Ambedkar-inspired Kabali is a film for our times, Rajini’s best in years
Superstar films, as a rule, don’t excite me. They are formulaic, relegate women and other characters to the background and frequently pander to the mostly male legion of fans with violence, sex and objectification.
As a result, despite growing up among Rajini’s admirers, I often skipped the pilgrimage to the cinema for his latest release, slipping away to a solitary afternoon of video games or clandestine teenage antics.
But I had barely settled into my seat when Kabali won me over: An incarcerated Rajinikanth reading My Father Balaiah, a poignant 2011 book by a Hyderabad-based Dalit professor on caste discrimination and untouchability.
Five minutes later, he delivers a stinging rebuke to his friend for suggesting that birds were caged for their own good and that they couldn’t handle freedom. “Your kindness is poison for those who are imprisoned,” he says, echoing sentiments by Black and Dalit liberation leaders for decades.
Kabali is a different Rajinikanth film, where the superstar is vulnerable, acts his age, takes wrong decisions and is saved by a woman.
In my theatre, the wolf whistles steadily decline after the opening sequence. His fallibility -- coupled with a kick-ass daughter who is the real action hero in the film -- has stunned the raucous male fans by interval. There is not the toxic swagger from Sivaji or the misogyny from Enthiran. Take a bow, PA Ranjith, for grounding Rajinikanth and freeing him from the cage of violent masculinity.
The director doesn’t pull any punches. Rajini fights for poor plantation workers, vowing to never work for the masters again if not treated as equal human beings. Rajini says he is not the Kabali who bows down before landowners.
How similar is this language to the thousands of protesting Dalits, especially women, in Gujarat who have vowed to keep off cow carcasses after humiliation and violence by self-styled cow protectors?
The resonance between the struggles of Gujarat’s Dalit population and Kabali and other workers in Malaysia’ tea plantations is striking - oppressed communities trying to fight for a life of dignity and respect.
Kabali comes at a time when India is being rocked by protests by Dalits demanding a break from centuries of caste oppression and violence. Rajini’s hero echoes their voices, mirrors their struggles against powerful, entrenched dominant communities and is a symbol of successful resistance.
Through the movie, the gangster with a heart-of-gold appears to consciously carry the weight of Dalit liberation and borrows liberally from BR Ambedkar’s philosophy.
He wears three-piece suits, contrasts Gandhi’s politics of austerity to the Dalit icon’s sartorial statement and tells his followers that, “Our clothes is our resistance.” Never has mainstream cinema reverberated so strongly with the ambitions and tales of India’s underclass.
Of course, there is violence, a dose of patriotism and a badly set up climax, but for me, all these were drowned by the clear articulation of Ambedkarite politics.
We live in a society where caste dictates how we live our lives, who our friends are, how far we get along in our professions and how we are remembered after our deaths. This spills over into popular culture and determines what books we read, what movies we watch and who gets screen space.
Watch the trailer of Kabali here:
As a result, mainstream bookstores don’t stock titles by Dalit writers, television studios have dominant caste experts discussing Dalit issues and movies such as Court get feted for merely mentioning caste.
All our film heroes are dominant caste males and our Dalit characters are labourers or dead people. We need newspaper articles to tell us that Kabali’s crew is predominantly Dalit because it is that rare. Or because their labour is erased, keeping with India’s tradition of exploiting backward castes.
In such a vitiated atmosphere, this move is a breath of fresh air. Through his covert and overt espousal of the Dalit liberation cause, Rajini’s character has become one of few mainstream figures to not shy away from what is one of the most important struggles of our times. Magizhchi (happiness) indeed, as Kabali says.