Suit up and emancipate : the diverging parallel between ‘Kabali’ and ‘Django Unchained’

There is an organic political and philosophical link between Kabali and Django.

They represent subaltern and oppressed communities, whether it’s Tamil plantations workers in 20th century Malaysia or Black slaves in 19th century America. They are examples of a rebellion, be it individual for Django or collective for Kabali.
Thus, they are elegantly dressed in order to symbolize their emancipation. On the one hand, Django is inspired by Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography, a black slave who bought his own freedom in the 18th century and first took a rich dress to celebrate it. In fact, this blue suit was also inspired by Gainsborough’s painting, « the Blue Boy ». On the other hand, Kabali, the Tamil labourer who becomes a don in Malaysia, is a clear incarnation of Ambedkarism as the Dalit icon wore a three-piece suit to express his fight for equality. As Stalin Ranjagam says, « Gandhi shedding his clothes was not revolutionary but Ambedkar wearing a three piece suit was, as it symbolized the need to take up education, the only means towards emancipation and empowerment of the dispossessed ».

They both also are in a revenge process, which transcends their personal story and has a social and historical meaning, as they are not only fighting against a villain but against an oppressor, who is finally shot with this little revolver cleverly hidden in a sleeve.
Finally, they are both searching for their wife and live in the painful memories of their love, which gives a deep melancholy to their vengeful quest.

However, as time goes by and as I rewatched them, my own story with each of these movies has evolved, taking diverging paths…I find Kabali more and more beautifully complex whereas Django Unchained appears more and more problematical to me. Be it the problematical representation of slavery, the problematical representations of women (Kumuthavalli is way more powerful than Broomhilda), or the problematical character of Schultz. While Kabali finds the path of his emancipation by himself, Django needs the teaching of the paternal Shultz to become the heroic Django, the former slave who learns the masters language and dress code. As if, even in the fictional space of this grotesque tribute to « spaghetti westerns », the black slave needed a white liberator, who actually appears as an on screen twin on Quentin Tarantino, the white director who makes a movie on black slavery…

These « problems » are the reason why Django Unchained has created so many racial controversies in the Unites States. Think about Spike Lee who tweeted : « American slavery was not a Sergio Leone Spaghetti western. It was a Holocaust ». Think about Justin Simien, the creator of « Dear White People » who recently said : « Django Unchained is a prime example of white writers creating African-American characters based off their perception of them ».

Here is the thing. A director’s perception of his film’s subject depends a lot on where he comes from, his gender, his social class, his ethnicity, his caste, his privileges, his oppressions, et caetera. So, I am wondering…the mise en abyme of these two movies leaves me with a lot of questions…Am I more inclined to accept a « Kabali » from Pa.Ranjith because he knows what he is talking about when he depicts oppression and subaltern identities of Tamil labourers in Malaysia ? Would Django Unchained be less problematical if it was directed by a black director ? Would actually, a black director with slaves ancestors, make a Spaghetti Western about slavery ? Where does cultural appropriation begin and end ? Could we really separate the art from the artist ?


~ Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino, 2012 X Kabali, Pa.Ranjith, 2016 ~

(Sound from « Freedom », Anthony Hamilton, Elayna Boynton)

Shakila Zamboulingame