The oppressed as the superhero: Why ‘Black Panther’ and ‘Kabali’ are similar

The unmissable thing about Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (2018) is that it is strikingly similar to what Pa Ranjith’s Tamil film Kabali (2016) tried to achieve within the superhero format. Both these movies pick all possible clichés and tropes for a superhero movie and interestingly subvert and invert them.

(Note: One might wonder at this point if Kabali is really a superhero movie. The character Kabali certainly doesn’t possess any real superpower. Neither does he posses any technologically aided suit that can compensate for his lack of superpowers. But still, it is important to note that since the movie Annamalai (1992), almost all of Rajinikanth’s movies are primarily a blend of the superhero genre with other genres. His superpower is that he is Rajinikanth!)

Of course, the most obvious similarity between both these movies is who the superhero is. By placing an African and a lower caste person of Indian origin as their protagonists, both these movies successfully negotiate for a space in the white and upper caste dominated movie industries respectively.

Coogler’s movie might be the first to envision an ambitious wide canvas for a black superhero. Black Panther/T’Challa is the King of Wakanda, a fictitious African nation. Here, the otherwise powerful white man gets to play the sidekick (a role often reserved for Afro-American actors in Hollywood) and tries to be a wannabe ally who is frequently mocked for the way he is.

Comparably, Ranjith’s film effortlessly inverts the meaning associated with the name Kabali. From being known as an uncouth, criminalized sidekick character in popular culture, Kabali transforms into an assertive superhero. In the movie, Kabali is a Tamil migrant labourer in Malyasia who rises to become an influential don.

While the character Black Panther could be interpreted as an allusion to the politics of the Black Panther party (though I understand that there exists a claim that the comic character first appeared a few months before the party was formed), the reference becomes even more relevant at a time when the US President Donald Trump has been openly peddling a White Supremacist position and the Black Lives Matters movement has been protesting against police killings of black people, and other issues like racial profiling, police brutality, and racial inequality.

In Kabali, the protagonist is vocal about his Ambedkarite politics, which seems to be a very significant act at a time when Hindutva violence against Dalits has been on a rise under the Prime Minister Narendra Modi led BJP rule. Interestingly, Black Panther released exactly a year after Trump came to power. And Kabali released two years after the BJP’s rule at the centre.

Humanizing the oppressed and the search for identity

The most revolutionary fact about both Black Panther and Kabali is how they set out to humanize oppressed people and their lives on screen. While mainstream cinema has traditionally played oppressed people as either exoticized objects or as perennial victims, both these movies forcefully dismantle such stereotypes.

While Black Panther records the culture, practices and even the costumes of various African tribes in mind-blowing detail, Kabali too documents important aspects of the lower castes – like the worship of indigenous local gods and the absence of a Brahmin priest in their temples. In the song ‘Veera thurandhara’, the lyrics of Uma Devi refer to Buddha’s eightfold path, a religion that Dalit Bahujans in India have embraced to emancipate themselves.

Importantly, in these movies, black people and those from the lower castes are portrayed as individuals who are strong, vulnerable, flawed, assertive and those who are capable of love, hate, vengeance and forgiveness. By doing this, they liberate these characters and make them human, relatable and beautiful – all at the same time.

Black Panther contrasts the African identity with the Afro American identity and voices the yearning of Afro Americans for an identity that they can securely embrace as their own without being subjected to white supremacy. On the other hand, the lower caste Kabali is an outcaste in his Tamil homeland and an outsider in Malaysia. His longing for an identity that will set him free appears to be drawn from the iconic lines of Dr. BR Ambedkar – “Gandhiji, I have no homeland”.

Gender bender

What is remarkable about the characters Black Panther/T’Challa and Kabali is that even though they exist in the hyper-masculine superhero universe, they both aren’t afraid to be vulnerable men. T’Challa freezes when he meets his ex-lover, gets bullied by his sister and listens to the head of the all-female special forces and his mother.

Kabali takes his wife’s suggestions seriously, misses her when they are separated and doesn’t have a problem breaking into tears when he at last meets her after several years. While the rules of the superhero genre dictate that he promptly saves women, children, the old and everyone else from danger, ironically in these two movies, both T’Challa and Kabali get almost killed. T’Challa is then saved by his mother and sister, while Kabali’s assassination is terminated by his daughter.

Both these movies consciously avoid all sexist tropes used in a superhero format. While the male protagonists do act as the pivotal point in both the narratives, they are still supported by very fiery, powerful women.

In Black Panther, Nakia admires T’Challa, but repeatedly asserts that her mission is more important to her than being a queen. Okoye, the head of the all-female special forces Dora Milaje puts her nation and people before everything else. And the teenaged Shuri is an amazing science and tech wizard. All these women repeatedly save T’Challa and call their shots in both love and war.

Similarly, the movie Kabali put an end to Rajinikanth’s over-repeated invincible characterization. Moving away from the usual sexist/misogynistic banter his characters indulge in, Kabali is a man who understands and practices gender equality. Traditionally, it is the task of the Rajinikanth’s character to save women in his movies, but in Kabali, his daughter Yogi saves him from being killed.

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