Cast: Rajinikanth, Nana Patekar, Samuthirakani, Huma Qureshi, Eshwari Rao, Anjali patil, Aruldoss
Director: Pa Ranjith
Rating: 1.5 Stars (out of 5)
Rajinikanth gets off a motorcycle. He has been surrounded by the enemy, and a fight scene is finally upon us, where this black-clad leader of men will finally show them - and us - who is boss. His muscles flex, his cheekbones tighten, his eyebrows quiver with menace. Villains rush towards him and he's all set to face them when, suddenly, he is surrounded by reinforcements. Valiant young men emerge around him, kicking ass instead of letting the legend do the work. A Rajini fight scene is a birthplace for goose-pimples and audience-whistles, and while we may feel cheated on missing out, this subversion of expectations is a thrilling thing. It proves that even Rajinikanth is changing.
Kaala, by politically aware director Pa Ranjith, casts the superstar in different light indeed. He plays his age, he is cast opposite a character actress instead of a glamorous starlet, he speaks with an invisible sickle in hand, and oh... he plays an untouchable. These are unlikely boxes for someone of Rajini's magnitude to tick. He did play an older man in his last collaboration with Pa Ranjith, Kabali, but his years were obscured by affluent clothing, worn like armour to say that a poor man can - and should - wear a good suit too. As I had written then, that film was a statement of style and intent.
This one is all over the place, sadly. It tries to say more, but it also emerges more muddled. The narrative of the slumdog saviour of Dharavi doesn't gel with the invincible posturing and bombastic dialogues of the leading man. The villain, a politician-builder played by Nana Patekar in very Shiv Sena vein, is more intriguing than the heroic character of Kaala, a former gangster and now grandfather to the chawl of Dharavi. This Nanasaheb knows what he wants and how to get it, while Kaala - for all his 'black is beautiful' talk - comes up more than a bit short.
Rajinikanth is great, flashing that smile from behind a white beard, and enjoying being (relatively) more restrained here. The actor is 67 now, and it would be a joy to see him in subtler, more delicately written parts. Kaala gives us glimpses of that, when he flirtingly teases his wife (a wonderful Esvari Rao), lying to her about having beaten up a guy just so she doesn't think less of him for coming back with a bruise, or when he delivers a Leftist line with conviction. He also looks super in black kurtas, vests and dhotis. If only the film had given him more to do.
Huma Qureshi stars, incredibly enough, as his childhood sweetheart, an outlandish casting decision that is all the more obvious when we see handpainted flashbacks of their youth, where he looks like the dashing Rajini of old, all bright-shirted and roguish, while she looks exactly as she does now. In the present day, she has two strands of grey hair, while he grins from behind a white beard and twirls up his moustache.
In contrast, the first time we see the villain, his moustache is trimmed badly, as if everything about him is uneven. Patekar - let us call him Nanasaheb - is a fantastic villain, revelling in being the evil Rama to Rajini's dark knight Ravana. His calm, methodical deliberation is a thing of menace and beauty, and the scenes between the two actors rise above the rest of Kaala.
It is hard to figure out what Kaala is saying. Rajinikanth plays a power-to-the-people champion but a policeman assaulted by crowds in this film - in an ill-conceived parallel to the Sterlite Copper police firings - is shown not only as heroic, but also given the name Sivaji Rao Gaekwad, which is the superstar's own name. So does Rajini now stand for protests or against protests? The cleverest line in the film comes when Kaala, reprimanding his younger son Lenin, laments the fact that he can't even curse the boy because he named him Lenin. This is as Left as a mainstream film can get, but that doesn't automatically make it right. The Rajinifesto needs a lot more work. But hey, a few Marx for trying.