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Decoding Kabali

July 23, 2016

Over 92% of all Medical and Tech Institution seats in Malaysia are reserved exclusively for Malays. The rest have to be shared by 8% and 37% of Indian and Chinese population even if they may score distinctions 100% in qualifying examinations. Petronas and other government companies as well as other private companies have an overwhelming percentage of job reservation for Malays. Preferential share allotment for Malays. Loan waivers for Malays. School fee & foreign education bills footed by govt for Malays. And the Malays are foreigners as well – only the first settlers not the natives. The natives of Malaysia are an aboriginal tribe, Orang Aslis.

Similarly those who work the rubber and palm estates and tea plantations are almost 100% Bangladeshis and Indonesians today, not Malaysian Indians.


Instead of a review on superstar’s latest ‘Kabali’ I would like to share what and who ‘Kabali’ is. And Why is the picture Kabali relevant today.

Pains my heart to see every rowdy and villain in Tamil cinema bearing the name ‘Kabali’ short for Kabaleeshwaran or Kabaleeshwar (aka Kapali /Kapaleeshwar), the supreme reigning deity (Lord Shiva) of Mylapore, oldest part of Chennai. Beautiful Kabali temple used to be my daily haunt until I got married.

Kabaleecharam, Mylapore, has the swayambu Lingam.

Back in my younger years, boys in neighbourhood commonly went by the name ‘Kabali.’ Girls were given the name ‘Karpagam’ – Kabali’s consort Parvathi’s name.

In the last half a century, for reasons unknown, every single villain in Tamil films somehow seemed to be called ‘Kabali.’ Gradually the name went out of fashion and it is no more in vogue in present times.

I have to thank Rajnikanth for bringing back the name into recognizance in a way, even if in very ill-reputed manner (as it is with Tamil cinema).

Good to hear someone being called ‘Kabali.’ Last time I heard it was in my college days when there are a boy sporting the name in my next street. There was a cinema hall going by the name ‘Kabali’ as well which was struck down 10 years back where apartments have sprung up. I thought that was the end of the name ‘Kabali.’

The temple festival (in Panguni/March month), the fortnightly Pradhoshams etc are very popular even today, never missed by devotees. I grew up playing in the open spaces of the temple.


Coming to the picture,

Still feeling sleepy after night show (10.45) of Kabali in an INOX/IMAX screen here. No match to our local Satyam. Even PVR screens are great. Cinema is entertaining most in India really. May be because we are movie-lovers who actually make them too, we know more about pictures and film watching than others who have less to do with production, creativity etc. Money cannot buy everything. The knowledge level of our people is one of the highest in the world.


To figure out the Kabali picture, you have to first have an understanding of the Malaysian Indian dynamics. No wonder without this basic awareness, many Rajni fans in Tamil Nad and around the world feel let down by the localization of the film plot in Malaysian soil. Most have no clue what it is all about.

Having lived in Malaysia for 4 years, we could readily grasp the story which made a lot of sense to us than to others in the theatre, I could see.

First of all very happy to see Malaysia after all these years again – some 15 years later. KL has become dirtier as I was told earlier. Sad. It used to be less populated then and we knew Kuala Lumpur like the back of our hands. So many new highways now – I don’t think we can find our way in today’s KL.

Driven through entire Malaysia in the period 1997-2001. It was like one lon….g holiday idyllic holiday for us. Beautiful country where locals spoke your language Tamil. Local food. Local climate (somewhat similar to Indian). A great fusion of the west and the east – to the right proportion.

I have not been to a Tamil Karaoke bar (as its liquor bar) but my hubby used to be regular visitor (!) there. The initial shots one or two grabbed from Tamil Karaokes enthralled him totally! I wish we have bars like these albeit non-alcoholic with mocktails in Chennai too. A great concept – having a Tamil karaoke bar.

I found that Tamil society in Malaysia was highly skewed. On one end were Malaysian Indian doctors and lawyers, the most sought-after, and on the other end were rowdy gangsters. Malaysian Indian population comprises mostly of Tamils. A handful of Punjabi Sikhs and other state people make up a tiny percentage of the ethnic race, all brought into the south east asian nation by the British, for working as bonded labourers in rubber plantations over 2 centuries back. Yeah – just like it was in Sri Lanka, Fiji. Mauritius and South Africa. The reason that Tamils are majority here is that, it must have been easy to ship Tamils from Madras harbour probably and the British roped in the rough and savage south Tamil Nad people, stocky and well-built and physically dextrous and charcoal black in complexion – the kind of stamina you needed to work in tea and rubber estates. Around the same time, the mainland Chinese were brought into Malaysia for working in the Tin mines by the British. The two races share a friend-enemy relationship dating back to the 1900s. They have been rivals and good friends at the same time but together put a check to the native Malays (Malays were only the first immigrants to arrive in modern Malaysia. The natives are Orang Asli, an aboriginal race still living in the wild mostly).

But by the late 1990s, rowdyism was already in the wane in Malaysia. When we arrived, the Malaysia Indian population that was largely employed in rubber and palm estates, had already diversified, better educated and less controversial than it was in the 50s and 60s. The chinese by this time had also transformed into leading business community and the past was clearly over. That way, Kabali is late by over a half century.

True there were some remnants in the 90s, like I have personally witnessed some ugly people in Klang and Puchong, the KL suburbs but other than that the murders had almost completely stopped except for one or two here and there. The criminals had a new face: Indonesian and Bangladeshi, no more Malaysian Indian Tamils.

No point in blaming the Tamils though. For over a century, their world was limited to equatorial forests turned into rubber and palm estates where life was very tough. Their mornings began by 2 am and the days got over by 9-10 am, the best time being the early hours for collecting the rubber saps. The days were long and idle and frequent fights between groups broke out between MGR and Shivaji fans in the 50s and 60s, sometimes the fistfights ending up with knifing. As the estates slowly mechanised, the estate workers had to move out of free shelter and closed communities. Not that estate life was pleasant or safe. A friend told us how his grandfather who was rubber-tapping was once bitten in his eyes by a hidden green snake (he lost his eye sight). Malaysia is primary evergreen forest land in the equatorial belt receiving rainfall all 365 days of the year. These days the rains have decreased keeping with global warming etc., but things were different half a century back. Snake bite and Malarial deaths were very common in the estate life. Backbreaking labour yielded very low wages on the other hand.

I have been fortunate to visit a couple of estate temples the workers built out of their own hard labour. One was in Terengganu and one was the more popular Maran. I hope the temples stand. Both were situated deep within rubber/palm estates that looked like dangerous plotting grounds. Driving into the deserted estates in late evenings by itself was a risky affair. But the temples reflected the sheer devotion and determination of the Tamil population. The Terengganu temple was Shakthi temple (a swayambu they say) and Maran was dedicated to lord Muruga (Subramanya). Incidentally, it is Shiva’s angry younger son Murugan who is the most favourite with Tamils. No wonder, as the ancestors of these folks probably descended from Tirunelveli district where we have Thiruchendur, the very famous Subramanya temple in Tamil Nad. Ofcourse, the world knows of Batu Caves and the world’s tallest Muruga standing there.

Seen quite a few Malay and Chinese devotees as well in Hindu temples including those in KL built by prosperous Tamil Chettiars (who founded the commercial banks of Malaysia. May Bank for instance). Body piercing with ‘vel’ was done by many chinese devotees when they got cured after visiting Hindu temples. All feared Muruga’s wrath! It was in Malaysia I heard malay muslims say how Hindu temples cured people. Penang temples, KL temples all these had visitors from other religious backgrounds. In Terengganu, chinese homes had small Buddhist chapels in front of their gates with incense stick burning all 24 hours. There are even vegetarians among them. But of late many have embraced Christianity among them, leaving out Taoism and Buddhism. Very few call themselves ‘free thinkers.’

Among Malaysian Indian community, ofcourse Tamil Hindus form the major contingent followed by Tamil muslims (mostly associated with smuggling business). Christians and Sikhs are fewer in numbers.

The year 1969 saw bloodiest Malaysian inter-racial riots when chinese and indians joined hands against the malay forces. After that, the nation rebounded under the flagship of Shri Mahathir Mohammad (whose grandfather was kerala muslim and who reportedly did nothing without consulting a kerala astrologer much to the ire of local malays. Mahathir also privately made/makes number of trips to the south indian state wherefrom he took roots).

Dr. Mahathir built the modern day Malaysia that saw the network of highways and highrises coming up, with the nation industrialized and growing in wealth with the crude output from the south china sea (offshore)  (Terengganu coast).

The plight of the Tamils worsened however as they could not compete with local Malays for admission into schools and universities despite meriting entries with their high academic performances. Malays held reservations to technical institutions and medical colleges even if they scored a mere pass. But a chinese or indian aspirant who passed out with distinction still had to opt for nursing. Chinese diverted themselves into business, realizing that they could never compete in an unfair competition with local malays. With money minted in trades, they sent their children abroad for higher studies. It was the Indian population that lacked the cunning skills of the chinese and the preferential status accorded to the malays that continue(d) to suffer.

Racism started right in schools, mostly malay or chinese medium by instruction. My friend’s pearly shiny duskiest 9 year old daughter would return home from school, heart-broken everyday. Taunted merciless by racist kids,the girl would ask her mom, ‘Ma why am I so dark? why are we Indians?’ I never knew until then children could be so cruel…

Women are made of sterner stuff for the same reason… My friend was 45 when she found herself pregnant. She would drive her Benz to work for 100 km everyday through dense forests. She drove herself through Thai border in the mountains to Penang from Terengganu for her delivery. After the caesarian section, resting for 2 days, she drove for 10 hours back home alone with the baby in the crib besides her. She used to call me ‘sissy’ no wonder. I used to annoy her with my timidity in those days.

Malaysian Indians therefore are always on the alert – suspicious, guarded in my opinion. There is no trust even within family. Years of accumulated frustration owing to ill-treatment and having to put up with most hostile conditions make them isolated individuals. This is vital for their very existence.

Malaysian Indians generally found me to be very soft (!) – i was also younger at that time. My malay neighbour always warned me to be careful (?!) and that I was a very easy and naive target. All my friends found me so vulnerable some 15-19 years back, wonder why. It goes on to show how tough they must have been then. I am not surprised by Rajni’s daughter character therefore in the picture. It perfectly fits the bill, although many in Tamil Nad may not go with it.

Men or women, life was never easy for Malaysian tamils. Men faced racial abuse at work places. The first day my husband joined work in KL, his manager asked him, ‘you will be doing an RE wall in the highway. you would never have seen such a structure in India I bet!’ Mildly put off by the racial remark, he said, that made him work harder than quit. On subsequent promotion, a director remarked, ‘Indian engineers are smart – like you. Indian doctors are best – because cadavers are easy to get in India and that helps you in learning by making thorough of anatomy!’ My husband says he decided to brush off and not react to the slurs and instead let his performance speak. With grudging admiration, they gave him the yearly bonus that they did not even give their chinese engineers those 4 years. So hard work pays. Racial lines blur when you aim and work for it with all sincerity.

But I agree 4 years is a very short span. Imagine a lifetime living with the insults, taunts and unfair treatment and injustice suffocating you from every angle, every moment of your life….

The looming murky future made many indian kids take to crimes and rowdyism in 60s and 70s.  Drugs and smuggling and women – I am not sure. Murder for gain – they did. They also became hired mercenaries for chinese thugs and mafia bosses who indulged mostly in white collar crimes wiping millions in minutes but never having to pay the price. The Indians were ready to become the scapegoats for a paltry payment, doing the dirty job for the chinese.

However by 1990s, there was sea change in the way Malaysian Indian community evolved. Most had come out of the trappings of estate life by this time. Indian parents are known to push their kids towards academics generally. Their unrelenting efforts and selfless sacrifices started transforming the Indian society slowly into a knowledge society. Despite the gangster name sticking, the Indians were simultaneously known to be best doctors, best teachers, best lawyers and generally as those who had quick, thinking, intelligent brains.

I have heard of the ‘heroic tales’ of Malaysian Indian gangster Benthong Kali (!) and the Malaysian Chinese gang leader Keping Chin! (I guess so, names are fuzzy after all these years!) Both were encountered by Malaysian police. Kali allegedly even underwent facial surgeries to escape from the long arms of law from reaching him!

In 1998, for the first time there was gang-rape and murder of a tamil girl by a group of Bangladeshi labourers. The Indonesians were starting to kill their domestic employers alongside. The period marked the end of Tamil hooliganism and the beginning of a new kind of more menacing crime in Malaysia.

The Malaysian tamils never touched women (for prostitution racket) (that was something the malaysian chinese did). Women’s honour was most important to them. Recently I heard from a Malaysian that today in this 2016, not a single day passes without a murder in every city/kampung (village) in Malaysia. No, the criminals are not Indians or Chinese. The new age criminals are far worse – they are Bangladeshi and Indonesian.

While old gamers Malaysian Indian and Malaysian Chinese gangsters were always engaged in organised crimes pitted against each other leaving the civil population untouched , the modern foreign criminals in Malaysia targeted homes and helpless locals culminating in armed robberies and sometimes in deadly murders. 

The Bangladeshi and Indonesian workers changed the very nature of crimes in Malaysia. In last elections, we heard the Bangladeshis even cast fake votes, becoming a force capable of altering the nation’s destiny.

Today most Malaysian Indian tamils are doing well. They have come out of a very difficult phase and have adapted fine. But the ‘rowdy’ tagline still is attached to them in some pockets. Very few of them get into this illegal kind of activity in the present. Malaysian Tamils have also started migrating to Canada and Australia. Richer parents have given the best education abroad to their children. Many come to Tamil Nadu for their medical degrees.

Our very prosperous industrialist Chettiar family friend from Tamil Nadu who had made Malaysia their home over a century ago, have packed their bags as well. Their sons are settled in Canada. Cannot forget their hospitality in Bangsar, KL. Their home used to be like a sanctuary for all Indian workers and families to stay inbetween shifting homes, etc.

In fact, we were invited by our hosts to their daughter’s home in Klang. Theirs was the largest house in the street. The next week their place was burgled by Indonesians – they had diamond bejewelled Hindu god idols in their Puja. Every single one went missing. The crockeries were broken and even the beds, pillows and sofas were slit with the foam lying littered the entire house. They told us over the phone, the new age Malaysian criminal had arrived.

Tamil cinema reigned supreme in the Malaysian Indian mindset. It was one thing that connected them instantly with Tamil culture and India and Tamil Nadu. In fact in Malaysian radio FM,  I used to listen to and record both Tamil and Hindi songs. Some of their collections, even we must have lost in India. In Hindi, I had recorded gems but had to discard the tapes when we left the country for good.

Tamil and Bollywood stars regularly perform live shows in KL. Indian community is willing to pay any price to have their stars appear in flesh and blood in their home stage.

It is only a return favour that Rajni Kanth gave them ‘Kabali’ – it is like a return gift, if you ask me. The community deserved one.

In the 50s and 60s, the leading heroes of Tamil film industry were MGR, Shivaji & Gemini Ganesan. But the contest was mostly between the former two while Gemini was the cupid of Tamil black & white era.  (No wonder his daughter Rekha grew up to be the Bollywood’s sultry heroine in the 70s.) I have heard of the fist fights and ugly spats between the estate rival gangs over arguments favouring MGR or Shivaji in times when there were no television sets or internet connections. The estates were away from main cities and towns, secluded and vast and dangerous terrain. Tamil cinema was the only distraction for generations of estate workers in those days including for many chinese. I came across chinese fluently speaking tamil and singing the PB Srinivas hits from the 60s.

Although rowdyism has almost died a natural death in the Malaysian Indian community, there are some remnants I believe – not as threatening as before, nonetheless as important to deal with. Stemming the rot forms essential part of rehabilitation. It is time, Malaysian Indian Tamils come clean completely turning no more to junk ways of life or let themselves being used by third parties with vested interests.

The film has opened up a Pandora’s box if you ask me. It is dubbed in Malay and released for the first time in the national language. ‘Kling’ is a very sensitive word to use for Malaysian Tamils. It refers to the ‘cling’ sound of the anklets Indian women would wear which sound used to reverberate through the air with a musical twang. A ‘kling’ comment could invite a murder of honour. I am shocked or perhaps surprised that in the closing scene, Rajni Kanth so casually refers to the use of the term. It means things have pretty cooled down, thank god. This is one positive indication that the Malaysian Indian community is changed for the better and have left their past behind. By allowing distribution of such a sensitive film in native Malay, the malaysian government has also turned a new leaf in the inter-racial society where democracy mostly meant closed door policies and sealed lips. It is a big, bold and brave move for Malaysia. To even allow a voice of dissent to be heard…

Still, why disturb the hornet’s nest. Sometimes its best to bury the hatchet and not do the post-mortem. Malays dish out great injustice to both Indians and Chinese in Malaysia as they were pampered by written constitution handed over to them by their British rulers when they won their independence. The ‘divide and rule’ polity of the British hurts more than ever as it started hurting Sri Lanka from the 50s. Both the Malaysian chinese and indians have started to slowly leave the south east Asian nation in favour of neutral, unbiased shores like Canada and Australia in the last 10 years.

Tamil film industry might think they are doing a favour highlighting the Malaysian Tamil issue, but I wish it is still left unsaid. Recently Malaysia accepted 3000 Syrian refugees and their demography is set to change for ever. Locals are wary and angry that the long waiting chinese, indonesians and indians who have more closer ethnic ties with malays have been denied citizenship for long after having waited for years whereas those from middle-east are given red carpet welcome. The first bomb went up in Malaysia hardly some 3 months back. With Bangladeshis and Syrians, Malaysia is headed for a volatile future in decades to come, says a Malay friend who does not approve of syrian immigrants in their soil. As for Indians and Chinese, he feels they take the edge out of the malay islamic identity and neutralize the society. They are keeping Malaysia from tipping, maintaining the balance. BEsides, everyone knows, the real sweat and blood of the chinese and indians is what makes for modern Malaysia today, with not an ounce of effort from malay bumiputras. Very recently their PM Najib has allegedly committed corruption to the tune of several millions of dollars.

Still, not everyone is migrating either. Millions of Malaysian Indians stay put in Malaysia which is their home for over 2 centuries now. Please don’t destabilize them, Tamil cinema. They once started with ‘Hindraf’ but have given up the madness now. Don’t give them wrong encouragement – this is my earnest request. If you can help, help. Otherwise shut your bloody mouth and look after your own business okay? Just don’t complicate things and make life more difficult for Malaysian Indians.

So in the scenario, how will Kabali make sense of mainland Indians/Tamils or to US Indians? Most cannot even catch the Malaysian Indian Tamil slang the way we can.

It is a good flick if you ask me. Long overdue. But it saddens to me say that after Ajith’s ‘Billa’ this is the second gangster blockbuster movie in Tamil to be produced/shot in Malaysia involving the local Tamils. Why blame the malay government for stereotyping the Malaysian Indian community? Is tamil cinema doing any different?


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