Now, this is going to be long.
(Has some spoilers too)
Now, this is going to be long.
(Has some spoilers too)
With Kaala, Pa.Ranjith has rewritten Ramayanam. In his version, the ten-headed demon Ravanan vanquishes Ram (Lord). Being thoroughly, expressly, anti-establishment, anti-Aryan and anti-Hindu is the foundation block of the film. In this process, the director has forgotten even in the Tamil version of Ramayanam by Kamban, it is not Ram but Ravanan who is evil and hence gets defeated. But in the climax, the creator Ranjith outshines the activist Ranjith as in a set of beautifully choreographed scenes with a sea of people and black, red and blue colour powders jetted amidst them, Kaala, the second generation godfather of the slums, crushes his all powerful, right-wing nemesis, Haridev Abhyankar. (Btw, some of us may remember Shriram Abhyankar, played by Atul Kulkarni, of Kamal's Hey Ram . Shriram was a part of a Hindu nationalist group that planned to eliminate Mahatma Gandhi around the time of Independence, for siding with the Muslims and getting a raw deal for the Hindus.)
Until a few years ago I had the habit of reading Frontline and buying Economic and Political Weekly. It stopped. Partly, because of my slow reading speed and partly due to the high-pitched views generally devoid of clear solutions, that filled the pages of these magazines. Still I revere these magazines. So I was kind of happy to note that Rajnikanth has acted in a Frontline magazine.
Hardly a frame goes without the ideological stamp of the director. Even when you have a frame with hundreds of people with emotions running high, in one corner you have 'A-1 Beef Stall'; The corporate that comes out with its grand plans to uproot the slum dwellers promising better homes and lives is named 'Manu Realty'; The newly proposed township is 'Dandakaranya Nagar', meaning it is a part of Ravanan's (Kaala's) kingdom. So on and so forth. Nothing per se unpalatable, in fact I loved the Manu part, but I thought I went for a Rajni entertainer, not a Ranjith-Rajni propaganda film. Especially, given the after effects of Kabali and the promises made during the audio launch, I was expecting an intense gangster movie with Superstar stealing the show.
Even though Kaala's Wiki page says it is a political gangster film, it is only half truth, the other half is a lie. Kaala is by no way a gangster movie. The hero's position as the leader of the masses is due to his family heritage - his father Vengaiyyan, a first generation migrant from Tirunelveli to Dharavi, organised people to resist the capitalist sharks. After he gets killed, his son Karikaalan takes over. Fair enough. But what explains Kaala's 3-storeyed house and a fancy jeep? Dons earn by smuggling, extortion, execution and the assorted category of crimes. But there is no such backstory to Kaala. Or is it just not said with the sole intention off hiding Kaala's black shade? Here is where a creator who does not mix up his art with activism makes a difference; and marches on to creates a legendary picture.
Till this date, the classic Neenga nalla vara? ketta vara? from Nayagan (1987) resonates in our minds. It is mainly because it traces the journey of a little boy, Sakthivel, a union leader's son from near Tirunelveli (again), who comes and makes it big in Dharavi - with all his shortcomings and failures. Again, he too fights eviction, kills cops, beats the system and carries out all the related jobs. In the process he becomes the guardian angel of the slum dwellers too. But nowhere Velu Naicker is glorified without restraint; nowhere his character is left hanging in thin air. Sadly, with Kaala the golden aura of benevolence is kept so fortified that we do not get a chance to peek in and know what lies beyond; what it hides.
The film opens with the style of a documentary, that roughly presents us the gist of Yuval Noah Harari's bestseller Sapiens in 2D animation. Well done! Superstar's opening is cool. Soon, one of Kaala's son, Lenin, is leading a protest against the State. Lenin, wants to fight for his rights, but within the laws of the system. He hates the illegal and cruel methods of his father. But soon, Lenin's elder brother who acts as the goonda no.1 for his father, comes in along with Kaala and wins over the battle with muscle power. Lenin is frustrated by the uncalled for and undesired intervention by his father. But over the period of next 70-80 minutes, there is a particular scene that stands out - Lenin brings Kaala to fight alongside him, in Kaala's own violent style. The transformation is complete, and the signal is loud and clear. The system does not support the oppressed; so we need an eye for an eye. (System சரி இல்ல?)
Samuthirakani as the alcoholic, right hand man of Kaala excels. With his timely humour and candid performance he brings in much cheer to the otherwise flat moments. He also acts as the chief social media strategist to the don. Kaala-Selvi chemistry works out wonderfully well. Kudos to Easwari Rao! While their lives go about in a mundane manner with the usual agitations, domestic problems, songs and dances, Sate oppression, etc. Huma Qureshi (she is stunning) enters the scene as Zareena, a world famous NGO worker with a specialisation on urban poor. Soon, we get to know Zareena is Kaala's ex. That's something very nicely handled. The dynamics of the couple upon the ex's arrival is so enjoyable; and matured. In fact, the rooftop dinner that Kaala and Zareena have is so loaded with emotions, yet it feels so light; and the way it ends is predictable, yet intense too. Rajni, the actor, shines. At some point of time, once done with all the political stuff, Pa.Ranjith, the creator, should make a full-fledged love story revolving around old aged characters. He has a great knack for it; he is able to making it so fresh. Something on the lines of Pa Pandi (2017). But there was always this lurking fear after Zareena's entry; especially after we start to hear Kaala-Zareena story from various characters. Yes, it would have been dreadful to watch Rajni-Huma as 20-year olds with make up et al. Smartly, and luckily for us, the love story portion is presented in animation with a super quality art work. We are spared.
Again, due to the compulsion of creating political awareness among the downtrodden and the minorities, where otherwise only a few words would have been enough, in Kaala a few pages of dialogues are deployed. You go mad! But thankfully the usual members of Ranjith's play troupe are missing. There are many talented new faces. But his dance troupe is very much active. Please give them a break from dance! Nana Patekar carries his role with aplomb, though due to Madras (2014) effect, we see more of his flex banners and posters than him. The costume designer did not perhaps have much work. His mandate: Everyone in slum to have black dresses; everyone on the other side to be clad in full white. So simple! But here is where the whole movie falls apart - life has shades of grey. Pure black and white exist only in chess boards. But yes, such symbolism are required to break the white-good/black-bad nexus. But unfortunately, Kaala is more about wearing ideologies on your shoulders than cherishing tastefully done figurative.
Special mention of T.Ramalingam, the art director. What a splendid work! Santosh Narayan is at his usual best; he keeps doing what he likes.
The highlight of the trailer was 'Vengayyan mavan othella nikkaen...' - but perhaps as a cruel joke on us, even before the punch dialog gets over, a group of thugs come to rescue Kaala from the enemies! But soon, just to compensate for the earlier miss, Rajni single handedly encounters a dozen giants and also neatly manages to throw a few of them from an overbridge; during this episode he kills villain no.2 too. And the Mumbai rains drench all of us. I think it was the best decision to make the thugs come to his rescue. But Rajni's inimitable performance with comedy is enjoyable as ever.
As a movie the end works. But since the attempt has been at something much bigger, I'm not sure if it's the right way. Will the problem of the downtrodden vanish only if every repressive man in the class/caste hierarchy is killed? Only if the law is torn apart and lives are taken? No way. Among the million suggestive things in the movie, there is also a passing shot of a wall having the classic Bhagat Singh painting - in a western hat and murukku mesai. The young martyr, who's among the greatest socialist thinkers, too had expressed futility of violent methods. Also, till his last breath, Bhagat Singh was a sworn atheist - that means he did not believe in any god and any religion, including Islam and Buddhism.
In addition to the core story line, Ranjith has taken liberal support from Nayagan like - loss of the hero's son and wife to violence, support of Muslims, eviction episodes, colours of Holi, dances with kids, crowd support during police enquiry, etc. But, Kaala too would have been a landmark film - if only the script had not lost its way in the turbulent political waters; if only the script had answered the two basic questions - Who is Kaala? How is he going to uplift the lives of his people?
Am I asking for a Nayagan's remake with Rajni in the lead role? Nah!
Karthik Subburaj - please give us a Rajni film bro! Or even better if we get on board Thiagarajan Kumararaja.