Director: Pa Ranjith
Rating: 3 Stars (out of 5)
A high-voltage action-packed film with a strong political core, Kaala unleashes Rajinikanth in the garb of a 'real' character, instead of the unstoppable comic-strip superman that he has usually played on the big screen in recent years. An appreciably toned-down superstar takes something away from the film's power to deliver the big thrills but places at its disposal a radical, relevant range of issues that burst out of the confines of the genre and take on a life of their own beyond the persona of the overpowering lead actor.
The protagonist of Kaala, a Tirunelveli native, is a family man who all of Dharavi looks up to as the mainly Tamil migrant dwellers of the Mumbai slum fight to save their land and homes from a slum redevelopment scheme thought up by a son-of-the-soil politician, a former gangster who now has a real-estate company of his own and the levers of power in his control.
Kaala leads a people's resistance against an array of foes - the administration, the police, and the realty firm charged with razing Dharavi to the ground and rebuilding from scratch. All the arms of the government are at the beck and call of Haridev Abhyankar (Nana Patekar), who believes that it is his birthright to grab any patch of land that catches his fancy.
In terms of thematic thrust, writer-director Pa Ranjith may not be offering anything particularly unprecedented here, but his firm emphasis on the biases of caste, religion and gender that India's urban poor have to contend with on a daily basis turns Kaala into a hard-hitting take on poverty, abuse of power and exploitation.
Ranjith, who also directed Rajinikanth in his previous release Kabali, in which the megastar stood up for the rights of Tamil workers in Malaysia, questions the histories and mythologies perpetuated by the rich and powerful, going to the extent of flipping around the Ram-Ravan binary in a fierce life-and-death tussle between 'outsiders' and the politically entitled elite in India's financial capital. That he banks upon a megastar whose leanings seem to represent neo-liberal status quo to propel this provocative project makes the film all the more intriguing.
In a brief sequence in the lead-up to the climax, a Mumbai police constable who was raised in Dharavi switches sides. His senior, Pankaj Patil (Pankaj Tripathi), warns him that he is courting trouble by going against the government. I am with the people, he replies. This cop's name: Shivajirao Gaekwad (superstar Rajinikanth's real name). Is there a message lurking in there?
If Kaala is meant to be a definitive cinematic curtain-raiser on Rajinikanth's foray into politics, it is both confusing and problematic. Because the noises that the protagonist makes in this film as an uncompromising champion of the rights of the poor is at variance with the views that the real-life Rajini expressed following the recent Thoothukudi police firing on anti-Sterlite protesters that took a toll of 13 lives.
Tide over that dissonance between reel-life and real life and you might find the film both entertaining and though-provoking. Kaala is attired in black, Hari Dada in spotless white. Yes, the moral canvas here is essentially black and white, but Ranjith throws in many other colours, notably blue and red, to signify different shades of rebellion. Black, as Kaala asserts in a conversation with Hari Dada, is the colour of mehnat (hard work). As the film unfolds, it signifies defiance and resolve, too.
As he sits brooding after a particularly humiliating confrontation with his nemesis, Hari Dada is asked by his granddaughter who Kaala is. He is Ravana, he replies. She asks: So Ram will kill him, won't he? Valmiki has written it, so he has to kill Ravana, he asserts airily.
But Kaala, in Ranjith's defiant construct, has countless heads. Even if I die, the fight will continue because every Dharavi resident is a Kaala, he declares as he storms out to take on the land grabbers in the finale. He loses much in the struggle, including two of his nearest ones, but has the unqualified support of his followers who address him simply as Kaala, sans any honorifics. He is one of them.
But Kaala allows even the markedly humanized Rajinikanth his trademark moments: slo-mo swag, thundering punchlines, and a couple of stylized, wonderfully filmed and edited action sequences. In one, staged on a Mumbai flyover amid torrential rain, he turns into a one-man army and uses his umbrella as a shield, sabre and spear rolled into one. His target, one of Hari Dada's most vicious men, Vishnu (Sampath Raj), stands no chance of getting away.
But Kaala isn't a mere single-note rabble-rouser. To his sons and their wives and children, he is a loving patriarch, both stern and caring. To his wife Selvi (a wonderfully energetic Easwari Rao), he is a doting husband always mindful not to displease her. To single mother Zarina (an impressively steady Huma Qureshi), his ex-flame who has returned from Africa after transforming many squatter areas there, he is a possibility that circumstances deprived her of, but she makes the most of her second innings with him, this time as a crusader for a just cause. To Toofani (consummate scene-stealer Anjali Patil), a feisty, garrulous Marathi mulgi who is in love with Kaala's youngest son Lenin (Manikandan), he is a role model. And to the people of Dharavi, Kaala is an undisputed messiah.
The physical crux of Kaala is, however, the contested slum itself. Once an eyesore that Mumbai citizens did not deign to give a second look to, Dharavi is now a thriving, if still squalid, sprawl in the heart of the megalopolis and on the radar of promoters and builders. At the outset, Ranjith's script alludes to wars down the centuries, all of which were fought for the greed of land, and likens them to the atrocities being perpetrated on the weak and dispossessed in the name of development.
Our land is our life, Kaala says to Hari Dada. The latter's reply sums up the relationship between the haves and have-nots: Power is my life. Hari Dada's 'pure Mumbai' and 'digital Dharavi' schemes smack of a desire to exercise his might upon people he regards as unwanted and dispensable. But Dharavi operates on a different principle: it embraces people of all religions, castes and regions, all who have contributed their blood and sweat to keeping the place ticking.
Hardcore Rajini fans might find Kaala a tad on the dull side. But the nearly three-hour film has the potential to grow on those that have the patience to try and get their heads around its many audacious departures from norm. Kaala is out and out a director's film. Rajinikanth is a bonus.