By Sowmiya Ashok

Late on Thursday night I met Ramya Vishwanathan in the lobby of Empire Cinemas after a crowd of noisy men wearing identical ‘Superstar Rajini’ t-shirts had cleared the space. She and I got talking about the movie that we had both just watched. “It’s not even a gangster movie for me after I have seen and understood the film,” she admitted. “It’s an emotional melodrama which revolves around family. That was phenomenal.”

Hours before, I was on an oddly punctual visit to interior New Jersey to watch Rajinikanth’s latest film, Kabali, along with a group of my Tamil friends and a Swedish journalist friend who came along to understand our bizarre fandom. Admittedly, I am no great Rajini fan. I can barely recall all his films let alone dialogues. I am moderately impressive at recognising his film songs.

Radhika Apte, Kabali and Gender

But like many others who grew up where I grew up, in Chennai, I too regularly watch Tamil movies that includes Rajini’s. Some of my favourites have been the ones where he played a comic role – Dharmathin Thalivan, Guru Sisyan, Veera, Thillu Mullu and so on. I entered the cinema hall yesterday with thoughts of his previous film, Lingaa, and how none of us traveling in the Uber to New Jersey could recollect who the female lead was. OMG, who was the female lead!? “I guess we don’t pay as much attention to women in a Rajini movie?” we all chipped in when the Swede questioned our memory loss.

Don’t we? I thought about Soundarya’s coy character in Padaiyappa being at odds with the feisty Ramya Krishnan. Or Kushboo, Meena and Roja in other Rajini films. I remembered how a specific character in Lingaa who was married to a White woman made me squirm each time he chastised his wife on screen. Perhaps, my attention span was correlated with the screenwriter’s efforts to write in a noticeable female character?

The film for me was as much about Rajini’s co-starrer Radhika Apte. I fell in love with her character, her presence, her dialogues

I brought all of these thoughts home to a friend I am staying with in New York and we discussed the movies we had watched growing up. “Women had fantastic roles in Tamil cinema in the eighties and nineties,” she said. Specifically, the late Tamil director K. Balachander made films with strong women characters. I agreed and recalled an interviewer on Vijay TV ask a new crop of Tamil cinema heroines if they could speak any Tamil at all.

But speaking the language was not the issue here, it is the character they were asked to portray on screen. And, Kabali was captivating for that reason. The film for me was as much about Rajini’s co-starrer Radhika Apte. I fell in love with her character, her presence, her dialogues – arguably much stronger than Rajini’s himself – and all of her sarees. In many ways, Kabali was an equal film, possibly why I felt strangely at peace while watching it after a string of Tamil movies I have watched lately. It had the lead male character unabashedly admit that he feels entirely out of sorts without his wife. That he derives strength from her. She completes him, he relies on her and it’s a fantastic partnership.

what the director has also beautifully done, consistent with his previous films, is challenge the on-screen skewed power dynamic between a man and woman

I have been reading news reports lauding Kabali director Pa. Ranjith for his prominent efforts at including the Dalit narrative in his movies. The opening shot that introduces Rajini in Kabali shows him sitting in a prison cell reading ‘My Father Baliah,’ a memoir by Dalit thinker Y.B. Satyanarayana. But what the director has also beautifully done, consistent with his previous films, is challenge the on-screen skewed power dynamic between a man and woman.

 Sowmiya is an independent journalist based in New York and is on Twitter at  @sowmiyashok