After many years, a man returns to his countrymen where he discovers a usurper has taken over and is abusing the already downtrodden community. Despite being labelled an outlaw, the man determines to fight the usurper, help his oppressed countrymen and reunite with his beloved.
While this could sound be a summary of the story of the outlaw Robin Hood, it is also the story of the 2016 Tamil film Kabali.
The oppressed are Tamil Malaysians. The outlaw is played by Rajinikanth.
Just as the original Robin Hood is difficult to trace, so is Kabali. Some trace Robin Hood's namesake back to Robert Hode (1225), Robert LeFevre (1261), or Roger Godberd (1267) while the character Kabali has been said to be loosely based on Kabaleeswaran from Chennai or S.A. Ganapathy of Malaysia. But just as there is reason to believe the name "Robin Hood" was more of an alias than an actual person, it seems so is name Kabali. In a Telugu Cinema interview, director Pa. Ranjith explained:
Usually, 'Kabali' is a term associated with goonish behavior. But in my film, I am projecting Kabali in an entirely positive light. There is a low-class ring to the word. The title is justified because in the story, Rajini sir's character grows up to be a saviour of the ethnic Indian labourers facing hardships in Malaysia. Kabali transforms into a don to fight for their cause.
As the gangster Kabali, Rajinikanth is a highly respected leader of Gang 00 who uses his wealth to fund rehabilitation opportunities for Tamils living in Malaysia who are drawn into the world of drugs and prostitution. He faces off against rival Gang 43 and their leader Tony (Winston Chao) who have encroached on Gang 00 operations and hurt Kabali and his family.
Because it is a gangster film, Kabali doesn't shy away from the requisite shootouts, stabbings and other violence. This time the bloodshed is wrapped up on a thriller mystery revenge drama that creates a sympathetic gangster and once again shows why Rajinikanth continues to rule at the box office.
If you are new to Bollywood, here are five takeaways from the film.
1. An Ode to Rajinikanth
Kabali is clearly a Rajinikanth film. Kabali's introduction, his statements about self, and his fan following all reflect Rajinikanth's superstar standing. Just like Rajinikanth's persona, Kabali is big, bold and powerful.
As Kabali, Rajinikanth easily steps into the shoes of a seasoned gangster trying to protect his business and family from his enemies. His maturity gives Kabali the strength to hold on to the top spot in the game with all the tricks of his trade.
Add the Robin Hood-esque vibe with an impeccable dress for success wardrobe and you can't help but cheer for this gangster who seeks to regain what he lost and repay those who set him up all while fighting for the rights of his community.
Many Indian films celebrate the youthful first blush of true love.
Fortunately, this is not one of those films.
Though separated by events for more than 25 years, Kabili speaks of his beloved wife as if they have always been together. His is an established and dedicated love that transcends time and distance. Kabali's love story is not "'til death do us part", but "happily ever after".
The story goes beyond the unending love of husband for wife to embrace the love of a parent for child. It also shows a love for the unfortunate, the powerless, the needy.
The fact that this love is wrapped up in a story of vengeance and violence makes the moments of shared love all the more powerful.
3. Musical Masala and Mayhem
The music for this film isn't your standard Bollywood fare.
First, this is more of a film soundtrack than a musical.
Second, this is a Tamil film. Tamil music by its nature tends to be a bit more youthful and on the cutting edge.
For Kabali, music director Santhosh Narayanan creates a soundtrack with strong beats and driving rhythms that reflects the controlled chaos that Kabali unleashes upon enemies and obstructionists. Even the love songs of the film include powerful pulsating rhythms.
The inclusion of rap elements in several of the songs help connect Kabali to the youth he supports. The addition of a Sholay-style whistle reminds us this gangster is the good guy.
The song "Neruppu Da" ("He's on fire") puts the "super" in superstar and the slo-mo in his step. Rapper Lady Kash released a popular cover of this cool theme featuring the original singer, Arunraja Kamaraj, in a special guest appearance.
4. Portrayal of Indian Malaysian Issues
More than 7% of the nearly 30 million people residing in Malaysia are Indians, of which 90% are Tamil.
Kabali immerses its story in the underworld of gang violence in Malaysia and the need to provide opportunities for Indian Malaysians.
A 2014 Al Jazeera documentary highlights the impact of poverty and alienation on Malaysian Indians. According to the report:
A look into Malaysia's history reveals why many Indians, once the bedrock of estate agriculture, have been turning to crime. Many of them worked in rubber plantations after they migrated here during British colonial rule. For generations the estates provided hundreds of thousands of Indian families with housing, jobs and schools, but all that changed in the 1970s. New economic policies saw private companies take over the estates, replace rubber with oil palm, and hire cheaper foreign labor. Some plantations were developed into townships. Today, within one generation, most estate Indians have been forced into urban centers, leaving them unskilled and trapped in poverty.
In his Detailed Explanation of Kabali Movie, Indian Malaysian Visithra Manikam praised the realistic portrayal of the history, culture and concerns of Indians born and raised in Malaysia:
Pa. Ranjith has created a brilliant movie which is very much a gift to the people of Malaysia (which appears in the credits). The movie is a realistic fiction that takes into account historical issues as well as current issues and put so many things into one movie, while staying commercial, and politically safe. ...The movie spans different incidents and parts that took place in the last 70 years or so. Pa. Ranjith has taken bits and pieces of actual history and incorporated them into his characters and story.
However, Manikam also points out:
Gangsters leading the change and fighting for rights which is the basis of Kabali is a fictional element to create continuity in the story.
In order for the film to be released in Malaysia, the Film Censorship Board of Malaysia required a different ending to the film. In The New Indian Express, Sharanya Manivannan writes:
The Malaysian release has a different ending, with Kabali submitting to authoritarian pressure. Like every compromise (and there are many) made in this film, it was worth it. Because if the director hadn’t made them, it simply couldn’t have been released there. And there is where it is most needed, among people who deserve to see themselves in truthful, powerful pop cultural lights. The political coding may be deep, but so is the healing that art makes possible.
The Malaysian Digest went one step further and interviewed Malaysians who watched Kabali and found that the film resonated with viewers:
...the movie did get Malaysians talking and discussing about racial stereotypes and its link to socio-economic issues unique to Malaysia, perhaps achieving in that 2 and a half hour more than years of history lessons in school could in the minds of Malaysians.
5. Box Office Robin Hood
Kabali is reported to have the biggest-ever opening for a Tamil film. According to The Hindu, producer Kalaipuli Thanu estimated the film "grossed around Rs. 320 crore (US $4.8 million) at the worldwide box-office in its opening six days."
While that is good news for the Tamil film industry, it is interesting to note that the prices at the local box office outside Washington, DC were significantly higher for the Kabali opening weekend - $27.00 dollars (Rs. 1800). This is more than twice the standard $12.00 price (Rs. 800) for any other film. The theatre manager explained that this higher rate was standard practice set by South Indian film distributors - something we don't generally experience with Bollywood films.
If this pricing strategy is true worldwide, does this artificially inflate the opening weekend gross figure? Does it indicate people are willing to pay a higher price to see a Tamil film on opening weekend? What constitutes a true reflection of the film's popularity?
Whatever the purpose, the opening weekend ticket price leaves Kabali distributors smiling all the way to the bank.
The following playlist features the teaser, trailer and more from the film Kabali along with an AJ+ documentary about Indians gangs in Malaysia.
If you like this, please share, leave a comment and check out our other posts.