Kaala is not just a film about a gangster from Tamil Nadu in Mumbai; the script is more about the resistance of the common man against the land mafia. Kaala is not an overt statement of dalit politics, the way it was in Pa Ranjith's previous outing Kabali. Kaala aka Karikalan is probably the simplest opening for the superstar, a phenomenon which his fans have not seen for ages. There is no landmark, peppy BGM; in the introduction, while playing a neighbourhood cricket match, Rajini is clean-bowled by a kid. But Kaala enjoys it. This very opening tells the fans what they need to know—it is not a run-of-the-mill Rajini film.
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Kaala is Dharavi slum's redeemer, someone who stands for people’s rights. In the entire 166 minutes, in each frame, director Pa Ranjith capitalises on the larger than life aura of the superstar. Rajini descends from his demi-god pedestal, and here, he is the director’s hero. The movie begins with a protest at the Dhobi-Khana, near Dharavi, where Kaala’s son Lenin (Manikandan) and his girlfriend Puyal (Anjali Patil) take a stand against the land mafia, which in the name of clean India, tries to construct skyscrapers, and protect other commercial interests, on encroached land. In comes Kaala, who tries to unseat them. When Zarina (Huma Qureshi) makes an entry as a dedicated activist working for an NGO, the audience expect a twist. But Zarina is Kaala’s former lover, who stands by him in the fight.
Kaala, unlike the others in Dharavi, is quite aware of the subterfuge practised by the antagonist Hari dada (Nana Patekar), who wants to symbolically 'cleanse' Mumbai of all the slums. The director juxtaposes the colours black and white as a running motif—only here, the long-standing cultural hierarchy is inverted. It is an epic struggle between the noble black and the hypocritical white. The villain Nana Patekar is draped in clean white; all his men sport long saffron-coloured tilaks on their forehead. Hari dada, at the very beginning, declares that he hates black. In one scene, when dada comes to meet Rajini at his slum, he refuses to drink even a glass of water.
But, Pa Ranjith's canvas is not monochromatic—the frames are awash with hues of political red and Ambedkarite blue. Kaala is the messiah of the oppressed, a mascot for the people at the very bottom of the social order. Both the women in Kaala's lives—his wife Selvi (Easwari Rao), and Zarina—are portrayed as strong characters.
Kaala stands out for its symbolism. Seemingly trivial props like the statue of dalit activist Rettamalai Srinivasan in the backdrop of people's protests, or the book Ravana Kaviyam written by Kulanthai, indicate a not-so-subtle antipathy to Hindutva and the saffron brigade. Kaala is a script where Rama is killed and ten-headed Ravana rises up again and again whenever crushed.
Ranjith’s script makes a strong pitch for gender equality, including a telling scene where the police remove the pants of a woman to humiliate her. In the later parts of the movie, a protest is infiltrated, stones are pelted, and the common man gets shot by the police. The irony—read, the Thoothukudi firings and Rajini's reaction—is stark.
Within his limitations, Nana Patekar plays the perfect antagonist. Rajini carries the script on his shoulder, aided by the very capable Samuthirakani, Manikandan and Huma Qureshi.
For the Rajini fans, the star's avatar in the movie is distinct. For the Tamil audience, it is a political nosedive into Hindutva and saffron politics. For the people of Mumbai, for whom Dharavi is nothing new, there is a freshness to the script. However, there are certains gaps and ambiguities in Ranjith's narration, as he doesn’t clearly explain who Nana Patekar is. If Kaala dominates the box office, in real life, Rajini’s spiritual politics might be on its way out.
Cast and Crew: Rajinikanth, Easwari Rao, Huma Qureshi, Samuthirakani
Director: Pa Ranjith
Music: Santhosh Narayan
Cinematography: G. Murali