Rajinikanth stands tall as an actor

Indian superstar's latest film Kabali is his best in years



153 minutes/Now showing/3.5/5 stars

The story: After 25 years in a Malaysian prison, an ageing gang leader Kabali (Rajinikanth) is released and takes revenge on a rival gang helmed by Tony Lee (Winston Chao), the man who had framed him and taken his family away from him.

While an entire generation would associate superstar Rajinikanth with memes - the infallible man who lights cigarettes with a gun and handles cobras with his bare hands - Kabali is the first of his films in a long time that shows off the superstar as a proper actor.

He plays the everyman who rises from the masses, a Malaysian Tamil plantation worker Kabaleeshwa- ran, who is sick of the way his people are treated like second-class citizens.

A group of Malaysian fans taking a wefie with a cut-out of Rajinikanth as the movie hits screens worldwide.  PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

He becomes the protege of a good gangster Tamilnesan (Nassar) who eschews drugs and prostitution, and rises through the ranks, much to the ire of a rival group helmed by Lee. Kabali is then framed in a massacre, in which he sees his pregnant wife Kumudhavalli (Radhika Apte) die, and is put in jail under false charges.

After his release, Kabali, the ageing don with a good heart and a magnificent grey beard, returns to battle Lee, who is now a drug lord.

The film certainly has elements of a Rajinikanth blockbuster and it has set off a frenzy in India and threatened to overload the Cathay Cineplex online ticketing system in Singapore. But, unusually, it is also grounded in realism. For starters, he is finally playing a man his own age, 65.

And the almost unimaginable happens - he is shot and bleeds. This might test the rabid Rajinikanth fans who think of him as indestructible, but it is refreshing to see him playing a character exhibiting weakness.

Melodrama is toned down too in favour of an unexpectedly powerful love story between Kabali and Apte's Kumudhavalli in the flashbacks.

She holds her own against the superstar, tempering his largerthan-life screen presence with an assured grace, even bossing him around as the doting wife.

Uncharacteristically for a Raji- nikanth film, there are no slick choreographed routines or elaborate dance productions, save for a blink-and-you-miss-it dance that he busts out during a Tamil hip-hop number, in a celebratory scene at a school Kabali runs for children on the wrong side of the tracks.

But, of course, the film-makers cannot resist some fan service. There are the trademark catchphrases, killer monologues delivered with machine-gun rapidity and even multiple slow motion shots of the actor descending the stairs in slick three-piece suits.

Helmed by director Pa. Ranjith, who was also behind 2014 political drama Madras, the film takes a stab at addressing social issues.

Throughout the film, Kabali addresses caste and class and the rights of Tamil migrants in Malaysia. In an impassioned exchange with a colonial plantation owner, Kabali demands equal pay, saying: "We are no longer just slaves on plantations. We are employees and you are the employer."

The supporting cast is inexplicably large, with almost 20 characters, and at times, it is hard to keep track of them all.

Chao as Lee, however, is the least believable. He plays a caricature of a supposedly Malaysian-Chinese gang leader in gaudy silk suits, laying down maxims in an exaggerated way. His gangster persona never quite equals that of his arch nemesis.

Pacing is also a problem and entire scenes in the action-packed climax feel laborious and too drawn out after a while.

Die-hard Rajinikanth fans would be pushed to their limits of tolerance with this portrayal of their hero as a fallible character. But this is undoubtedly his best film in years.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 25, 2016, with the headline 'Rajinikanth stands tall as an actor'. Print Edition | Subscribe