Darbar- Cobwebs on the colossus that is Rajinikanth

Amidst much fanfare, now that Darbar has been watched, where exactly do I begin expressing myself? Hmmm…pass. I’m going to meander for a while, but I’m sure I’ll get going somewhere; eventually, like I did to the restroom twenty minutes before the long drawn out climax played out with the surprise of a giant trampling over a small furniture he was hiding behind.
First, when your pant is torn in the crotch from you trying to overstretch, it’s fine. It’s after all a battle scar of flexibility, albeit an embarrassing one, but still fine. Fine, till you start bending over repeatedly as light is shone upon. Second, due to an irrational amount of love, a toddler’s gibberish endears in the drawing room on a weekend morning. But the mushy feelings quickly wear thin, when the toddler in question climbs up a stage to do a concert, to which you find yourself buying tickets worth a functional kidney, the same weekend to only be held ransom by the perseverance of the said toddler. Third, now imagine the reverence evaporate from a majestic antique vehicle as it decides to leave the precincts of its display area at the museum to drive alongside contemporary vehicles on a Monday morning, while constantly huffing, puffing and choking up the roads to only break down at a signal. Follow my train, that’s the last of the abstract metaphors for now. I guess.

Now think of an ageing superstar who’s been around for twice your age and is sort of closing in on his second childhood onscreen, while trying to do younger things with elder faculties deceiving hard to be more robust than they actually are. Next, think of the compulsive need to buy tickets today as a result of the goodwill from a body of work, that designed zeitgeist around you while serving as a bookmark for episodes in your life. Rajini is many things- doyen, Thalaivar(not Thalaiva you Hindi speaking morons), an emotion in this part of the world, built systematically over decades of image conscious movies. And it is in the service of these run of the mill stories of David vs Goliath, that the super-stardom that he exerts today was given as a license to flex. Like any creative liberty worth its salt, this license was valid as far as it was in the service of a story- either to up the stakes, to volt up the drama or to humanise something out of the ordinary. When outside the film when in service of the star’s image alone, this license becomes vapid vanity. A untrue untruth peddled hard. This was the constant thought bouncing inside  my head while watching Darbar. Instead of the superstar being in service of a film, this was  a film in service of the superstar if the constant aural homage cues in the form of BGMs, the tip-toey reverential meta dialogues of characters around and the sheer unquestioned infallibility in ‘dire’ stretches were anything to go by.

While the warmth of nostalgia makes us go easy on the signature left-feeted steps of the superstar, it begins to frown after the second time. Same applies to the stunt sequences; while the fanboy in you has given a license to levitate for a brief bit intermittently, it’s really pushing things to operate permanently from a seven feet above level and swat hoodlums thrice your size from there with mosquito disdain. Nostalgia or not, why would you pummel dear gravity so much and expect to not be unintentionally funny?

And I understand the monumental task of introducing Thalaivar onscreen. While mere non committal shots of hands, legs, fingers, forehead and eyes are enough to titillate the crowd into a thick orgasm. The idea is to introduce his character in terms of his garden variety facets without giving much else away, like the profession he does(auto driver, milk man, labourer etc), his ability to break a pumpkin with mere head, his fondness to an ilk or an animal or a reptile among other things. Here I was shocked to see a major spoiler handed over in the form of a pivotal character’s death at the very beginning, to only render the introduction massy. The introduction wouldn’t have missed a beat without this this give away, but still precious information is littered for the heck of it. This robs the story of an element of shock at a critical juncture, which we now see coming from a distance.

And don’t even get me started on the bad guys. They are wooden-faced and funeral-serious, each one of them, even in their own birthday parties where they are dressed as Viking merchants in suburban Juhu resorts. They could’ve instead worn t-shirts with prints that read “menacing” and still looked less corny. These are the kind of men, on seeing their faces, one might think they’re in fact conducting a surgical strike when in actuality are waiting for their Uber rides. And also they tend to be unintentionally hilarious, like this time Sunil Shetty with a post coital face is shown performing a hysterectomy with a diabolic looking knife with which he stabs a man in his gut, to only realise that he did not possess an uterus after all. Now that I think about it in hindsight, it is in sync with the spirit of the entire movie, which itself felt like a colonoscopy.

To cut to the chase, Darbar blows. It neither is a holistic socio-commercial pot boiler like Murugadoss’s earlier films nor is it a quintessential Rajni outing like, say a Petta from recent memory.  What it manages looking like in the end, resembles the distant vitamin deficient cousin of Thuppaki.

Why 2.0 did not work for me

That large bird surveilling the city’s sky looked vicious. It felt that real when seen through the 3D glasses, that I even fended a few times from my seat. The mere sight of a sea of mobiles ringing together, before hacking into a victim was perversely a beautiful sight to behold, notwithstanding the underlying element of gore. I watched it in a theatre, the seats of which vibrated every time these killer phones came alive in unison. The production value was top notch, though I could’ve done with a little less of being in the face. It’s a visual experience as much an aural one. 2.0 had all the kitschy elements you find in a Michael Bay tent pole. But something was amiss. No denying the spectacle it was, but it was a kind of soulless affair which keeps throwing things at us in the hope that something would stick. And the same can be said about Shankar’s 2.0 version, post Anniyan.

Take for instance, the Chennai we see. After Kadhal Desam’s cutting edge PCOs and ice cream bearing trees, it’s probably the most wildly imaginative depiction of Chennai. The roads are bordered with glass castles and skyscrapers, constantly beautifying the city’s skyline, with only police stations,Thirukazhikundrum and Lalita Jewellery outlets looking like precincts of good old Chennai. Glad that they kept talking months without years. The Chennai in 2.0 reminded me of heroines from the director’s movies. They might be called Thenmozhi, Susheela, Sana, Diya, Madhu. And these women might be village belles, Mylapore bound TamBrams, a break inspector’s daughter, if not S.Ve.Sekar’s. But one thing that unites them all is the fact that they look absolutely alien to us and belong in a set in Mumbai.

All the Shankar tropes are in place here as well: system wronging an individual. Individual making futile attempts to fix the system. System ignoring individual. Individual turning into a vigilante force who choreographs really cool looking murders, while not breaking into statistical sermons. Just that this time around, the hero isn’t the said individual, but the villain. Suddenly we’re left with a moral conundrum of whose side to take: that of a smart ass humanoid saying corny things or a bird loving dead man who has been wronged. This screws up with our reflexes, when blows are traded. We don’t know to wolf whistle or feel bad. And it doesn’t help that the scientist who makes all these humanoids is one of the blandest cardboard characters ever conceived.

Ideally these futuristic exodus movies will have a modest human as the story’s hero, thrust in the middle of things beyond his control or comprehension. He would be scurrying— through gladiatorial bouts between towering creatures as skyscrapers tumble and tectonic plates open up —from one set piece to another. It is through this character’s travails and his eventual triumph, that we empathize and become invested in these out worldly happenings. This is what, in my opinion went wrong with 2.0. After a point, the movie becomes all about the one upmanship between a robot and a ghost. Robot throws things. Ghost throws things back. Ghost transforms into fancy things. Robot transforms into fancier things. There’s absolutely no human perspective. Rinse. Repeat. And apparently we’re supposed to make do with reaction shots of random junior artists and smaller/fancier robots turning up to save this robot. As a result, we feel no real connection. We don’t really care who comes on top. And quickly we begin to feel like being trapped inside a video game, which just wouldn’t stop.

Another aspect in Shankar films I’ve been peeved off late are the juvenile dialogues.
If it was “Six ku aprom Seven da, Sivaji ku aprom yavan da?” or “Ivanga ellam city la top ten rowdies” in Sivaji, it is, “Number one. Number two lam papa vilaiyatu. Naan eppome Super one.” or “King of birds, king of robots is coming” here.
Writing with children in mind is one thing. Writing childlishly is another. Understood you’ve set out to create a humanoid that plays out to the gallery, but should it speak like an angry fifteen year old every time it’s rubbed the wrong way?

And last but not the least, Rajni. He’s one of those rare actors you watch and instantly realise that it’s almost impossible to hate him. Seeing him look like a kati roll wrapped in aluminium foil or a transsexual DJ in a shady Thailand pub is deeply unsettling.We’re witnessing the evening of his career. But what hurts is the grace without which it is happening. His version 2.0 also like Shankar’s has been a pale shadow of his once illustrious self. The signature sonic gait has slowed considerably. The baritone that had given content for a generation’s T-shirt graffiti is shaky. Age seems to have had the better of him, finally. And it doesn’t help that the directors off late seem hell bent on tainting the halo. Barring Sivaji, Rajnism seems to have got lost in translation in the last decade or so. Be it Chandramukhi where Jothika overshadowed him, the VFX addled Endhiran, the forgettable Lingaa, the unnecessarily over serious socio-political hotchpoch that Kabali was or the angry anti-Hindutva blog that Kaala‘s script was, the spotlight seems to have shifted. He isn’t the guy who does the heavy lifting anymore. It’s either another character, a concept or the director’s ideology which hogs the centre stage, with him being a cog in its service. Not a bad thing at all, for an uninitiated movie buff maybe. But ask the three generations of fans, who’ve been raised in stories that were there in Rajni films and not Rajni there in stories, they would strongly disagree.

Kabali- A “what-went-wrong” deconstruction

Now that Kabali is out in the theatres and the fracas around it has settled down, people have started talking beyond the gargantuan hype surrounding the movie; and the feeling seems to largely be mixed- bordering from bafflement to disappointment. And a handful of the die-hard fans of Rajni seem to crying out foul, at the not-so-flattering air inundating the movie.
A marketing blitzkrieg carved out of planes plastered with Rajni’s face and silver coins forged with his impressions, can only go as far as kindling the curiosity of the hoi polloi, to check out the movie over its opening weekend. What transpires in the dark of the theatre, as the movie starts to interact with its audience is far removed from the hype held in the painted plane; that handheld them into the theatre in a frantic spell. The final taste that the chocolate leaves in the mouth is completely independent of the celebrity in the advertisement and the expensive foil wrapping it.

Honest marketing campaigns as they come, achieve the middle ground between preserving the true core of a product, while attempting to augment its reach. When the product rolls out, they manage to create a positive synergy to firm up its equity. This is probably where Kabali seems to have slipped.

Marketing is not an elaborate artifice, but a propaganda with a fiduciary angle to ensure an honest positioning of an underlying product. Hollywood employs this to great effect. Take for instance the case of Robert Downey Jr, easily the biggest star of this generation. The marketing campaign for a simple little movie starring him called, The Judge was diametrically different from the scale and tone of his Avengers movie. It was positioned as an emotional- court drama with a personal conflict at its heart. When it released the audience  didn’t feel deceived, as it catered to the niche it was made for who exactly knew what to expect from it. Imagine their plight had they gone in expecting an Ironman kind of a movie, to only find a vulnerable Downey Jr( sans his Tony Stark quirks) reconcile with a grumpy father in the backdrop of a lackadaisical small town.
Coming back to Kabali, going by the two teasers that went viral  to the numerous promotional initiatives creating the endless halo around the movie, one thing was clear. They were loudly reiterating the movie to be a quintessential Rajni fare with celebratory accoutrement on the lines of a Basha or a Annamalai. There was not an inkling about it being otherwise, as the color and scope fashioning the imagination of the prospective ticket buyer were far removed from an experimental movie that was not run of the mill.

About the countless memes doing rounds about feeling let down by Rajni not playing his larger than life self, that firmed his stratospheric stature. We go to a circus that touts the jumping through the flaming hoops by its exotic tiger as its flagship act. Suddenly the tiger wants to juggle like the monkey, much to the crowd’s bafflement. The attempt as noble as it is, wouldn’t sugarcoat the collective disappointment of the audience that had paid to watch the tiger’s deft defiance through the rings of danger.

Evaluation of a movie from the standpoint of the income and expenses of its producer isn’t an organic assessment of the taste it leaves, lingering in the minds of the audience as they step out of the theatre. For movie making is an art form that thrives beyond the jurisdiction of commerce, the flourish of which doesn’t depend on the coffer of the investors alone.
Kabali to me is an overpriced cola without its fizz, the fizz people were conned into paying for in hordes. I would anytime suggest a helping of Annamalai over the trivia of a painted plane carrying wealthy people masquerading as Thalaivar fans to an uninitiated person; to understand the aura of the phenomenon called Rajinikanth.