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The Missing Periyar and the Curious Tamil Nationalism of Kabali

Rajinikanth’s Kabali was expected to be a pro-Dalit movie, but the universalist focus on Tamil unity makes it a product of alternate Tamil nationalism instead. Kabali’s radicalism could have been strengthened by the inclusion of Periyar.



"Every commercial film is actually only the preview of that which it promises and will never deliver." – Theodor W Adorno


The success of Rajinikanth-starrer Kabali was expected. There was considerable hype and corresponding expectations prior to the release of the movie.  Apart from the usual excitement that a Rajini movie generates in the Tamil public, Kabali was anticipated by intellectual circles as well because of its critically acclaimed director, P Ranjith, of Madras (2014) fame.

This anticipation was based on an understanding that Kabali would be a pro-Dalit movie. But contrary to such readings, Ranjith’s product has a universalist focus to it, that of an alternate Tamil nationalism.


The Director’s Cut

Ranjith’s first movie Attakathi (2012) was a light hearted romantic comedy located in a Chennai suburb. Madras (2014), which won the director much fame, was based in the predominantly urban working class area of North Chennai. In contrast to his first movie, Madras had strong political overtones and dealt with the social and political ambitions of subaltern classes. In interviews, Ranjith claimed that the movie is about Dalits in an urban scenario.

However, as far as Kabali is concerned, he has denied that it is a Dalit-oriented movie. It  is about the struggles of Malaysian Tamils against repression by the Malaysian state, the racism they face from the relatively well-off Chinese, and also about internal divisions of caste. The stress throughout the film is on Tamil unity. The Tamil nationalist subtext is too obvious to miss.

But then, the obvious is always ever elusive.


Kabali’s Story

Kabali is the story of a Malaysian Tamil gangster who fights for the rights of the Tamils in that country. Originally part of an anti-establishment labour movement led by a charismatic Tamil leader, Tamilnesan, Kabali takes over the leadership of the movement after the leader is assassinated by other Tamils working for a Chinese mobster.

Later, in the course of a gang war, Tamilnesan’s son betrays Kabali and gets killed by him. A series of violent events separate Kabali from his family, and a series of violent events reunites them later in the movie.

Though little is revealed about the criminal activities of Kabali’s gangs, they are shown to be running several social and welfare services for Malaysian Tamils.

Kabali also attacks other gangs who are involved in drug smuggling and the flesh trade. The Manichean division between the moral gangster and the immoral gangster is evident. Supporting the immoral gangster, a Chinese don, are Tamil collaborators who abuse Kabali for his “low” origins. In the end, Kabali triumphs over them all, only to get assassinated by a Tamil from his own side who has gone over to the Malaysian state. 


Significance of the Absent Image


Images of significant leaders cross the screen space at various junctures to establish Kabali’s anti-establishment tenor—Ambedkar, Che Guevara, Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela. However, one crucial leader who is curiously absent is Periyar (E V Ramaswamy). Incidentally, Periyar had toured Malaysia and had conducted anti-caste meetings there and his 1929 visit is said to have been instrumental in the formation of the Adi Dravidar Sangam and the Tamil Self-respect Association.

Perhaps his inclusion may have ruffled Rajinikanth, who is reputed to be a devout Hindu and has also expressed sympathy for the Hindu right in the past. However, the omission also needs to be seen in the wake of contemporary Tamil nationalist discourse in Tamil Nadu.

A debate which is being played out in a most unfortunate manner among activist circles in Tamil Nadu is the question of Tamil Nationalism versus Periyarism, as if there is an inherent irreconcilable antagonism between the two. The theoretical godfather of a dominant trend of Tamil nationalism is “Arignar” Guna, incidentally an intellectual from the Dalit–Paraiyar caste. The followers of his theory believe in a “pure Tamil” ethnic entity, that is that certain castes are Tamil, and others non-Tamil.

This variant of Tamil nationalism is fuelled by ethno-chauvinism, xenophobia, hyper-masculinity, ressentiment towards those identified as “impure Tamils,” and implicit casteism (or explicit, in cases of parties like the Vanniyar dominated Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK).

The accusation of these Tamil nationalists is that Periyarism is politically bankrupt, and in this criticism, they share a common stage with parliamentary leftists, a few Dalit groups and Brahminical Hindu nationalists. It is of concern that many of these Tamil nationalist groups are trying to appropriate the political symbols of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) while being totally ignorant of the radical emancipatory politics of the Tigers. While they are indeed opposed to the Sri Lankan state, their position on caste, gender, class, and imperialism leaves much to be desired.

The social composition of the Tamil nationalist groups by and large consists of lower-middle-class and intermediate castes, and includes some representation from Dalit castes. These are aggregates of individuals who feel left out by mainstream Dravidian parties, who have a naïve consciousness of Tamil pride as a resistance to oppression, but are not theoretically acute enough to form a radical alternative to mainstream political parties.

Given that all left parties in the state have consistently failed to address the class and caste question in a manner that takes into account the specificity of Tamil Nadu, those who seek an alternative to the mainstream political parties find it in the rhetoric of the Tamil nationalist speakers.

While contemporary Tamil nationalist leaders have attracted big crowds at events, the recent Tamil Nadu state elections show that they have failed to win in a single constituency. Among these Tamil nationalists are casteist parties like the PMK, which caters only to the Most Backward Class (MBC) community of the Vanniyars, and to Dalit groups like the Viduthalai Siruthaigal Katchi. These groups once showed promise but have now turned sectarian and are considerably watered down, having no significance beyond their limited constituencies.

Such outfits capture considerable attention through flashy events and demonstrations. There is little or no discussion on ideology or on geo-politics: a crucial question, considering the strategic location of the Tamil population. What instead is often articulated is Tamil pride and offences against it, glory of Tamil pasts, and vague promises of a utopian Tamil society.

This Tamil nationalism appears as an alternative to the mainstream, but in effect, does little to dent it. Often, it ends up degenerating into a particularist caste politics.

A real radical politics, Slavoj Zizek argues, is determined not by what it is fighting against but by what it is fighting for. What is needed, he says, is the “absent third, a strong radical-emancipatory opposition (Zizek 2014: 121). But the function of an effective ruling ideology lies precisely in the suppression of that radical core that has the potential to generate such an opposition.

The conscious or unconscious omission of Periyar in a cultural product that seeks to address the problems of all Tamils prevents the product from achieving its full potential. Kabali’s Tamil nationalism does appear a step in the right direction. But its radicalism could have been strengthened by the inclusion of the informed insights of Periyar.

This criticism apart, it is of much political interest to consider how the Tamil nationalist subtext has been handled by Ranjith in his movie.


Reading Kabali


Films that have an exclusive focus on Tamils living outside India are a rare find in Kollywood. While there have been Tamil nationalistic films, rarely have they addressed the political concerns of Tamils outside India, or even outside Tamil Nadu for that matter. As Velayutham rightly observes, “The population of the state of Tamil Nadu remains the single largest market for Tamil films.

For these audiences, films depicting diasporic Tamils appear to be less attractive. For them, Tamil cinema is about Tamils for Tamils in India” (Velayutham 2008: 178).

In this, Ranjith has to be lauded for making a film where the plot is centred in Malaysia and where Tamil Nadu figures only momentarily (albeit significantly, for it is in Chennai that the reunification of Kabali’s family occurs). The Malaysian Tamil community, however, is not shown as a unified lot.

Kabali makes frequent references to how the divisions among the Tamils are their weaknesses. Kabali emerges as the “supreme” leader who tries to bring about unity among all Tamils, irrespective of their particularist caste differences, despite the hurdles posed by the “other”.

Kabali’s self-definition here is important. He says he is a Tamil, from a subaltern background, and laments that Tamils carry the baggage of caste wherever they go. Only the “other”–be it the rival Chinese don or his supposedly upper-caste Tamil stooges–abuse him for being of a lower social rank.

It is only in the gaze of the other that Kabali is shown to be inferior. He identifies his own self primarily as a Tamil, fighting for the rights of all Tamils, a believer in strength through unity. The other sees a lower caste in Kabali; Kabali sees a Tamil in his “self”.

Here you have the classic Fanonist position: the racist other (in this case, the casteist) seeks to lock the oppressed in a particularist, inferiorised identity, but the oppressed seeks his emancipation through a genuine universalism that unsettles all identities. Partha Chatterjee writes that caste politics has not found a ground “on which it can be superseded by a new universal form of community (1994: 208).”

Kabali is precisely a struggle to find that community in a Tamil nationalism that would sublate particularist caste identities in a universal Tamil body-politic.  

Eelam Tamil nationalists could draw their own parallels from the movie: this was much like the “low caste” LTTE leadership that claimed to represent all the Tamils who were being rejected by liberal “high caste” Tamils. The latter preferred to collaborate with the Sri Lankan state rather than accept a vanguard of, by and for the subaltern masses.

Universalism is most offensive and indeed most radical when it is proposed by subalterns who wish to break particularist identities of their own selves and also of their erstwhile superiors. A Dalit speaking the language of complete Tamil liberation can unsettle the mechanism of caste far more than when his concern with the specific welfare of his own caste.  

An Eelam Tamil diaspora activist in Canada told this author, “This is our story. Of how we were ill-treated by racist states here, our fights with established criminal gangs, our struggle for dignity. Kabali is our guy.” For several such consumers, Ranjith’s Kabali delivers a universalist Tamil nationalism instead of a particularist caste politics that some of his overenthusiastic supporters and critics believed was promised.



Chatterjee, Partha (1994): “Caste and Subaltern Consciousness,” Subaltern Studies VI: Writings on South Asian History and Society, Ranajit Guha (ed), New Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp 169–209.

Velayutham, Selvaraj (ed) (2008): “The Diaspora and the Global Circulation of Tamil Cinema,” in Tamil Cinema: The Cultural Politics of India’s Other Film Industry, Oxon: Routledge, pp 172–188

Zizek, Slavoj (2014): Trouble in Paradise: From the End of History to the End of Capitalism, London: Allen Lane.

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