In his second outing with Rajinikanth, Director trades the glam of the international gangster for the ordinariness of a local rowdy. Dharavi is the proverbial blemish on the suburbs of Mumbai. There are right wingers campaigning on the political plank ‘clean and pure Mumbai’ which sounds familiar from somewhere close to home. From this straightforward premise, film pits the progressives against the downtrodden and evolves into a biting commentary on power and land rights.
Now, political subtext aside, Kaala is not much unlike the Rajini movies you have grown used to seeing. Time-honored slow motion shots, beard stroking, flamboyance, perpetual smirk are abound in Pa Renjit Rajini project which is excruciatingly long, if not dull. (3 hour running time). Neoliberal politicians with an entrenched religious bend are out to wipe Dharavi off the face of Mumbai. Kaala (Rajini), an inhabitant-cum-saviour, is the only man standing between the bad guys and their malevolent dream. Eager to get behind his rallying cry are slum dwellers who live in constant fear of expulsion.
Kaala is a gruff, no-nonsense old man who couldn’t be more clear-headed about the future of his fellow slum dwellers. Director strips Rajini down to the bare elements, giving him the starkness and aura of a village God whom people of Dharavi can call up on in times of need. However, Renjit does this without reducing Rajini’s valour quotient. Barring the occasional act of playfulness and vulnerability, Rajni is doing what he does best, sending people flying with feather-light touch and outmaneuvering opponents with his bullish wit. One minute he is a loose cannon who nearly comes to blow at the slightest of provocation. The next minute he is your drunk uncle who wouldn’t shut up about the importance of getting children educated.
The unusually austere looking Super Star isn’t less worshiped by any standard. There are scenes where people throw their body on the line to protect Kaala from gunshots, pretty much the favorite pipe dream of every power-hungry leader. But Kaala doesn’t eye power. He’s here to speak truth to the power on behalf of his people. For him, the struggle of the oppressed boils down to one of keeping hold of their lands against the encroachment of the powerful. He has a point. Battle lines are drawn. What ensues is an alternately entertaining and uninspiring 3 hour long affair which, with some better editing chops, could have been at least 30 minutes shorter.
Hari Dadha (Nana Patekar) is a powerful, formidable gangster turned politician. But he is in the wrong movie. Kaala outclasses him at every turn and gets the last word in all dialogues. So there’s nothing new there. He is a man of tradition who draws on Hindu epics to justify his deeds, inhumane or otherwise. Kala’s younger son Lenin is a progressive social activist who is ready to ally with the corporates to beautify Dharavi. For better or worse, as the story progresses, a disenchanted Lenin is forced to contemplate his true position in the spectrum of ‘Revolutionariness’. And he joins the force, I mean Kaala.
Kaala’s elder son is a man after his own heart in that he doesn’t mind breaking a bone or two to get his way. There are a few standout female characters in the movie. And none is worthy of more praise than Kaala’s wife Selvi, the only person whom he listens to. Both share great chemistry and complement each other very well. Zareena is Kaala’s ex-lover and noble-minded NGO executive who wishes to help Dharavi and its people. And she has a plan. Their back story briefly serves as a distracting counterpoint to the political noise, revealing the tender demeanor beneath Kaala’s bravado.
The film depicts Kaala as a symbol of blackness and goes about repeating it ad nauseam just to make sure that you remember. What’s most painful to watch is that film never attempts to hide its visionary messages in the dialogues. As a result, for the most part, movie is not so much symbolic as crudely overt in its articulation of these sentiments. Subtlety is absent as film uses direct references to score political points that are too obvious to miss. Perhaps it’s intended for Rajini fans, most of whom might be more used to being told where and what to look as opposed to picking things up on their own.
Those who have seen Kabali might be well acquainted with Director’s Anti-caste, emancipatory sensibility. But with Kaala Renjit introduces a whole new layer of empathy to the hero’s character. Movie’s sole comic relief is placed in the hands of Kaala’s friend, Vaaliyappan who is most of the time too drunk to remember his lines. Kala and his friend produce a silly dynamic which soon fizzles out as plot wears on. The question about one’s moral obligation to Dharavi and its people is visible on the lips of all characters, not just Kaala. Film spends most of the second half tracing the internal conflicts that result from misplaced loyalty and concerns for Dharavi’s fate. Throw into the mix parasitic politicians feeding off of people’s worst fears.
What were latent in Renjit Kabaali get their much-awaited political manifestation in Kaala. Politically-laden rap music accompanies Kaala everywhere, and gradually seeps into narrative’s consciousness. With the discretion of a five year old, film selects the attires of hero and villain to show the dichotomy between whiteness and blackness. Director puts a colorful spin on the climax and sets up an unforgettable feast for the eyes.