This is not a review of the film Kabali. I do not like to review any films, primary reason being that I am not qualified enough to do so. Rather, this shall be my perspective on the film. Or to be precise, this is a post of celebration.
So, after the release of Kabali, I saw the review videos of some so-called reviewers on YouTube, read quite a few articles, saw many people sharing memes, and commenting negative reviews. I was so disappointed and felt down. But, I was careful enough to not form any opinions based on those people. I could see their casteism and hatred for Ranjith easily. So, I waited to see the film for myself and then form an opinion.
I began to brood over everything on how it all started from ‘Madras’ to ‘Kabali’. The moment Rajini declared that he was teaming up with Ranjith for his next film, many casteists started to flip out. Then after some time the posters came. Rajini was breaking the chains in one, he was emerging out of a hole in another, and he was sitting on a sofa with his legs crossed, wearing coat and suit in another. All were symbolisms of a dalit man trying to end his oppression, come out of the pit that he was unwillingly thrust into, and emerge as a successful man in the society. Then came the teaser. One was easily able to understand why the film was named Kabali. Many dalits would be named Kabali. Kabali, in films, has been used for a lower class, lower caste dalit goon or some comedy character. But, in this film, Ranjith broke that stereotype when Rajini asserts in the teaser that he is no longer that kind of a goon who would bend his back like a slave and obey the orders. Kabali strikes back. Then the songs came. Songs were revolutionary in themselves. It clearly indicated what has been referred to.
“Neruppu da, nerungu da paapom, nerunguna poskkura kootam – I am a fire, if you dare, try approaching me, if you try to approach our group will destroy you”. “Metukudiyin Koopadu ini naatukula kekkadhu – The rants of the elite shall not be heard hereafter”. “Ulagam Oru vanukka Uzhaipavan yaar? Vidai Tharuvaan Kabali thaan Kalagam seidhu aandayarin kathai mudippaan” – Is the world for one man? Who is the labourer? Kabali will give the answer. He will do a revolt and end the tyranny of the ruling class”. “Parayisai adithittu paatu kattu” – Lets play the parai drum and sing songs.
In this society, everybody knows that caste exists, we all know it, yet those who reap the benefits of it and some of them, out of self-guilt, would deliberately go on a denial mode as regards caste. So all the casteists clearly understood the meaning of it all. And they showed their disgust on Ranjith after the songs and teaser came. Then the film came.
Before going on to the film, we should really appreciate Rajinikanth for accepting this film and donning the role of Kabali, as a dalit. He spoke the dialogues like he really felt them. Based on the interviews that Ranjith gave, it seems that Rajini had no problems with all those dalit-assertive dialogues, especially the one on Ambedkar. In fact, he was very enthusiastic about the dialogues, it seems. Hats off, Sir. A man of such a stature with a great worldwide fan-following to have uttered such rebellious dialogues, especially to mention the name of Ambedkar in his film courageously, surely deserves credit. Probably in none of the films in Tamil cinema, to my knowledge, I have heard Ambedkar’s name. On the other hand, we have the progressive Kamal Haasan who has been busy quoting Bharathiyaar. Or taking up films that celebrate caste like Thevar Magan, Sabash Naidu.
Fine, coming to Kabali, after seeing the film I wondered, ‘Kabali movie is nice only. It is not bad at all. In fact, it is really awesome. Then, why so many negative reviews?’ This was not a normal Rajini film. This was an out and out Ranjith film. And yes, Thanks to Ranjith for bringing out the quality actor in Rajini after Mullum Malarum and Aarilirunthu Arubathu Varai.
Many would have entered the theatre expecting another Baasha or Thalapathy, especially after seeing the teaser. I do not know if this was intended to be so or not. Ranjith really teased them all with his ‘teaser’. He admitted that this was not going to be like Baasha or any other such Rajini films in his interviews, however, most came in expecting another Baasha. He instead gave them some Ambedkar, Dalit assertion and Dalit politics. The pin-drop silence that we observe in the theatre is the success of this film. This is how a teaser should be. There is a style of storytelling or narration which deploys what is called an unreliable narrator. Perhaps this teaser employed such a style, not necessarily as a narration, but the teaser is definitely unreliable for the film.
Many would have expected a typical Rajini film like a Sivaji in which he would carry out all those meaningless gimmicks, and fight against corruption as if it’s the country’s biggest problem. Or they would have expected a Padaiyappa in which Rajini would challenge some woman, lecture her on how a woman should behave, that a woman should be like a woman – and all that sexist, misogynist nonsense. Ranjith destroyed all their expectations.
In fact, in interviews too, he clearly mentioned that he does not know how to make commercial movies, and that this is a Ranjith movie and not a Rajini movie, and that Rajini himself had said it so. Ranjith is influenced by Ambedkarism and Periyarism, and so in his films, he shows women in a positive light, in a dignified manner. In fact, the superstar is actually saved by a woman, his daughter in this film. His daughter fights the villains and tries to rescue her don father. Also, the main supporter and backbone of Kabali is his friend Ameer, a Muslim. Muslims are usually shown as bad people, smugglers and terrorists in films. But Ranjith broke it and showed a Muslim as the backbone of Kabali, as a loyal commander of his army.
There are no punch dialogues in this film. Rajini just says one word – Magizhchi, meaning cheers or happiness. That one word alone is enough. It is simple yet very authoritative and commanding. There is an aura of finality around that word. Also, it has become the recent trending word among the masses now.
From the beginning to the end, there are so many dalit assertion scenes in the film, either through symbols or dialogues. The film starts with Rajini reading the book ‘My father Balaiah’ by Y.B.Sathyanarayana, a book on dalits. Then after coming out he sees the blue sky and the birds flying. In the next scene he lets the bird out of its cage making it free. He says the nature of the bird is to fly, let the bird decide if it wants to fly or not. The cage can represent the caste system and the birds, the dalits. Then we could find pictures of various leaders and icons such as Babasaheb Ambedkar, Che Guevera, Malcolm X, Buddha and others adorning the walls of classrooms. Kabali goes to the temple of Madurai Veeran, and Veerasekaran offers animal sacrifice in a Kali temple. The villain prays to Buddha. The characters do not pray to the brahminical gods like Vishnu, Shiva, Krishna, Rama or even Murugan for that matter. In Ranjith’s film even the gods would be from the Tamil folk religion, never the brahminical gods. Even the customs would be non-brahminical. In Madras, during the engagement of the hero and heroine, a local priest, a dalit priest would be presiding over it, not the brahmin priest, as it would be normally shown in all films. In Kabali too, Rajini and his wife are attacked while they are praying in the temple of a local Tamil deity and the presiding priest is a bahujan, and not a brahmin.
Then Rajini starts to wear coat and suit. When questioned, he says that there is a reason why Gandhi shed off his clothes and Ambedkar started wearing coat/suit. It is a demonstration of defiance. It is all politics. The whole theatre was silent, just pin drop silence. They came to see punch dialogues but Rajini has uttered the name of Ambedkar, totally unheard of ever in Tamil cinema till now. That reason, the style which they liked Rajini for in previous films is not liked by many in this film. They would have seen Rajini wearing a suit in Baasha and Annamalai. But that was stylish. But here in this film, Rajini wears a suit for defiance. Then Rajini goes on to say, in a scene in the climax, that he may be not from a ruler clan (Aanda Parambarai) but that he was born to rule. And then he says, if it is a problem for you if I progress, then I will definitely progress more than you, I will get educated, I will wear coat and suit, I will sit with my legs crossed before you, stylishly. All these dialogues are in reference to certain caste based parties like PMK, Kongu Peravai, etc, who consider themselves as ruler clans (Aanda Parambarais), who accuse the dalit boys of dressing stylishly, wearing jeans, pants and coolers trying to woo their caste women, and who reportedly are the reason for the increase of caste killings in TN. Without any surprise, all the casteists began to frown after hearing these dialogues, that too to come out of the mouth of Rajinikanth, a star of greater reach worldwide. Ranjith has clearly marked his defiance worldwide.
Then comes the story on crabs, told by Rajini in one scene. If one understands the crab story, then one can understand the climax where Rajini gets shot by one of his own men. Kabali throughout the film follows the words of Ambedkar – Educate, Agitate and Organise. He starts a ‘Free life foundation’ to reform youngsters and in the climax he discusses with youngsters on possible education facilities for them in the future. He agitates and fights for the rights of the oppressed Tamils on Malaysian soil. Both these things many have done but the toughest of all is organising. A community that organises itself with an unflinching unity is the community that can never be defeated. And Ranjith could have ended the film when Rajini kills the villain. But he ends it when one among his own shoots him. One could see the foreshadowing. He had earlier told the crab story, how the crabs fight among each other and never reach the top. He had already said that this was how the climax was going to be. He chose this climax because Kabali is more like a lesson. He is talking to the dalitbahujans, that we the Tamils or Indians split as OBCs, SCs, STs, and also SCs and OBCs split into many castes are fighting amongst ourselves without any of us progressing further at all. He shows what would happen if someone rises to be a leader from the oppressed community and that how he would be backstabbed by his own men. The climax is more like a lesson or a plea asking us to unite and organise, keeping in mind the possible danger. Through this film, Ranjith calls out for that unity. This is the implication of the climax.
Who will like this movie? Those who like Ranjith, those who wanted to see a different Rajini, those who are in favour of social justice, those who want caste to be annihilated. Who will not like this movie? Those who are Ranjith haters because of his caste; those who are Rajini haters, mostly the Tamil nationalists who call him a Kannadiga; those who are Rajini fanatics who love films like Baasha, Sivaji, Padaiyappa, etc; and the last interesting category is those who are Rajini fans but are hardcore casteists. Some would have disliked this film for its dalit assertiveness and dalit politics but would hide behind the claim that the film has poor screenplay, is slow moving and all that. This is a film that will be loved more only on the second watch. Once all the dust settles down, one on second watch will be able to look at the nuances of this film and shall definitely like it better.
As expected, the savarna media like the Hindu, Dinamani, Hindustan Times, Scroll, Wire, and certain YouTube reviewers and all other brahmin-savarna reviewers would have probably been shocked by the mention of Ambedkar’s name and so many dalit-assertive scenes. Especially the north indian brahmin-savarnas would be in utter shock because, naturally, in Bollywood most of the actors, directors, producers and crew are all only savarnas; the characters that they play, the backdrop, the families are all only savarna; the moment that they switch on tv, all the soap operas revolve around brahmin-savarna households only with the actors and their characters totally brahmin-savarnas; the news anchors that they see in the national news media are all brahmin savarnas; the sportspersons that they see and celebrate are all brahmin-savarnas. That being the case, to see a Tamil film, with India’s biggest superstar playing the role of a dalit, rising up to the top, beating his oppressors, speaking dalit-assertive dialogues, and hailing Ambedkar! Man, that must have been too much for their fragile caste egos. Good, be shocked.
Some say that Ranjith has not used the golden opportunity given to him of directing India’s biggest star Rajinikanth. No, Ranjith has used him brilliantly. He has used Rajini with his full permission to take his thoughts worldwide. Now he has made the whole world see what dalit assertion is. He has made the whole world hear the name of Ambedkar mentioned. This in itself is a remarkable achievement. Moreover Rajini has even performed as an actor after Mullum Malarum. Only Ranjith could do it after so many years.
Haters may say what they want, but Ranjith has clearly marked a place in the history of Tamil cinema. If one were to write a history of Tamil cinema or even Indian cinema, his name will definitely be mentioned. The early phase of Tamil cinema had films based on gods, puranas, in 40s and early 50s. It was full of songs and music. The next phase had films based on reality in which heroism was cherished. This was during the 50s and 60s. Acting was emphasised more. Legends like MGR and Shivaji dominated that phase. Then came the phase of Shridhar and Balachander in 70s. It was a phase of films based on urban households with middle class families. In both these phases, rich and poor divide was talked about, not caste. Caste would be hardly mentioned. But one could understand the caste of the characters. Each of these phases had a natural and gradual transition.
Then came Bharathiraja. What Bharathiraja created was not a phase but a wave. He took films based on village concepts. Ilaiyaraja and he flourished during this phase. Almost all those films spawning over a decade were based on village themes. This was from late 70s till early 90s. Caste was there but was subtle in these films. This was the age when BCs and OBCs based stories came as films. Then came the worst phase from the late 80s to early 90s, the casteist films like Thevar Magan (pioneer being the brahmin Kamal Haasan), Ejamaan, Chinna Gounder, Pasumpon, Bharathi Kannamma and others. All these films talked about caste pride. It was shamelessly blatant and least subtle. Then, post globalisation, many films were based on urban concepts. Mani Ratnam, Shankar and others flourished during this phase. Then the new age came in the early 2010s, when a wide range of young directors influenced by world cinema, took over.
This was when Ranjith came. What Ranjith has created now is like what Bharathiraja created in the 80s, a wave. Bharathiraja took films based on village concepts with all its subtleties and nuances. It was all natural. What Ranjith has done now is that he has taken films based on dalit households and their livelihoods in such a realistic and natural manner. Most of the films that have taken on caste in this country moved around inter-caste love stories. But Ranjith makes films based on dalits, their livelihoods, their families, their day to day lives, instead. He broke the stereotype of how dalits were earlier shown in films – speaking so-called ‘madras baashai’, drinking, uneducated and being troublemakers in the society. In his films, the dalits are educated, they fight for their rights, they are not saved by some savior from the upper castes, they stand tall on their own feet with their head held high with self-respect. All of his three films can be considered as World Cinema and surely belong in that category. Hope this wave produces more film makers and scripts from a dalit background.
Art is politics says Ranjith. Art exists as two forms, either as art for art’s sake, as an entertainment, or as art for conveying social messages, to kindle the consciousness of the masses. Ranjith follows the latter kind. Through his movies, he creates discourses on caste and inequality. He makes the untalked be talked about. Even those who do not talk about caste or do not care about its existence or not, are being forced to talk on caste by him and his movies. There lies his success.
One thing is sure though, more and more dalit assertion is going to follow from now. Earlier dalits worked in films behind the scenes, as some part of the crew, as some stuntmen, light men, and other minor roles. Then Ilaiyaraja came and broke it. He emerged as a top musician despite all odds. But he was not assertive of his identity. He had to do what he had to do to survive. But slowly, he opened the gates indirectly for more dalits to enter into the mainstream Tamil cinema, breaking the baseless prejudices. Now Ranjith has come, a new generation dalit has come who questions the system, he creates a discussion on caste, he makes the casteists cringe and the masses uncomfortable. This is the kind of dalits that the casteists hate. They are okay with dalits coming up to some extent but if he asks for more, raises voice against the system, talks about caste which they consider unnecessary – now that is going to be problematic. This is what reservation does. Reservation is a relaxation in this caste society. Because of this relaxation, someone from somewhere can come up and fight for equality and against the caste system. Casteists must get used to it.
Ranjith has risen to a position where he cannot be ignored any longer. He will be loved by one set and hated by another. Kabali has not the contribution of just one dalit, Ranjith alone, but many. Poets and singers like Kabilan, Umadevi, Gana Bala and Arunraja Kamaraj; Cinematographer Murali; Art director Ramalingam; and many others. But anyway, as I said before, this is a moment of celebration for all dalit-bahujans. The Blacks celebrated Michael Jackson and through his success they felt happiness and pride because someone from their community has risen to the top and become successful, so they felt his success as their own. So is the case with Ranjith. Ranjith is to be celebrated by us. Reviewing and critiquing are jobs of the savarnas, not us.
So let us celebrate Kabali.
Magizhchi. Jai Bhim.
Suresh Ravichandran is from Chennai and is an engineering graduate from Anna University.
Pictures courtesy: the internet.