‘Kabali‘ is about a gang leader of Tamil origin fighting for control of the underworld in Kuala Lumpur. Tamils have a huge presence in Malaysia and the history of the diaspora is long. In fact, it dates back to precolonial times when the Chola dynasty of South India invaded the archipelago in the 11th century.
What this movie attempts to do is to place Rajinikanth as a superhero fighting for ethnic pride in a nation made up of many communities, including a very large Chinese minority. Interestingly, he starts off as a trade unionist called Kabaleeshwaran,who argues on behalf of the rights of his community in the rubber and palm oil plantations of the post colonial period. Over the years, using a mixture of persuasion and violence, he becomes well known and displaces more powerful representatives of the Tamils in Malaysia.
The transition to a gang lord is sudden and not very convincing, but suffice it to say that he dramatically turns into the superhero we know well, the Rajinikanth who can dodge bullets and stun medical practitioners with his miraculous recoveries from grievous wounds. He is different from the other Dons in Kuala Lumpur in that he has a certain rough moral code and, like Don Corleone in ‘The Godfather’, refuses to deal in drugs and advises the other gang lords to avoid the lucrative business.
This positioning of Rajinikanth as a superhero in a foreign land is intriguing, but unfortunately the movie is made without any finesse and has very few moments of poignancy to remember it by. Just one scene, the reunion of Kabaleeshwaran with his long lost wife, Kumudhavalli (Radhika Apte), who he finds working at a farm in Pondicherry, has emotional resonance.
Which is a pity. Still, one line in the film is memorable. At the end, in inimitable Rajinikanth style, our superhero introduces himself as a very educated gangster. He hopes you can deal with that.