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How Kabali’s Hype Rose To A Frenzy; And Why It Crashed


Kollywood’s most awaited day in 2016 finally arrived. Unfortunately, it was a dampener. Late into the night of 21 July, social media was already being bombarded with reviews and opinions on Kabali from fans abroad. The film showed us a side of Rajinikanth that hasn’t been seen in years. Not since Thalapathi (1991). But Kabali, the character, was not surrounded by a good story, screenplay, or characters.

And there’s only so much even this actor can do for a film.

Post the release, the world was more or less divided into two camps: those who trashed the film, and those who defended it. There was a minority third which went on a blaming spree: angry with the film’s team for overhyped promotions, angry about a film that failed to match it.

Here we look at Kabali‘s journey, through the early days of its announcement as the ‘Rajini-Ranjith’ film, right up to that all-important day, 22 July, 2016.

Read : Our Review of Kabali

June 1, 2015

After wide-ranging reports and speculations, the news was official. Rajinikanth, the biggest star of the nation, would do his next film with a two-film old greenhorn. Pa Ranjith was a name unfamiliar even to some Tamil film regulars. Plus, Ranjith’s two films, Attakathi and Madras, were raw, realistic, grounded, and funny all at the same time; adjectives that can never be attributed to Rajinikanth’s films. On board the Rajini-Ranjith team were Ranjith’s regulars – Santhosh Narayanan, G Murali, Praveen KL and a bunch of actors like Dinesh, Kalaiyarasan, and Rythvika.

Fans were astounded. So were critics. People called it the announcement of the year, and Rajini’s biggest gamble. It was unprecedented for someone of Rajini’s stature to team up with a bunch of youngsters. All to reinvent his image.

In retrospect, that at least has completely worked in the Superstar’s favour.

As soon as the announcement was made, Ranjith was in the eye of a media storm. He had one answer to all the questions about Rajini’s character: “Like that of Kaali from Mullum Malarum.”

Over and over, across interviews, he was asked about how he became the chosen one to direct Rajini. Turns out that it was because of Soundarya Rajinikanth. After going through several scripts, she thought of Ranjith writing the script. Then, Ranjith made Rajini read the bound script, instead of narrating it to him. Another break in convention.

A 30-something young director was setting terms for Thalaivar. Expectations soared.

Rajinikanth in Kabali Movie Stills
Rajinikanth in Kabali Movie Stills

September 16, 2015

The ‘Rajini-Ranjith film’ had a title now. Kabali it would be. The goodies didn’t end there. We got some great posters. One had a bearded, grey-haired Rajini sitting on a plush chair with his legs crossed, looking over the skyline of Kuala Lumpur. Another had him breaking out of chains with some people (presumably Indians). We were impressed, and excited.

Late October, 2015

From the moment Rajinikanth stepped on that Malaysia Airlines flight, our timelines were filled with pictures of him landing at Kuala Lumpur airport, and then shooting in the city. Many wished they lived in Malaysia. It seemed that nearly every fan managed to get a picture with Rajinikanth. Extra security had to be called in to control the crowds thronging the shooting spot. But Thalaivar, the gracious person that he is, patiently obliged. He posed for endless selfies with every one of them.

Still jealous.

May 1, 2016

It was 11 am on the first of May. Everybody was busy refreshing Kalaipuli S Thanu’s YouTube page to view the teaser of Kabali. Finally, it arrived. The teaser opened with sirens blazing. There were well blocked shots of a suit clad Rajinikanth swaggering with long strides. And when Arunraja Kamaraj’s vocals screamed ‘Neruppu Da’, we had goosebumps. Even after the 100th watch. Even after weeks.

Before anyone could blink, the teaser had become the most watched Indian movie teaser of all time on YouTube. #NeruppuDa hashtags immediately erupted, T-Shirts popped up in the coming weeks. Everyone was convinced that this film was all about the fiery Rajinikanth, who is #KabaliDa!

The release date drew nearer. The question “There’s no trailer?” was on everyone’s lips. Hindsight is everything. Now we can say that a detailed trailer would have helped the audience form realistic expectations. Something that captured the emotional weight of the film, and gave us a glimpse of the supporting characters.

Kabali Audio Launch Photos
Kabali Audio Launch Photos

The Audio Launch 

Sources had almost confirmed that the audio would be launched in a grand, memorable manner at the YMCA grounds in Chennai on 12 June.

What did we get in reality?

A few pictures of the film’s team standing around a 10 x 6 flex banner, clutching the audio CDs in their hands. Santhosh Narayanan delivered with some great music. But fans were left longing for an actual audio launch event. To listen to the cast and crew share details and anecdotes.

At least then, we might have had a clue.

The Telugu version of the film did have a star studded audio launch. Looks like the free pass called ‘Rajini Padam’ is valid only in Tamil Nadu.

A month passed. Rajinikanth is one of the rare breed of actors who never endorses a brand. But suddenly, Kabali was everywhere. On television advertisements, silver coins, mobile cases, Lamborginis. Even an aircraft, courtesy of Air Asia’s ‘Fly Like A Superstar’ campaign.

In all the brouhaha, a real interaction between actors and technicians, and the audience and media, was missing. A Rajinikanth’s film hardly needs publicity. But still, it was unusual for a Tamil film to have no press meets or media interactions.

We quashed those disloyal concerns.

Tickets and More Hype

A lot has been said and written about this. In short, if you had a ticket to Kabali on 22 July, you were one of the lucky ones. Not just lucky, but blessed. With prices ranging from Rs. 300 to a few thousand rupees, there was a severe dearth of tickets. Rumours ran wild. About how the production and distribution teams had blocked several thousand tickets, just to add to the burgeoning hype. Miffed journalists are still complaining about how the producer didn’t arrange a special press show. When a show was finally arranged on Saturday, many refused to go saying “they had other work to do”.

Kabali Movie Stills
Kabali Movie Stills

The Aftermath

What’s next for the film? With most reviews and audience giving the film a thumbs down, it will take time for the scores of fans who had expected so much more to settle down.

The problem was never that this was a different kind of ‘Rajini film’. Fans loved the freshness and change. The problem was that it wasn’t a ‘Ranjith film’ either.

It’s tough for Ranjith, to have so many pin so much on such a young director. While we cope with disappointment though, theatre owners fear something worse – empty shows in the coming week, thanks to the negative buzz in the air.

Kabali has taught everybody many lessons. It opened several marketing venues for other films (if they can afford it). But it also showed how over-hyping anything can lead to disappointment. With the ghost of Lingaa and its distribution issues refusing to die down, we can only hope that Kabali doesn’t turn out to be another instance of the actor being held responsible for the film’s debacle.


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