Kabali – Second Innings

So I was hugely disappointed after watching Kabali, first day second show. And then a day later, I watched Madras once again and then went to the theatre to re-watch Kabali. (I had already booked two separate shows in the overconfidence that I’d like the film enough to watch it a second time). Truth be told, I wasn’t exactly excited to watch Kabali again.

However, something very queer happened. I liked the film better the second time. Several scenes which felt odd and choppy the first time, felt a lot more coherent the second time around.

What happened the second time?

I think I’ve grasped the reason for it. The first time around, I was still following the plot in my head, the entire gamut of characters and the new backdrop of the film. The second time since I was already aware of who’s who and the overall direction in which the story’s headed, I could be in the moment and focus on the character’s emotions. Also, the first time around, with a fully charged crowd surrounding me, I was awaiting whistle-worthy moments. And hence I was getting disappointed whenever a scene that I expected to be whistle-worthy didn’t end up being so. But, the second time around, without any such expectations, I could get into the film and feel for Thalaivar, who was in search of his wife.

The main culprits

A lot has been said about the ineffectiveness of the villain. But, I feel there are three main culprits in this film and that’s the background score, the cinematography and editing. The second time around when I was emotionally more involved in the film, I felt at many places that I’d want the camera to linger on Thalaivar for some more time. But, it would quickly cut to the next scene instead. Like the shots of Kabali walking away from the security guard when he tells him his wife may still be alive, when Kabali walks away from Rithvika after she called him “appa”, when Kabali is seated in the car after Rithvika rebukes him for not taking care of his pregnant wife. These shots needed to be longer but like they were trimmed because they were on some kind of tight time restrictions.

I feel this was Santhosh Narayan’s worst background score so far. In Tamil, there’s a word “oppethified”. He has done exactly that with the “Neruppu da” tune, using it to patch up any hole in the film. In a couple of scenes, instead of having background score, he has tried to create the impact using diegetic sounds. One was the interval scene when Kabali is shot down in the middle of the road, the background score is the drums that are being beaten by performers near the road. And the other was when Kabali meets Loga to find out his wife’s whereabouts – the construction sounds form the bgm. These are good ideas, but I felt in many places that the background score was added just to fill up empty space. (One of my friends involved in Kollywood music making joked once that a producer thinks the music director hasn’t done any work, if he sends a scene without any background score or a minimal score. Hence, composers find the need to fill up every nook and cranny of the film with some tune or the other.)

The camerawork was also preventing us from getting closer to the characters. The scenes in which Radhika Apte appears, she directly talks to the camera as if we’re Kabali. It doesn’t work. I more curious to see the chemistry between Kumudhavalli and Kabali, when she spoke those lines. When a man loves a woman so much and misses her and yearns for her to be alive, and you show that woman talking to us directly but not to the man, then how would we get to know how much she means to that man? In fact, the very first scene in which we’re introduced to Radhika Apte as Thalaivar walks into his old house is shot as first person shots of Apte talking slightly off-camera and Thalaivar reacting slightly off-camera. This felt more like a gimmick than a genuine attempt to get us involved in Kabali’s mind. Because the shots were intercutting between Thalaivar’s first person angle and Radhika Apte’s first person angle, the scene didn’t have an emotional flow. I wonder how it would have played out had the whole thing been one continuous take without any cuts. The camera could have followed Thalaivar from behind him showing Radhika Apte talking to him as he walked across each room and then finally when he realizes it’s not real, we cut from behind him to his face. Kabali’s reactions as he walks from room to room, looking at his wife’s image is not necessary. He could have conveyed the same emotion with his body movement, the frantic way in which he walks from room to room, while we follow him with the camera from behind. This is just me being “mundhirikottai” and suggesting stuff but I strongly feel making the character talk directly to the camera absolutely didn’t work and prevented us from connecting with the emotion!

And then that grand zoom out shot, which goes from the interior of a house to show the house in the middle of a magnificent green garden – what was that? why is it in the film?!

And then John Vijay’s acting. When Thalaivar says he wishes to adopt Rithvika, John Vijay immediately says something like “Arumaiya senjudalaam!” It simply sounded inappropriate. And also the way he reacts when Thalaivar asks him to book tickets to go to India.

The problem with us – the audience

And then there are some problems with us – the audience too. I read through this article by a Malaysian Indian, detailing some of the problems faced by current generation of Malaysian Indians and how Kabali portrays it. However, when the film showed Kabali fighting against drugs, my brother exclaimed, “Dei! Idhellam evlo pazhaiya kadhai da? Padayappa laye bodhai ozhikkanum ellam pannittaare!” The problem here is that in Tamil cinema, drugs, prostitution and alcohol business has forever been portrayed as the business of the villain. It’s like basic qualifications you must have to become a villain. And as a hero, you must fight against it. Seeing this repeatedly has desensitized us to it. So when in a film like Kabali, drugs is portrayed as an issue, instead of us thinking that “Oh! So this is a real problem for youngsters in Malaysia today”, we simply think that “Oh! Kabali is good guy. Drugs are there in the film simply so that he can fight against it and show that he’s good.” As a result, the intended impact of the scene showing the youngsters in Free Life Foundation isn’t achieved. We don’t feel pity for them.

And due to some extra footage that must have gotten cut, the important fact that Tamilmaaran is Tamilnesan’s son gets revealed only when Tamilmaaran accosts Kabali at Ang Lee’s birthday party and not earlier. And Nasser as Tamilnesan is shown talking a few lines here and there. That’s it. From it, we’re supposed to get that he was a Tamil leader who wanted good for the people. This same kind of cuts technique is also used to illustrate to us how Kumudhavalli inspired her husband Kabali by giving him sound advice. And the same kind of cuts shows us Kabali’s hallucinations of his close ones at the dinner table. This technique in my opinion is not helpful at all in letting us emotionally connect with the characters shown. And emotional connect is much needed. When Tamilnesan dies, we’re hardly ruffled but Kabali is shown screaming on screen. These disconnects add up and finally bore the viewer into thinking that the film is slow.

And the fact that Kabali is excited at having met Tamilnesan also gets revealed after his meeting with him. Why is Tamilnesan Kabali’s idol in the first place? The film could have dwelt on that a bit. Mainly I would have loved to see a bit more of the flashback sequences.

But despite these flaws, for me, Kabali is definitely a much better film than Lingaa or Kochadaiyaan. It has captured with intricate detail the day-to-day lives of a section of people in a country. It has put their problems on record on a global stage. And it has broken several stereotypes of a Thalaivar film. It must be applauded for that. 

When I watched Madras I noticed how adeptly Ranjith had staged some scenes in it. The scene in which Karthi is talking with the heroine in a beach about his friend Kalaiyarasan and the mood shifts slowly from romance to revenge. And the scene in which Karthi feels the wall is haunted when his bike comes to a halt in front of it. These scenes alone are enough to prove to us that Pa.Ranjith is a filmmaker to be reckoned with. So whatever be his next film, I’m definitely going to be there, watching it eagerly.

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