Smouldering Rubber – The Politics of Kabali

Jeyannathann Karunanithi writes about the politics of the Tamil movie Kabali. He argues that we must familiarize ourselves with the socio-geographic-historical landscape of the movie before we pick it apart.

8 min read

இந்த கட்டுரையை இங்கே தமிழில் படிக்கவும்.

The Golden Mile Tower houses many shops and a cinema | Source:

Singapore’s Little Thailand Golden Mile Complex was receiving Tamils of all kinds on that day: native Singaporean Tamils, Singapore-settled Malaysian Tamils, second and third generation Indian Tamils, Singaporean Tamils of Ceylon origin, and of course, teeming crowds of immigrant Indian Tamils who were of many kinds, from construction workers to investment bankers to Masters and PhD students from Singapore’s famous universities. Kabali had already become a phenomenon among Tamils across the world. Within one and a half days of global release, the film was facing reviews which could be grouped into two categories – glowing or scathing, with nothing in between.

The reasons were clear; with Director Ranjith being an important one. He considers his cinema to be an extension of his political activism, which empathizes with the oppressed in Indian society, and how a majority of people despise him for his school of political thought, simply because it is associated with emancipation of the oppressed. The second reason was the disgruntled fans: they suddenly found their Demigod embracing the symbols of Ranjith’s political leanings, instead of the usual symbolism linked to Rajini’s political aspiration that they grew up watching. Also, given the landscape in which the movie is set, the Indian Tamils and the Malaysian Tamils perceived the movie quite differently.

The socio-geographic-historical landscape of the movie was alien to the Indian Tamils and they failed to understand the depth of the story. Malaysian Tamils, on the other hand, found Kabali to be a movie that strengthens the cliches and caricatures the ethnic minority (Tamils) in Malaysia. They were worried that this movie portrayed them as Gangsters to the rest of the Tamil diaspora across the globe. And as always, there was a minority among the ‘First Day First Show (FDFS)’ crowd which had issues with the cinematic language of the movie.

As the single Ulagam Oruvanukka and the teaser of the movie had created an expectation that Kabali is a movie which discusses the politics of the oppressed across the world, beyond the confines of arbitrary national boundaries, I was anticipating Kabali to be a ‘fictionalized version of a collection of non-fictional accounts’, rather than a mainstream Rajinikanth movie.

The atmosphere outside the complex was electric. My friends and I were amazed looking at the crowds Kabali managed to draw for a night show, in a city nearly 3000 kilometres away from Chennai in mainland India. We spent more than an hour in the queue with high expectations fueled by Santhosh Narayanan’s soundtrack. We thought the music director gave us a sense of the movie’s tone.

But when I entered the theater, I was overwhelmed by the crowds that were already in. The festive atmosphere accompanying a Rajini movie took over my senses. It was a veritable tsunami that pushed aside all cerebral aspects of the film: fiction, nonfiction, the oppressor and the oppressed. These thoughts had  clouded my mind until then. One could say it was akin to the custom of smelling coffee beans to clear the olfactory palate when distinguishing the scents of perfumes.

I was ready for a Rajini Film Experience.

The calm which engulfed the theatre after the obligatory Opening Scene persisted until the end of the movie. The calmness didn’t go away even during the Interval, when I chose to immerse myself in the Kabali Experience by listening to Maaya Nadhi. Scenes from the movie closely followed the accounts of the Malaysian Tamil diaspora I had read about or heard of.  I was satisfied with the cinematic output even before the movie concluded. The movie travelled to the pre-climax stage with the requisite symbolism-laced punchlines. The climax was open-ended, which would later be the starting point of a discussion about Malaysia’s Bumiputra policy among the Tamil diaspora. My friends were intrigued by the climax and the visuals they had just witnessed.

It was that discussion during our journey from Kallang in Central Singapore to Lakeside in West Singapore that resulted in this article.

In this age of Smart Work and Productivity Points, I have always wondered how I can put to use the experiences I gained in Singapore over one and a half years, the information I learnt from the books I had read about this region. It was during that midnight Uber ride from Kallang that I realized, everything had a value. These experiences would be the key to understanding the story of Kabali, which showed us stories of numerous immigrant estate workers in Malaysia, the majority among them being Indian Tamils.

Indian Tamils working in the rubber estates from the time of British occupation of Malaya suddenly found they were deemed unnecessary. This was due to a steep fall in natural rubber price, the Schumpeterian creative destruction of the rubber market (with the introduction of the cheaper artificial rubber technology) and globalization, which in turn led to the breakup of larger rubber estates. While some of the workers returned to mainland India, many of them stayed back. They felt they had already lost their ties to mainland India, and were now more firmly rooted in Malaysia, which had become their homeland. Their countless hours of experience working in the rubber estates weren’t needed in the cities which by then had adapted to the demands of the global economy. They found they were alienated by race, and by the new economic system in the cities which made them refugees.  

I want to mention here the misconception widely prevalent among Indian Tamils, which is that diaspora Tamils are wealthy by default. It is this misconception that prevents them from empathizing with the hardships a significant section of Malaysian Tamils face in their nation. The lack of political awareness makes them blind to the status of Malaysian Tamils within Malaysia, who face much discrimination solely based on their race, while the complex factors of their existence – caste, class, accumulated wealth – are ignored.

The Bumiputra Policy followed by Malaysian Government, an affirmative action scheme designed to benefit Malays, predictably affects the Malaysian Chinese and Malaysian Indian minority. Malaysian Indians face even more brutal consequences due to the lack of economic support system, which the Malaysian Chinese community have managed to hold on to. Among Malaysian Indians, it is the erstwhile estate workers who get asymmetrically affected by this policy – they lack the educational base, economic backing and the network of kinships without which access to higher education and prosperity cannot be achieved in the new economy. It is possibly this frustration which pushes a section of the Malaysian Tamil community to take a wrong turn. And like a black hole, the shadier side of the society sucks them in.

Geographically, Malaysia is close to the infamous Golden Triangle which encompasses Burma, Thailand and Laos. The rebel groups in Burma took up large scale marijuana cultivation, production of opium and synthetic drugs in order to fund their armed resistance. This led to the integration of this region with the global drug logistics network, spurring greater demand. This supply-demand balance led to the emergence of this region as a key drug manufacturing region. The effects have started to spill over to nearby regions, Malaysia for instance. The Number Gangs of Malaysia established contact with this drug logistics network, thanks to the high profit margin of the trade. Now, the unemployed are often part of this network through the Number Gangs.

A recent survey of Number Gangs in Malaysia states that 71% of the members in Number Gangs are Indians. It is this backdrop which needs to be understood to understand the politics and language spoken in Kabali. How are Malaysian Indians, who form 7-9% of the Malaysian population, disproportionately represented in Number Gangs to the tune of 71%? The answer to this question would help us empathize with the situation that Malaysian Indian society find themselves in today, within the broader Malaysian society. It is this understanding the movie demands, which in turn would help us grasp the gravity of the dialogues spoken by students in the climax. The underlying theme of the movie is constantly repeated, subtly as well as blatantly, through various scenes: While Malaysian Indians are discriminated for their skin color and race, the Malaysian Indian society itself is replete with fault lines along caste and class.

In addition to the questions about landscape, questions were raised about the degree of violence portrayed and whether a gang leader’s or a gang member’s death would lead to a town-wide procession. The answer to this question is the popular quote, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” You can watch live recordings of such processions in Malaysia here, here and here.

How are these violent gangs kept under control? The movie answers this question through the climax – the police force assumes the role of a new-age gardener who keeps the weed in the garden under control by introducing certain insects which consume the weed as food. The strategy of allowing certain gangs to vanquish one another is a worldwide phenomenon and this is what the movie showcased, even if it did so without nuance.

I believe Kabali is the first step taken by Indian Tamil Film Industry to look at and convey cinematically the stories of the Tamil diaspora across the globe, who share the sensibilities of the Indian Tamil populace. The Tamil-speaking population and populations with Tamil ancestry are spread across the world – in Malaysia, Singapore, Srilanka, Fiji, South Africa, Mauritius, Seychelles, as well as the recent emigration to Europe and North America. The accumulated experiences of these communities are rich and diverse; they deserve a space in Indian cinema. It is to be noted that Malaysia has always accommodated Tamil films with strong sub-regional identity like Thevar Magan, Marumalarchi, Chinna Gounder, Pudupettai, Paruthiveeran in spite of the landscape of these movies being alien to them; partly because of the fading collective memory about the experiences of their ancestors from mainland India. It is our turn in mainland India to view this movie empathetically in order to understand the hardships that a significant section of Malaysian Indians face. The underlying theme of this movie is the hopeless situation Tamils evicted from the estates find themselves in, brought about by the callous attitude of Malaysian Government, the racial discrimination through Bhumiputra policy, and the divisions along caste and class within the Malaysian Indian society that are a souvenir from mainland India.

The underlying theme of this movie would no doubt resonate with the oppressed sections within our Indian Tamil Society. I see this movie as a way to look at my society through the lens offered by Director Ranjith and his team.

I would like to thank Rajinikanth and P. Ranjith as a Global Tamil, for attempting to honestly picturize real issues, real discrimination. I believe, at times, we have to take an arduous journey to comprehend the real issues of people who are very near to us, maybe even our neighbours. I am glad that this piece of diaspora history, which was known to very few, has now reached millions. I cannot dismiss the craft that catalyzed this massive dissemination of information and experience, which might elevate one’s sensitivity to the concerns of people in their vicinity.

I would like to leave you with another movie, possibly to recreate Kabali’s open ending. In addition to speaking the politics of the oppressed, Kabali raised questions about how surroundings influence one’s destiny, if education is the only way to ascend in a society, and if Malaysian society is ready to provide opportunities to everyone who manages to win the rat race. To my surprise, I found a movie from Malaysia’s Tamil Film Industry named Jagat (2015). It addresses these questions with a rooted perspective. You will not be disappointed with Jagat.

References and Further Reading

  1. Stenson, Michael. 1980. Class, Race, and Colonialism in West Malaysia: The Indian Case. University of British Columbia Press.
  2. Two-part essay on Indian migrant workers in Malaysia:
    Amarjit Kaur. Indian migrant workers in Malaysia – part 1. new mandala. February 20, 2013. Accessed on Nov 8, 2017.
    Amarjit Kaur. Indian migrant workers in Malaysia – part 2. new mandala. February 21, 2013. Accessed on Nov 8, 2017.
  3. Anisah Shukry. 71% gang members Indian because of racial profiling. Free Malaysia Today. August 25, 2013. Accessed on Nov 8, 2017.
  4. Mageswari Sangaralingam. Plantation workers face poverty and poison. Social Watch. Accessed on Nov 8, 2017.
  5. Vivian Chong Wei Wan. Retrenched rubber tappers demand compensation. MalaysiaKini. August 27, 2002. Accessed on Nov 8, 2017.
  6. Articles about the Golden Triangle:
    Zofia Reych. Malaysia Becoming A Drugs’ Manufacturing Hub. ASEAN Today. July 18, 2016. Accessed on Nov 8, 2017.
    Staff. The Mekong middlemen running drugs across Asia. Straits Times. May 8, 2017. Accessed on Nov 8, 2017.
    Elliot Brennan. Drugs and the death penalty in Southeast Asia. the interpreter. January 23, 2015. Accessed on Nov 8, 2017.
    Staff Report. Bouncing Back: Relapse in the Golden Triangle. Transnational Institute. June 1, 2014. Accessed on Nov 8, 2017.
    Luke Hunt. Golden Triangle Comeback. The Diplomat. December 1, 2010. Accessed on Nov 8, 2017.
    Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy. Southeast Asia’s Thriving Drug Trade. October 25, 2011. Accessed on Nov 8, 2017.

About the author

Jeyannathann Karunanithi identifies himself as a member of a first generation immigrant family from Thanjavur, rather than as a Chennaiite, in spite of being associated with the City of Chennai nearly from his birth. 

Did you like what you read? Support us as we explore film cultures from around the world; experience cinema in new ways with us. Let us keep The World of Apu free for all!

Become a Patron!