audiences would be quite as thrilled if Amitabh Bachchan appeared in a film dressed up as his character from Zanjeer. I rather doubt it. Having fans isn’t the same thing as having devotees.

So how does Rajini fare? He’s 65, but a sprightly 65. If there’s one thing the film gets right, it’s the older Kabali’s look: salt and pepper hair, grey beard, white shirt, grey suit, dark glasses. He looks like a cold-blooded gangster, but the film keeps softening the character; he’s certainly the most forgiving crime boss I’ve ever seen.

The version of the film that I watched was dubbed in Hindi, so the rhythms of his speech were lost, and his “punch" lines lost in translation (he keeps saying “bahut khoob"—which has all the punch of a baby’s fist). For me, the most intriguing note in his performance was the genuine panic he seems to show when he starts seeing Rupa everywhere. An ageing crime boss who is losing his mind might have been a more compelling premise than the boilerplate (and lazily plotted) gangster story that Ranjith, who also wrote the film, comes up with here.

There are a few incidental pleasures. Dinesh gets in a nice comic turn as an over-eager member of Kabali’s gang. Dhansika is enjoyable as a short-haired assassin. And Chao’s tailor deserves some sort of award for dressing him up as a Chinese crime boss version of The Hunger Games’ Caesar Flickerman. But ultimately, one is left wondering what a genuinely gritty gangster film starring Rajinikanth—who can still smirk with the best of them—would have looked like. This one seems smitten, as Rupa declares herself to be, by the masti in its lead actor’s eyes.

Kabali released in theatres on Friday.

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