Kaala: An important work by a socially conscious filmmaker

At the audio launch of Kaala, Rajinikanth said something that sounded quite alarming. He said that with Kaala, Ranjith had agreed to do a half-Ranjith, half-Rajinikanth film. Given that the parts I enjoyed in Kabali were the Ranjith bits and the general discomfort with which the director had merged the actor’s mass moments into the film, it seemed quite frightful that he was going to take on the task of bringing in more such moments. Having just watched Kaala though, it’s clear that this is as much a Ranjith film if not more than any he’s made so far. The dynamism at the heart of this story lends itself naturally to the few mass moments in the film, and in any case, he doesn’t seem in a hurry to entertain them. The “Vengai mavan othaya nikken. Dhillurundhaa mothamaa vaanga le!” scene, for instance, is resolved in a pleasantly surprising way.

Ranjith, it seems, has realised the pitfalls of pandering to the Superstar syndrome, even if fleetingly, and seems to have been more judicious this time around. The famous SUPERSTAR card, for instance, isn’t simply meant to get fans into a tizzy. That they do anyway is a different matter altogether. The tense music as Rajinikanth’s name makes its grand entrance is more Ranjith saying, “Yes, we’ve got him, and he’s incredible, but come on, let’s get into the story.” This urgency is quite crucial to a film about agitation.

The film begins and ends with a protest for this reason. It can be said to exist in the same continuum as Kabali, and is the second step of what has come to be called the Ambedkar slogan: Educate, Agitate, Organise. While it’s generally argued that the words aren’t to be taken literally, Ranjith’s films, for the purposes of cinema at least, do so. In Kabali, the eponymous protagonist runs an educational institution for the underprivileged. Here too, there are echoes of that idea. When a drunk Kaala is being dragged into a police station, he recognises a friendly policeman and encourages him to educate his kids. It’s one of a few moments where Kaala stresses upon the importance of education. The purpose of this film is different: To show protests as a necessary, even desirable, form of protecting and reclaiming one’s rights — more specifically, the right to land. The last line of the film quite fittingly is, “Nilam engal urimai.”

Director: Pa Ranjith
Cast: Rajinikanth, Eswari Rao, Nana Patekar, Samuthirakani, Dileepan, Manikandan

The setting of this film is the expansive Dharavi slum whose complexity cinematographer Murali often catches with a top-angle shot that’s used multiple times. The geography of this location is quite important, and at least once, the inmates of this slum mock their privileged ‘benefactors’ for not knowing their way around. As Kaala’s friend, the perennially drunk Vaaliyappan (Samuthirakani, who in a sense plays Madras’ Johnny) once asks the villain, Hari dada (an excellent Nana Patekar), “Enna, vazhi therlala?” The implication, of course, is, “You claim to help us, but you don’t know your way around where we live?”

Talking about Madras, Ranjith carries forward his authentic depiction of life in the slums that’s detailed to a fault. If there was a painting that haunted the slums there, it’s hoardings of Hari dada here, which have a life of their own before he finally makes his presence half-way into the film. Ranjith’s constantly trying to normalise life in the slums, and yet, never trying to fabricate for relatability. Dancers and rappers are here, just like in Madras, with their art adding much colour to the proceedings. They even perform an upbeat lament that’s surprisingly moving. In another scene, they rap to incite a protest, to convey their displeasure. Kaala also makes a point or two about the inmates’ sporting preferences. Sure, Rajinikanth’s opening scene has him playing cricket, but he’s shown playing football later. And later, when a builder offers to redevelop the slums with a sprawling golf course, one of the rappers asks why they should be forced to learn a new sport. And without drawing as much attention to it as he did in Kabali, Ranjith also shows how even clothing gets politicized. In the scene that introduces Kaala’s happy family, Rajinikanth is at his charming best, and radiates the effortless style we have all come to love him for. Pay attention to his clothes, as he’s sitting outside his house, and you’ll see that all he’s wearing is a white vest and a lungi. His face isn’t made up either, with the eyes looking rather puffed. He’s your average old man, and is yet irresistibly magnetic. He’s a don and yet, is frightened to death of his wife. These touches are beautiful.

So is the relationship he shares with his wife, Selvi (Eswari Rao, who’s – what’s the expression they use – ‘lived the role’). She displays a Kumudhavalli-like strength, but this is more impressive, as it comes from someone who’s not a revolutionary. She’s a homemaker, and the ticking heart of the family. It’s hard to resist comparing Kabali and Kaala, given how one almost pours into the other. Much like in Kabali, there are echoes of a tragic romance here too. In Kaala though, it’s rather hurried, and the resolution perhaps a tad too simplistic. Zareena (Huma Qureshi) plays a vestige in Kaala’s life, a tattoo that cannot be removed, only hidden. I’d have said Huma looks far too young as Zareena, but Ranjith beat me with a joke about it in the film. Zareena’s role isn’t altogether without purpose though. For one, she acts as a device through which we learn about the depth of the Kaala-Selvi bond. For another, her flashback with Kaala establishes an old conflict, a battle in which Hari dada scarred Kaala forever. It’s a flashback in which the demon separates the hero from his beloved. Ramayana, anyone? Perhaps not altogether a far reach given the number of Ramayana references in the film. Hari dada thinks of Kaala as Raavana, and assures his granddaughter that much as written by Valmiki, he will cause the latter’s death, suggesting, of course, that he thinks of himself as Rama. He’s an ardent devotee, seemingly privileged, and seems to be a practitioner of divisive politics.

He’s a fascinating villain, and Nana Patekar plays him in beautifully understated fashion — with small glances of condescension, laughs of dismissal, and rarely verbose. In the scene where he really talks though, he explains his ambition, and what really keeps him going. It’s an honest admission which humanises him wonderfully. He’s the opposite of Kaala, of course, and in standing for ‘purity’, is all things white. His clothes are white, his mansion’s white, its interiors white, including its curtains and furniture. Towards the end, a Ramayana retelling is tastefully juxtaposed with the developments in Dharavi. The narration about the ten heads of Ravana proves to be particularly deep commentary, and an effective precursor for the climax.

Much like in Kabali, I didn’t really care for the fight sequences. In films that ring as real as Ranjith’s, unrealistic fights do come as a bolt from the blue, but if this is the compromise he has to make to have on board our greatest star of many decades, and to have him champion a worldview and present life of an under/unfairly-represented community, so be it. In any case, the fight scenes here seem to belong, and Ranjith does seem to be getting the hang of marrying mass moments into his brand of films. While on grouses, I didn’t really buy the coerced unity of Kaala’s family after a tragedy. Perhaps if it had been eased in?

Kaala is fascinating in how it — I suspect not altogether inadvertently — draws our attention to a lot of what’s happening around us. It’s firmly rooted in our times and in our world, and really, how many of our films can we say that about? It talks about protests, riots, slum clearance, and… police killings, among other issues. Kaala’s villain represents a familiar type of divisive politics too.

The film is an exploration into the relationship of the oppressed and the oppressor. The climax works so beautifully because the only real redemption for the oppressed is through unity, through education, through awareness — not through the informed voice of just one leader. Individuals are fallible, ideologies aren’t. In this story that has some Godfather echoes (don’t most gangster films?) — a Sonny Corleone-like Selvam, a Michael Corleone-like Lenin — it must have seemed quite natural to groom Lenin as a successor. But Ranjith isn’t Puzo, and this isn’t a story of one family. It is, in a sense, about the unity of a family, but here, the family isn’t of one house; it’s of one community: The Oppressed. And Ranjith’s managed to discuss this in a film with the biggest star of our times. And for this, Ranjith needs all the adulation, and if it comes to it, all the defence we can offer him.

This column was written for Cinema Express, the cinema division of The New Indian Express. All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to its page if you’d like to share it.


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