Like everyone else, I watched Kabali too. After long I was looking forward to a Rajnikant film and its associated frenzy. I was expecting a typical masala movie (I had NO prior idea of Pa Ranjith’s filmography). But then Kabali was something different. It is a film about a Malaysian Tamil man, a labourer, who rises to become a leader of the Tamil community and eventually becomes a don.
When I was watching the film, I thought that it was very interesting that the film had Ambedkar references throughout. To have Rajnikant’s character talk about the importance of dressing up well in suits was powerful but so were the subtle references to people living in an Ambedkar colony in Chennai. But post-interval, I was bored and restless. Moreover, the gory violence put me off. I also felt that the character of Tony Lee (villain) was no match to the persona of Kabali. Meanwhile, I remember coming out of the theatre a tad bored wondering how the film would have turned out if it was tightly edited. I promptly came back and posted my opinion on FB too. I felt my opinion being validated since many people on social media echoed my views about it being a poor film.
However, I was curious to know about Dalit community’s reaction to the film. So, I started looking up the profiles of members of Dalit community that I regularly follow on social media. Everybody seemed to be going gaga over the film. They spoke praises about how Rajnikant’s powerful dialogues about Ambedkar. Nobody spoke about the fact that the film was slow; that it gets boring after a point of time. They also vented their anger against the mainstream media and people from savarna communities for dissing the film. It was puzzling for me as I wondered why they weren’t seeing what I was. Turns out it was I, who couldn’t see.
To explain my point, I am taking the liberty to share a Facebook post of Gaurav Somwanshi, whose public posts I follow.
“I won’t stop talking about ‘Kabali’, get used to it or unfollow/unfriend. I felt the full power of a metaphor, a symbol, an icon, all of that I felt it while sitting in the houseful theatre of Aurangabad watching a Tamil movie in theatre for the first time and witnessing the moment when all the theatre fell dead silent on hearing Rajnikant speak of Babasahebs name. Assertions are common all over the country but one may not be necessarily aware of the ones from other places, like many of us are still pleasantly surprised over Gujarat’s fight back.
So was Tamil cinema for many of those present in the theatre in Aurangabad. And symbolism had recently been introduced to the Marathi audience via ‘Fandry’ and ‘Sairat’ and had caused immense churning of repressed minds with their arrival on the theatre, mine included, but ‘Kabali’ was something else altogether. The comparison isn’t just because both movies have shown caste realities and is made by Dalit/bahujans but because of their timing too.
In ‘Fandry’ and ‘Sairat’ you would see the icons of Babasaheb and Phule couple at the backdrop of a scene where something is happening, and you were supposed to make out the contrast. This was in itself something new to the audience. Because what we see on our home walls and our colony streets rarely ever makes to the theatre or the TV screen, if ever. And now it did.
But still. I wrote in my marathi review of Sairat then that art can be a mirror but also a hammer, and the ‘entry’ of caste realities into the movie world need not always be the victim route, but also the heroic route, the struggling route, the conquering route. I felt that absence strongly.
When Rajnikant says that dialogue about the politics of wearing Dhoti and Suit by Gandhi and Babasaheb respectively and the rebellion contained in the act of wearing the suit, oh my god. Yes, just oh. my. god. The theatre was so overwhelmed that there was pin drop silence and then exchange of smiles to strangers to my right and left and back (shocked faces made my smile even broader).
The analogy of crabs not wanting others to succeed, the dialogues on claims to equality hurting them, the indefatigable spirit carried in Thalaivar’s suit, Babasaheb’s portrait in a reformative school and Buddha in the classroom, and so many more, all of them made me come out of the theatre a more positive person, with more faith in the movement than before, and also the desire to get my suit ironed.
Jai Bhim to Pa. Ranjith.”
I don’t know of any film (with an exception of Fandry and Sairat) that talks about caste and Dalit assertion in a way that Kabali does. I should confess that I have a poor knowledge of Indian language cinema in general. So I might be wrong in this regard. But then it’s hard to ignore the dominance of privileged caste and class narrative that surrounds Indian cinema overall.
It hit me that while I kept cribbing that the film was slow, boring etc. the people from the Dalit community were seeing something different. As I read more, I learnt more. Scores of people were seeing themselves on the big screen, in a heroic way, maybe, for the first time. They saw a massively popular star mouthing lines that were not merely dialogues alone. They saw symbols that they grew up with on screen with a huge star legitimising it. They saw their lives and values being echoed by a film- something that others saw as well. Maybe for them, it was not a mere Rajnikant film. It was a film that held a mirror to their values, their struggles, which was being legitimised by a popular star. It CANNOT be a mere film for them, no? Also, most importantly, this film was made by members of their own community. This was a story being told by one of them.
What happens when one sees oneself being depicted on the big screen? What happens when we know the way we’re being represented is being seen by others as well? What happens when we know others are ‘seeing’ us the same way we’re seeing ourselves? The reactions of the Dalit community answer these questions. To see and to be seen on such a large scale can be exhilarating. To have one’s experience validated through mass media can also be cathartic. Especially when it has been systematically ignored and stymied by our popular films.
Watching Kabali has been a humbling experience. It’s a reminder that my Savarna Brahmin background permeates into my unconscious and that there are some things I will never understand. While I still think that the film was stretched in many places, and that it was boring, it doesn’t matter. Especially when I see that the film is doing something bigger for a lot of people. That’s a hallmark of a good film too. And we all need to acknowledge that.
Some other pieces I’d recommend reading: Dhrubo Jyoti’s response