Kabali: It’s Jazz; not pop-music

Kabali is a movie about a man struggling to come to terms with his past. It’s about a man whose serendipitous discovery of his daughter sends him on a quest to find a wife long thought dead. He just so happens to be an ageing, yet potent, gangster who can still come out of shootouts alive. He also happens to be Rajinikanth.

It’s Jazz; not pop-music

It is far from a James Hadley Chase and close to a Charles Dickens.

Unlike a typical Tamil movie (or any Indian movie, for that matter) the characters don’t always tell us what they are feeling, especially the lead, Rajinikanth. Instead the scenes convey the moods, be it tension stretched taut, a brooding melancholy or even a sense of portending that keeps you on the edge.

Santhosh Narayanan’s music is a ballad that flows across the entire movie like an unseen character. He pulls out the melancholy as well as the edginess often altering between them with such agility that you wonder how he pulled it off. Yet, he did. The movie is a very human thriller.

The music is subtle and fresh. Often, Tamil cinema has music that tries to convey in black and white, the mood of the moment. Bad, evil music for villains. Soft veena for a family moment. Here, there is none of that. The music adds to the suspense. Rajini’s own background score is often edgy and not bravado-esque as it so often is.

Strangely, the parts of the movie most derided by critics are the parts I loved the most. Kabali’s search for his wife, set amidst a background of looming danger to his life, is a sequence I’ve not seen in Tamil cinema before. The angst and nervousness he feels the night before he meets her and her reaction when she sees him were some of the most spectacularly powerful scenes I’ve seen in Tamil movies in the last several years.

Yet, through this entire quest is a tension sustained by Santhosh Narayanan and Ranjith working like a tag-team duo, Santhosh with his deep thumping EDM-drop like score and Ranjith’s crafty threading of multiple narratives in one scene. Everyone is a potential enemy. Who are your real friends?

In fact, that’s a recurring theme of the movie. Every scene is crafted to reveal at least two or more narratives. A plot transpires, there is some background being revealed and there is mood that is being built, all at the same time. In an industry where someone has to scream their feelings out and then later go and kill bad guys, the complexity of the scenes is astounding.

Kabali discovers and reunites with his daughter in the middle of a shootout. What a bad-ass set-piece is that? You are still reeling from all that when the scene abruptly shifts to the road where he spots the drug-addled girl from his foundation standing by the side. Three shots. His men and daughter running to him. Music stops and their voices echo in the stillness of the urban night. The camera work that is craftily framed and stylized in most other parts of the movie suddenly gets gritty. It sends a chill down your spine even though you know that Kabali is not going to die, of course.

The scene where Jeeva is murdered is a masterpiece. He’s lured and then bombarded with bottle missiles. The camera tracks a scared, furious young man, in the last moments of his life as he is attacked by guerrilla assailants who slowly come out of the woodwork. The camera rolls around and you track him down to the floor. Thump. Limbs askew, he starts to limp. Ranjith had channeled his inner Scorcese.

With Kabali, Ranjith has elevated Tamil Cinema. There is refinement of the highest level: the dreamy, surreal quality of Scorsese, the stylized build up and climax that is Tarantino-esque and even a touch of Chris Nolan in threading together narratives with a very human touch.

Every character is there to be noticed. Rajinikath has elevated himself to the levels we know he is capable of. Everyone else around him is competing for one-uppance. Radhika Apte is so real that you forget she’s acting. Dhanshika has created the most credible, non-tacky, strong woman character who is not embedded with any stereotypical flaws that Tamil movies always seems to plug for its women. There is John Vijay with his amazing presence and Attakathi Dinesh with a role so beautiful in its minimalism. Kabali is going to make him his protégé, you think. He is going to change him, you wonder. None of that. He comes, fills a role with such aplomb and goes when life runs out.

Kabali to me is a masterpiece. My only hope is that after the hype-period dies down, it will come to be appreciated for what it is: A movie that elevated Tamil cinema. Hats-off to Ranjith and Rajini for creating this.