KABALI: (if u aren't indian, this is a Tamil (South Indian) action film)
31st july 2k16, by Shashi Wilson Joshi & Zarina xoxox
PS: emoji summary has been temporarily suspended bc this film was too mad for me to try giving it 3 emojis.
I think this is a difficult review to write, not only because I imagine that not many of you White Pube readers are familiar with Bollywood's visual language, let alone that of Tamil action films (I'm barely used to it myself tbh), but Kabali was a minefield of political issues that I couldn't possibly cover sufficiently with all the time and space in the world. So I know this will be difficult for me to write, and possibly even for you to read. Having said that, I want so badly to make sense of this film for myself, because, through writing for TWP, I have started to think and make sense of things through writing. By making my thoughts into words, I make them cogent and solid to myself. Writing helps me to form opinions. And most of the time, i end up writing about how these things make me feel or how i experienced them. but i think this review will be more traditional. i want to make sense of what happened by putting all the things that happened out on a table and like, trying to connect them, or make them sit well next to each other. It’s important to say, that my boy wrote this review with me, and a lot of my understanding of this film is informed by his vast knowledge of Indian cinema, but if you want a proper in-depth, nitty gritty, unconfusing, breakdown-review, you should go to this page because this review will make only as much sense as the film did tbh.
I want to start with some background (click this if u don't know who Rajinikanth is) bearing that stardom in mind, we have to also bear the importance of an actor as a real life person within a film where he's pretending to be another person in mind. (read this about stars being important as actors) On top of all of this, is the meaty context of the film. The film is set in Malaysia, and tells the story of Kabali, a Tamil man who is kind of a figurehead of the Tamil community there. Now kiddos, u have to understand that South India has a long history of Communism. Not the politics of u lefty liberal Corbynistas, hardcore actual C O M M U N I S M. Not Communism Lite, real land distribution, political turmoil. And as well as that, a huge part of the context was the very fact of the caste system in India. The politics of caste presents itself as a subtlety. It sits under the skin of the film; you can’t see it clearly, but you can feel it underneath the skin like a splinter or an implant. Caste and Class are almost interchangeable terms in this film. I think class/caste is an important part to rest on, because it informed a large part of my reading and understanding of this film. I saw it as a Commie allegory. A weird melodrama re-telling. The figures of Communist history transplanted.
Kabali is a man imprisoned (wrongfully, I assumed) for years and the film starts as he is set free by the Malaysian Government. He relives, through a series of flashbacks, the lead up to his imprisonment. He was a figurehead for the rights of Tamil plantation workers in Malaysia under British control. He demanded equal wages for equal work for Tamil workers being mugged off by the British rulers who were paying Chinese workers more for the same job. He is dramatic, demanding, he is a clear unquestionable, grass-roots-activist/leader. Then, it's unclear who the figures who approach him are; they r higher ups. Tamil too, but we don't know who or what they are. They are powerful though. We know that. The figurehead of their kabal is chaotic good, we understand that he operates outside of the law (throughout the film, the law is an interchangeable term for Capitalism, and gangster-lyfe is glamourised as an alternative, a way to escape Capitalism’s pre-requisite structures. Operating outside the law becomes a way for us to understand that they also operate outside of Capitalism). This higher-up, this chaotic-good man is a Lenin. Kabali becomes his Trotsky. He is given power within their Gang, he becomes more than just a grass-roots-activist/leader, he becomes a kind of father figure to a community that’s disenfranchised. He becomes Lenin-figure’s right hand man, his go-to-guy. But. Then, the Lenin father figure dies, and Kabali/Trotsky is given the reigns of power to the Gang by the P E o P L e, the disenfranchised community he serves. But this doesn’t Sit well with Lenin-figure’s son; who in my mind is a half-parable Stalin. He gets drunk, goes off at Kabali, throws caste based insults at him (an important thing to note, i think). He betrays Kabali at a temple. The Stalin-figure and his henchmen gang up on him, and a one-man-against-the-horde sequence half-ensues and Kabali slaughters all the henchmen, but he is cut short when the Stalin manages to capture Kabali’s wife; he slits her throat (we think). Kabali kills the Stalin-figure, the only hole I see in my weird Communist-history-re-telling-allegory. He is left surrounded by approximately a million bodies as the police arrive, and put two-and-two together (that Kabali killed everyone and is a crazy serial-killer). He is imprisoned. The rest of the film is his return to power; Kabali has to fight the rest of the Gang, controlled by the Stalin-figure’s manipulator (arguably, another Stalin-figure, 2.0). The Gang has now flipped, switched from chaotic good to chaotic evil. They’ve started importing drugs into Malaysia, an industry they control. And at this point, I believe the plot descends into a kind of madness I’m unable to make sense of. (Shashi: if u r reading this and can make sense of it, please try, but if not, that’s all ur getting in terms of plot-summary, because if he can’t explain wot happened next, then quite frankly, no-one can.) (Shashi says: Basically after he comes out of prison, the streets of Malaysia have been flooded with drugs and prostitution by a new rival gang, two things that he made sure to steer clear from even as a criminal. So then it becomes his mission to CLEAN UP THE CITY and make sure all the Tamil peeps r ok. enuf spoilers now, go see the movie losers.)
After the plot, the film then sits in a stew-ey kind of context-soup of the ritual of cinema in India. Ppl always say, cinema in India is just entertainment, that we don’t have a history of realist-populist cinema, or any kind of crossover between those two things, like Hollywood does. Like in Hollywood, the films that win Oscars are seen by a lot of people, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t complex, they don’t necessarily speak down to people. But perhaps that comparison doesn’t understand the way cinema works in India. In india, cinema is the prime-mass media that we have. It’s more powerful than advertising. It’s almost like the news. Movie stars are pop-stars. There’s a great deal of human truth in the very indian melodrama that presents itself in cinema. So it becomes important to see the film on the day it’s released. It becomes important to actually GO to the cinema in the first place, rather than just stream it or watch it on torrents. Cinema becomes something that’s experienced as well as something you watch. My experience of watching Indian films is significantly less passive than watching Western films. There’s a kind of active engagement expected. When the hero appears for the first time on screen, ppl cheer and clap. When a song comes on, and it’s a banger, like a fuckin tune, people get up and dance. You feel the action sequences as a kind of catharsis, they are emotive in a way that’s visceral; YOU feel some kind of justice from the villain getting fucked up.
When we were talking about the film afterwards, my boy said something that almost made sense of this film. If you want to kind of break down if it was a successful film (with success as a weird abstract kind of term or measure), you can break it down into 3 questions:
was it nicely structured, discernible narrative, logical sense? (no)
was it culturally important? can it be unpacked in some way? (yes)
was it financially successful? (yes)
This film is important, it’s the first time ppl are speaking about Rajnikanth as an actor for literally years, no one’s bothered to ask if he can play character roles, EVER. (Mainly because no one wants to see that, it’s enough to see him walking around, being badass, fucking ppl up.) Cinema used to be more openly political, less about making money, more about making votes (especially in South Indian cinema, where actors often become politicians). So Rajnikanth has played more Dalit characters in the past. But the politics of caste were re-figured into something else, something new and strange that i didn’t know the shape or taste of. The politics of the oppressed, wherever they’re from, is always about anger. Righteous anger. And i don’t think this was the anger ppl thought it would be. Normally in acton films, especially populist ones, u can cheer during the fight scenes, but in kabali they weren’t cathartic in the same way they can be. normally the fight scenes, where someone’s about the fuck someone up, it’s like a climax.
During the interval, Shashi turned to me and said: “I feel like this film is embracing its own grey-ness. it’s all concrete and all industrial and like hot and dusty”. I’m not sure if he meant a visual kind of grey-ness, or a metaphorical kind of grey-ness, but either way, it was both. It presents a grey-ness to you instead of delivering a singular message, it just throws little assorted scraps. It’s not a bad thing, grey areas are nice. And maybe it’s good that it’s NOT a stable form, like a polemic. Maybe it’s good that Kabali takes on a more unstable form, one of non-singular narrative, of many threads, none of which are certain. I’ve always liked that kind of uncertainty in things, I think it makes them more authoritative, more true. I trust them more, the grey-er they get.
While I was writing this review, Shash looked over my shoulder and said: "You can’t watch this without context. it’s like a mad 18th century poem u read in GCSE English and r like “wot the fuck r they on about”. And then u read loadsa books around it and r like “oh, i get it, that’s quite good u know”” which might sound mad, but i think it’s true. And i think a specific kind of problem has been raised with the language or syntax in which a film conveys message. Because (without flattening or trying to oversimplify Indian politics and particularities) the shifting or like expansion of indian politics at the moment means ppl might not understand the politics, or problems or even context, of ppl 3 miles away from them. Audiences are now split down the middle between un-educated, un-westernised, and ppl born and raised in india, but with english as their first language. This split is characterised mostly by city/village, and it is a class issue, and it is an issue. And now, these ppl have to watch the same movie, so now cinema has to speak in two voices at the same time. And i think that this becomes a whole new kind of game when it comes to films like this; they have to be fuckin gr8 with ppl getting punched and flying through a glass table etc etc but you also have to be able to unpick them, and pull at threads and unravel things u didn’t expect.
Kabali’s reception has been a particular one; people were literally wetting themselves with excitement, they were flying people in to Chennai to watch the film, they put Rajnikanth’s face on the side of a fleet of commercial jets, it was a big fucking deal, ppl were queueing round the block for tickets in bloody OMAN. But then it came out, everyone saw it and was like: ‘wot the fuckin hell is this??’ they didn’t knowhow to process it because it was too big to fail, but it didn’t hit the right spot, it hit a funny bone and things reverberated but it felt weird and tingly and strange. But then after that, something that doesn’t really happen, started happening. Normally, when the Indian hive mind has decided, that’s it. Last word. it’s decided. But people have been shifting round, coming to feel the reverberations as funny and strange, but also worth acclimatising to. Ppl have been tweeting, asking why ppl are trying to dissect the film. Saying it was an EXPERIENCE, like Diwali or Eid, you don’t post-rate it, saying ‘oh, it’s better/worse than last year’. it’s just a party, it was fun and u enjoy and experience it; that’s why there are so many ppl outside queuing for tickets on the first day. It’s a visceral, and maybe even liminal thing. And maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not, maybe we should post-rate it and feel the lumps and splinters under its skin. But the notion of Cinema being experiential isn’t a new thing for Indians. It’s been like that for literally decades. What’s new and strange for me, is the feeling that it can still be like that, and also be a multitude of other things. It was a grey kind of anger, an anger of subtlety. It was strange, and it felt uncomfortable at times; but maybe that’s good. Maybe that means that sometimes, a thing shifts and it's not always comfortable right away. When you sit on your leg for too long and then move it, all the blood rushes back into it, and it feels like you’re literally going to die from the pain, but then you acclimatise and it’s fine and you’ve got a new, fresh leg. Maybe that was the uncomfortability here?
Ultimately, being able to just sit through the thing is enough of a commitment, enough of an achievement. If u sat through it, enjoyed it and engaged with it then maybe that’s enough. Shashi used to watch every. single. damn. Indian. film that came out, and ended up checking his phone in some of them. But he says, if ur gonna watch it, you should be engaged, you should like it. If it keeps u engaged throughout the three hours, if u don’t sit looking at ur phone throughout it, it’s a kind of success; and i think, a fourth kind of marker of the abstract success we tried to break down earlier. I think this review has been like pulling teeth. i know i think things about this film, but I don’t know what they are. I don’t know if it’s just that Shashi gassed it up so much, and then I saw it and was like “wot the fuck have u shown me, we were meant to be on a fun date night, and we r watching this madness”; or if it was that it genuinely poked at the part of my brain capable of critical thinking as well as the part of my gut that wants to see an asshole who deserves it get fucked up, the part of me that wants to see justice, karma, whatever. One thing I know for sure is; when me and the boy go to see a film, we talk about it on the train home, and normally, that’s it. We’ve worked through what we thought about it, he’s read someone’s review of it, and we decided our thoughts, heard the other’s thoughts and settled on that. We’re talking about something else by the time we get home. We are still talking about Kabali a week after we saw it. And maybe that’s just because we’re writing about it; but we do still have things to say about it, i’m still not sure what I think, and we still haven’t settled on it. And normally me writing these reviews means I resolve my opinions through the act of writing them down; but after writing this review, I am not even sure if i have an opinion, let alone what it is. I’m not entirely sure what that means, but it means something.