It might be difficult to blank out all the hype, hoopla and hero worship surrounding Rajinikanth's Kabali. When you have giant cutouts of the man being worshiped in front of theaters and near riots at ticket windows, it is difficult to separate the man from his films. And yet, when you do, Kabali emerges as a middling film, whose aim seems to be to milk the man and the phenomenon as much as possible.
The aging superstar plays the eponymous crime boss, out of prison after 25 years of incarceration. His former rivals, the 43 gang led by Chinese mafia leader Tony Lee are out to kill him, but Kabali slips away every time. We are told he is a gang leader, but somehow his crimes aren't serious. The 43 gang, on the other hand, are villains because they deal in drugs and the flesh trade. What Kabali and his cabal deal in, we are never told.
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Instead, director Pa Ranjith focuses on promoting his leading man as a plantation worker who rose to dizzying heights. No matter how ill-gotten his wealth, he uses it for a good cause - running a school for victims of drug abuse, and fights for the rights of poor plantation workers. He wears a perfectly tailored suit at all times, telling another character: "Why should they (landlords) be the only ones to dress well?"
In one of the film's most significant scenes, Kabali sits on a couch before his Chinese rival and says: "When one of us becomes rich, wears a suit and sits cross-legged in front of you, you cannot stand it".
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But this symbolism is fleeting. Kabali is focused entirely on building up Rajinikanth and his persona. Everyone else in the film, including Radhika Apte, who plays his wife Kumudhavalli are peripheral and incidental to the story. Rajinikanth rises from the dead many times, single-handedly kills an army of men and whips out lethal weapons out of nowhere.
And yet, the super-stardom is not as obvious as before. The 150-minute screen time is devoted to melodrama and peripheral characters, all of whom try to build up the invincibility of the hero. But Rajinikanth looks far from invincible. The swagger that was there in Enthiran is missing, his age is evident, and the trademark dialogue is too sporadic and fleeting to make an impact.
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As a tribute to a demigod of cinema, Kabali doesn't need anything but Rajinikanth on screen for it to work. As a film though, it falls short on many levels, and no amount of hero worship can cloak that fact.
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