Director: Pa Ranjith
Cast: Rajinikanth, Eswari Rao, Nana Patekar, Samuthirakani, Dileepan, Manikandan
Rating: 4/5 stars
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.”
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?”