Superstar Rajnikanth is unique in global cinema. Nobody else bestrides popular cinema in quite the same way. In 2016 he teamed up with a young and controversial Tamil director, Pa. Rajinth. The result was Kabali (India, Tamil 2016). As usual, that film tended to divide audiences with the suggestion that it might not have appealed to Tamil Cinema’s masses who worship Rajnikanth as the ultimate hero. Personally, I enjoyed the film, but I can see what might be the problem. Rajinth, according to Wikipedia, was influenced as a student by films like Battle of Algiers (Algeria-Italy 1966) and City of God (Brazil 2002) and his second feature, Madras (India, Tamil 2014), was a political drama based in North Chennai. Clearly, in Kabali, the politics were not foregrounded enough – and Rajnikanth played too complex a character for his fans. Kaala doesn’t suffer in the same way on either count.
Kaala takes on a host of political issues in contemporary India and I’m surprised that it has only, so far, been banned in one major market in Karnataka. It’s worth noting here that Rajnikanth has decided to do what his famous predecessors have done and move into politics. The attempted ban in Karnataka followed a statement Rajnikanth made about the decades long dispute about water from the Kaveri River which runs from Karnataka through Tamil Nadu (and Kerala). Or perhaps my surprise as an outsider perspective is not shared by many Indians? ‘Kaala’ or ‘black’ is the nickname of the Rajnikanth character. He is the leader of the Tamil clan in Dharavi, the biggest (and most famous) slum in Mumbai. These are Tamils from Tirunelveli District in Southern Tamil Nadu who migrated to Mumbai. In reality, the Tamils have been an important part of Dharavi since the 1920s and Tamil films have been set in the community before, notably Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan (1987) and Bombay (1995).
Kaala saw his father killed in Bombay and has fought to become the most powerful figure in Dharavi. As well as his close ties to his own Tamil community he has secured support from the whole area which includes migrants from different states. The local population is highly diverse with many dalits and a significant Muslim population, proportionately much bigger than in Maharashtra as a whole or the rest of India. Kaala was once a ‘rowdy’ but is now respected by all. At the start of the narrative his status is threatened by ‘Mumbai Pure’, a fascist-like organisation described as a ‘Nationalist’ political party (and waving orange flags like the BJP) which intends to take control of the slum, ‘clean it up’ (so it is ‘white and pure’) and redevelop the land. The film’s script draws on a long history of attempts to do this. Dharavi is now in the centre of Mumbai – highly desirable land that would command a high price for upper middle-class accommodation for those who currently face a long commute into the city.
The plot sees a personal confrontation between Kaala and Haridev Abhayankar (Nana Patekar), the Mumbai Pure leader, who has local politicians and police in his pocket. The ‘personal’ dimension refers to events long ago between the two men’s families. It is further complicated by a split in Kaala’s own family with his youngest son ‘Lenin’ opting for a different approach to improving the lot of Dharavi’s slum dwellers. When a local stooge for Mumbai Pure tries to demolish a washing area with police connivance, Lenin and his partner are there leading a peaceful protest. But it requires Kaala and his supporters to stop the police and the bulldozers. Lenin then brings in a specialist NGO worker who turns out to be an old flame of Kaala. She is Zareena (Huma Qureshi) and she presents another potential problem, this time between Kalaa and his wife Selvi (Easwari Rao). Lenin and Zareena attempt to find a ‘third way’ between Kaala and Mumbai Pure which will lead to development that helps the residents of Dharavi. But who knows best?
I enjoyed Kaala very much. Kabali had intrigued me because of its Malaysian setting. Kaala is, I think, a better ‘fit’ between Rajinth’s ambitions for a political film and Rajnikanth’s traditional role as hero for the masses. Reading some of the South Indian press reviews, I can see that there is a general feeling that the Rajinth-Rajnikanth pairing has this time got the balance right and in interesting ways. Rajnikanth is no longer the Superstar winning all the battles on his own. Instead he is ‘human’ – we first see him trying to cheat when he plays cricket with his grandchildren. His status is assured because he has helped his family members and others in the community to learn to fight for themselves – and he is prepared for them to argue with him, even if he still believes he has the right ideas. The community will triumph because his earlier actions have been revolutionary. At one point we even get the slogan ‘Educate, Agitate, Organise’.
I was also pleased to see three strong and differentiated roles for women in this action film. Huma Qureshi is perhaps under-used but Zareena is an interesting character as an educated woman with international experience and status gained through her work. Easwari Rao as Selvi is particularly good and has made a strong impression on audiences as an ‘older woman’ who can be involved in a romance. Rajnikanth the star actor rather than ‘Superstar’ spends much of his time arguing with his wife – and expressing how much he loves her. Anjali Patil as Lenin’s partner Puyal Charumathi is also excellent. It was only later that I realised Anjali Patil was one of the leads in Newton (India 2017) and one of the other leads from that film, Pankaj Tripathi plays an easily corrupted police inspector in Kaala.
There are many details in the dialogue, some of them seemingly playful ‘in jokes’ that collectively represent a certain kind of political text. Subtitles aren’t always the best way into the script but I noted a reference to Ilaiyaraaja, the legendary composer of Tamil film scores, including key Rajnikanth films. This links Rajnikanth to Tamil culture and its people (Rajnikanth was actually born in Karnataka). At another point someone jokingly refers to Kaala as being like ‘M.G.R’ – M. G. Ramachandran, the Tamil cinema superstar who became a leading politician and Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu from 1977 to 1987. This is in keeping with the film’s overall message – Kaala is a leader who will fight for the poor and the downtrodden. He makes the point forcefully that for the rich land is power (and money), but for the poor it is life. The central narrative is one that is crucial for all Indians. ‘Mumbai Pure’ is supposedly committed to helping the slum-dwellers, but in reality it will deliver wealth to the few. This is neatly symbolised when Abhayankar visits Kaala’s ‘castle’ and insults Selvi by refusing a glass of water. This is taken to be a refusal to drink from a vessel that might have been used by a lower caste person. Kaala is outraged and escalates the conflict but later he too will be humiliated when arrested.
Kaala is a long film (160 minutes) and there is a lot going on. I’ll just discuss a couple of further points. First, the plot is structured so that we get various action scenes and two sustained sequences, one leading up to the Intermission and a second which is longer and climactic (so the structural conventions of the masala film are still in place). In the first, Kaala finds himself trapped alone in his jeep on a flyover during a torrential downpour and armed only with his umbrella – quite enough for him to despatch several goons who approach him. This bravura sequence (which reminded me of Tony Leung as Ip Man in Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster (China 2013)) plays out to one of the several music tracks from Santhosh Narayanan. I’d like to show you the sequence but the best I can do is the soundtrack clip above which includes some still images of Rajnikanth in action in the rain. The film’s music is rock and rap-orientated. I was quite surprised by the rapping and by the Union Jacks on display. I’m completely out of touch with that music in the US/UK so I’m ‘twice removed’ in terms of Mumbai culture. Reviews suggest the score has been well-received.
The second half of the film becomes an extended symbolic play on the traditional battle between Rama and Ravanaan. ‘Kaala’ is black as Ravanaan, ‘The Demon King’, and Abhayankar is white for ‘Pure Mumbai’, but the moral positions are reversed – white is bad and black is good. The final battle is indeed epic. The Dharavi slum seems to have been recreated in a Chennai studio and cinematographer G. Murali Vardhan who also photographed the previous two films by Pa. Rajinth has used overhead shots (drones? helicopter shots?) to suggest the exploding world of Darhavi within the wider Mumbai landscape.
Rajnikanth deserves his superstar status. He is a fine actor and easily carries the film. I wonder how long he can continue at this level. Will the urge to go into politics divert him? Who knows, but we should support his films in the meantime. Pa. Rajinth is a director to watch. making a blockbuster film which organically incorporates fundamental political ideas is no mean feat. This will be in my list of the films of the year. One sobering thought about global film culture though – I was the only person in the audience in Bradford Cineworld (admittedly for a Sunday tea-time showing). The South Indian family behind me in the ticket queue were booking for Jurassic World.
Last week, more or less by accident, I attended back-to-back screenings of India’s top box office film, Kabali (India 2016) and Hollywood’s latest revamp of the Bourne franchise, simply titled Jason Bourne (US 2016). I’d wanted to see Kabali but Jason Bourne was an ‘impulse watch’, mainly on the grounds that Alicia Vikander and Vincent Cassel are two of my favourite stars. I’d seen two of the previous Bourne films and three recent Rajnikanth spectaculars. The result of this current contest between the action champions of the US and India was, for this viewer, an away win for Superstar Rajni.
Let me deal with Jason Bourne first. The return of Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass, this time with his regular cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (who first came to international attention as Ken Loach’s cinematographer), gave hope to fans of an action film par excellence. Vikander’s casting and that of Cassel matched earlier European casting choices. They were joined by Riz Ahmed in a Steve Jobs type role and the whole package had a very European flavour for a Hollywood blockbuster. Unfortunately, the script was left to Greengrass and his editor Christopher Rouse and they proved to not be up to the job. In truth, Jason Bourne is four separate action sequences somewhat loosely tied together by the familiar plotline of Damon’s character Bourne trying to find out what his own father did that started this whole chase scenario in which he is pursued by corrupt CIA officials. The novelty is that this time he might expedite a further release of Edward Snowden type secret materials – and in doing so create further problems for the CIA in its link to the surveillance potential of the Riz Ahmed’s character’s new software developments.
In the first major action sequence, Bourne is on the streets of Athens during anti-austerity riots. He’s meeting his ex-CIA ‘insider’ partner played by Julia Stiles. Bourne is in ‘drab’ but she has long flowing blonde hair – easily visible to the satellite cameras of the CIA back in Washington where Tommy Lee Jones and Alicia Vikander can track the couple’s every move and release ‘The Asset’ – the assassin played by Vincent Cassel. We never learn what the Greek riot was about (are audiences expected to know the details of Greece’s economic and political problems?), but various Greek bystanders are killed in the mayhem and the action moves to Berlin where Bourne and his local contact make similarly stupid mistakes. After that it is London and then finally Las Vegas. In each case, the main confrontation is between Cassel and Damon with the CIA mission being compromised by Vikander’s realisation that something may be amiss in what they are doing – or perhaps she has her own ulterior motives?
The action is indeed spectacular but by the fourth sequence it starts to get boring, though I perked up and genuinely laughed when a Police SWAT vehicle crashes into a Las Vegas temple to the fruit machine. In technical terms, the film is very efficiently made, but the script is full of holes. Bourne has no personality and I wanted the Cassel character, who unfortunately has no redeeming features, to end up with Vikander. Perhaps the oddest aspect of Jason Bourne is the BBFC entry on the film which shows a 12A Certificate and suggests that there is ‘moderate violence’. So, children can’t be harmed by multiple deaths by sniper bullets or beatings in which people are repeatedly hit to a sickening soundtrack. But there are no sexual encounters or drugs so children won’t be affected. The hypocrisy is staggering.
Kabali is, by comparison a lot less slick and at times quite slowly-paced, but it wins because of warmth and wit, because it is actually ‘about’ something and because it has Rajnikanth, genuinely a superstar, mainly in South India, but also in parts of the world with a Tamil diaspora and other surprising places such as Japan. Rajnikanth is now billed as ‘Superstar’ in his film’s credits. Now 66 he has appeared in some 200 films since 1975. His superstar status depends on his affinity with the ‘common man’ in the crowd (I’m not sure about his appeal to the ‘common woman’). Whatever trouble he is in, Rajni’s character will emerge and live to fight another day, mainly because of his lightning reflexes. Kabali reminded me of one of Rajni’s earlier successes as a gang leader in Mani Ratnam’s Thalapathi (India 1991). In the new film we meet Rajni as a man who has served 25 years in a Malaysian prison for a crime he feels he was not responsible for – and which was associated with the death of his pregnant wife. He is met at the prison gates by followers who have been waiting patiently for him – and building a school in his honour to train young Tamils in Malaysia who have ‘failed’ or lacked opportunities. But Rajni (Kabali) is a gang leader, albeit one with principles and political ambitions. Flashbacks reveal how he began as the leader of Tamil workers on rubber plantations in Malaysia, striking for better conditions. His enemies are other Tamil gangsters who resent his leadership and reject his political aims and Chinese gangsters led by Peter Lee (Taiwanese actor Winston Chao).
In some ways Kabali is a melodrama. Kabali is ruthless when he first emerges from prison, immediately taking down some of his Tamil enemies. But he is soon distracted by memories of his wife and begins to follow up clues to what really happened 25 years ago. Flashbacks take us into a family melodrama in which we learn of miraculous recoveries. Kabali still has a wife, but he will need to travel to the ex-French colony of Pondicherry to find her. He also has a daughter who emerges in true melodrama fashion – and he has surrogate sons from the school founded in his honour. But all this family business means that Kabali’s enemies have time to organise and the film’s finale will prove whether Kabali can still be a boss in Kuala Lumpur – which offers a cityscape of tall buildings to match any American setting. As one Hindi/Bollywood critic writes, this is indeed a ‘Southern pot-boiler’ but the emotion got to me. Rajni himself remains eminently watchable. He is now playing close to his age and the wig works very well – he looks cool and stylish as a don in his sixties. He dominates the frame and speaks commandingly and he can still use a gun and make his moves.
The release of Kabali in India has been a media event in itself – even outside the South. Kabali‘s producers claimed the biggest ever opening box office for an Indian film. Box office figures in India are always dubious and especially so in Tamil Nadu. Nevertheless the film has attracted huge crowds in the South and has been dubbed into Hindi, Telugu and Malay (where several scenes have been censored) and probably other languages too. In North America, the UK and Australia we are able to see the Tamil original with English subs. One of the most interesting Hindi/Bollywood reviews of the film suggests that Hindi dubbing is very poor for Kabali and that it loses not only Rajni’s great delivery, but also the political subtext of Tamil identity in colonial and post-colonial Malayan history. (Malaysia and Singapore with their significant Tamil diaspora communities are key audiences for Rajni films.) Another article commenting on Rajni’s status as superstar claims that no film script can contain him any more and that the his films will always fail for fans who have enormous expectations. (Rajni fans treat the star like a deity, making offerings to giant cardboard cut-outs of their hero and watching the films multiple times. His fans outside Tamil Nadu will fly in and purchase tickets at inflated prices to see their hero.)
Kabali is directed by Pa. Rajnith, one of the younger feted directors of Tamil cinema. Having not seen his first two films, I’m not sure how Kabali stands up to them. He seems to do an OK job and it’s good that Superstar Rajni can work with the new generation. But surely he can’t go on playing the same kinds of roles much longer? He can certainly act and it would be good to see him take on something new – perhaps something with less action and more politics. But I doubt his enormous fanbase would agree. One thing you can say about Rajni and Kabali is that apart from the Godfather references that helped to build Superstar Rajni’s persona, Hollywood has so far not produced anything to compete with him directly.
Even watching this classic Mani Ratnam film on a terrible DVD with a degraded image and Hindi dubbing couldn’t diminish its power. Thalapathi represents the ultimate in Tamil Cinema during the early 1990s. Director Mani Ratnam, composer Illayaraja and cinematographer Santosh Sivan combine to present the superstars of Tamil and Malayalam Cinema, Rajnikanth and Mammootty in an epic gangster melodrama.
The outline narrative is based on the Indian epic narrative the Mahābhārata. I can’t pretend to be able to explain how the connection is made, but it is mentioned by several commentators. The film’s plot sees a teenage mother abandon her newborn baby during the Holi festival. The baby is later found by children and eventually brought up by a woman in a poor community. Twenty-five years later, the abandoned baby is now a man, a child of the community and fast becoming its protector and moral conscience. This is Suraj/Surya (Rajnikanth). In defending a woman, Surya beats up man who eventually dies from his injuries. The dead man worked for the local crime lord Devaraj (Mammootty), who recognising his qualities recruits Surya. The two soon become very close, saving each other’s lives at various points and gaining control in a community who fear the (corrupt) police and the threat of rival gangs. Devaraj and Surya are criminal and violent in retribution but they support the members of the local community. Surya becomes the man to go to for help – the ‘Thalapathi’ of the community.
The new power regime is then threatened by the arrival of a new District Collector, a young man (played by Arvind Swamy, later to star in Roja and Bombay) who is determined to ‘clean up’ the city. It is at this point that all the coincidences of melodrama come into play. Everyone turns out to be related to one of the other characters in some way and cross-loyalties are inevitable. At the centre of everything is Surya’s hurt at still being an ‘abandoned son’. (He rationalises the action of the mother he has never known by saying that he was a ‘black baby’ that she didn’t want.) ‘Mothers’ become important characters in the narrative, both in a functional and symbolic way. The audience knows that the narrative can only be resolved by violence and death. (The connection to the epic is partly in relation to the cross-loyalties to friends and families.)
The high melodrama is played out in terms of music, compositions, colours and highly choreographed dance and fight sequences. I confess that in the first half of the film, I found Surya’s excessive violence to be deeply disturbing. It occurred to me that the character was rather like Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry – a fascist cop who was morally right but prepared to break every law and to punish the bad guys. I still thought this in part two but as the melodrama intensified, it did become more understandable if not more acceptable.
The real value of the film for me was simply to see Rajnikanth in action. This is his only Mani Ratnam film which seems a surprise. I can see why he is a superstar. He exudes charisma despite lacking the pale features, aristocratic face and toned body of so many Bollywood male leads and in this film sporting a mane of seemingly back-combed hair. Like the beefy moustachioed Mammootty, he could only be a superstar in the South. There is something warm and vulnerable about him. He cries and comforts small children quite naturally – and a moment later beats opponents to a pulp without blinking.
I’m wondering now whether I can bring myself to watch Mani Ratnam’s earlier Nayakan, another gangster epic starring the other Tamil superstar, Kamal Hassan. Like Thalapathi, this sees a working-class boy take on rival gangsters and the police in another massively successful film. But the DVD that I rented looks unwatchable, so perhaps I’ll look for a better copy.
The Top 10 films in the UK for the weekend of June 16/17 included two Indian films. At No 6 the Hindi film Jhoom Barabar Jhoom registered a screen average of over £5,000 from 47 screens. There is nothing unusual about this as Hindi films regularly feature in the Top 10. However, at No 9 Sivaji represents what I think is the first Tamil (i.e. ‘made in Chennai’) film to register. Not only is it in the Top 10, but from only 12 screens with a screen average of over £14,000 it was easily the best earner of the weekend, beating all the Hollywood blockbusters. I rate this the most surprising result I’ve seen in many years of logging the chart.
Sivaji stars the veteran (57 year-old) superstar Rajnikanth in a story about a software engineer who returns from America to attempt to set up a hospital for the poor. IMDB lists the film as being partly shot in all four South Indian languages: Tamil, Kannada, Telegu and Malayalam. Distributor Ayngaran is the only outlet for South Indian movies in the UK and it must be delighted by its success, which as far as I can see is based on screenings in Cineworld cinemas in London. I confess that the movie sounds like it will not necessarily be attractive to UK audiences not steeped in South Indian culture and it is possibly not subtitled. Nevertheless, this is a breakthrough in revealing to UK film pundits that actually South India produces more films and sometimes has bigger audiences than the Hindi film industry based in Mumbai (i.e. ‘Bollywood’).
Sivaji opened in 15 territories worldwide and the diaspora audiences in Malaysia and elsewhere propelled to number 15 in Screen International‘s worldwide chart.