Kaala and Pa Ranjith the artist

Featured in the September 2018 issue of The World of Apu film magazine.

Kaala is a Tamil film set in Dharavi, Mumbai and tells the story of the problems faced by people whose living spaces stand in the way of rapid urbanisation. The film is written and directed by Pa Ranjith, whose filmography includes MadrasKabali and Attakathi, films that came to be known for their rootedness.

One of the common complaints I heard was that Kaala gets stranded somewhere between a Pa Ranjith (political) film and a Rajinikanth (populist) film. “We only get to see Ranjith the social activist, where is Ranjith the artist?”

In the film, during a confrontation with the antagonist Hari Dada[1] (played by Nana Patekar), Kaala (titular character, played by Rajinikanth) tells him that everything appears black to him because he’s viewing Dharavi from a distance. “Come closer and you’ll see the black transform into colours!” he says. Kaala the film makes the same point to the viewers. Keep a distance and you only see Ranjith the pamphleteer. Come closer and you see Ranjith the artist in all his colours.

Let me take you closer.

Narrative structure

Structure is the fabric that ties a set of visuals together to make a work of art. Let us look at narrative structure in Kaala.

The opening and closing portions of Kaala are perfectly symmetrical: they are both news stories by a specific reporter, about people protesting for their rights (in the beginning, this protest takes place in Dharavi, and in the end, it happens at a Chennai slum). The movie begins and ends with colours. In the beginning, we are shown a wide aerial shot of clothes of varied colours being hurled in protest at the washing ghat. In the end, we have a similar aerial shot showing us Hari Dada drowning in a deluge of colours. This climax harks back to a scene in Madras, in which the people hurl colourful paint on the wall, which is the territory or ‘land’ people waged war over in that film. I wanted Madras to end with this scene, but it went on to show us some more fighting, betrayal and revenge.

In Kaala, this idea comes to fruition since it is used as the climax. The deluge of colours is fitting, because the war in Kaala is more large-scale than Madras. It isn’t over a single wall, but over a vast stretch of land in the middle of a bustling city. And the hero isn’t the one hurling the colours, he is all the colours that make up the deluge.

The hero isn’t the one hurling the colours, he is all the colours that make up the deluge.

There are three key moments at which Kaala sees Zarina, his love that got away: the first time when he is young and smitten; the second time when he sees her at home, and realises she’s alive and back in his life; the third time when he has one final look at her before dying. Her face is lit the same way in all three moments. The first moment is shown to us through a painting when Valliyappa (Kaala’s brother-in-law) narrates their backstory. The second moment during the power cut is shown to us as a real shot with dramatic lighting. The third moment comes just before Kaala dies, when he sees her face lit by the fire. This shot is obscured by fumes, so it seems to lie somewhere between a painting and the real world, their romance too stranded in that zone between dreams and reality. There’s more to this shot, I’ll come back to it later.

Cinematic storytelling

For a significant portion of the first half, Pa Ranjith establishes the villain’s presence through hoardings and posters. He is everywhere, looking down on the city like Big Brother. In fact, after Kaala dies in the fire, we see Hari Dada look up with a sense of satisfaction at his own poster in Dharavi. This isn’t just egomania, it is also the feeling that he has successfully gotten rid of Kaala, the force that challenged his presence in the region. But Kaala becomes the dust that obscures buildings, hoardings, everything in Hari Dada’s sight—Katravai Patravai is a dance in the middle of a colour deluge that obliterates Hari Dada’s presence. While the villain demarcates his territory by placing his image at every nook and corner, Kaala breaks his supremacy by blurring or blackening everything. This is the victory of the hero over the villain expressed in a pure, visual manner.

Disrupting the wedding of Kaala and Zarina wasn’t Hari Dada’s primary intent, he simply wanted to get rid of his enemies. He also confesses that killing Kaala’s wife and son was not what he intended. Kaala’s life has been torn apart by Hari Dada, simply because they stood in the way of Hari Dada’s political ambition. This is tucked into a visual when Kaala and Zarina cross each other on a staircase—you see Hari Dada smiling from a poster behind.

Kaala’s life has been torn apart by Hari Dada, simply because they stood in the way of Hari Dada’s political ambition.

There’s more. In Ranjith’s films, the main conflict is always a clash of egos, be it MadrasKabali or Kaala. This is evident when Hari Dada asks Kaala to touch his feet and vice versa. This egotism, this placing the self at the centre of everything else, is shown succinctly through a point-of-view shot when Hari Dada is stranded in the streets of Dharavi. He looks at the people around him and then up at one of his hoardings, now torn. This is reminiscent of a shot in Madras when the villain looks at the wall splattered with colours. Both shots are symbolic of hurt egos.

A shot from Madras symbolic of hurt ego.

There’s another point-of-view shot, this time of Kaala, when the police arrive at his home and he sees panic on the faces of his family members. While the two POV shots serve as a visual expression of the tit-for-tat game Kaala and Hari Dada play, they also emphasise that beneath the layers of struggle for land rights, there’s a submerged battle of personal egos.

A permeating theme

To me, a good work of art is one that has a theme permeating its cinematic structure. At the core of Kaala is the question: Who defines development for a community? Should the development evolve intrinsically based on the needs of the people (as expressed in the group discussion scene with Zarina), or should it come from outside (as expressed in the Powerpoint presentation by the estate builders)? The theme of Kaala is that no single individual is bigger than the revolution or the cause, and that the development of a region should be determined by its native people, not by external groups that wield power and money. Giving importance to the collective, rather than the individual, is a theme that the film doesn’t let go.

Kaala’s family and his associates stand at the entrance when Hari Dada approaches their house. It tells him that he isn’t facing Kaala alone, he is facing all of them. He learns this soon when he tries to leave and realises he’s stuck, not because of Kaala but because of the collective power of the people. It’s a premonition to the rousing climax in which each one of them becomes Kaala. For most of the film, Kaala and Hari Dada never clash with each other directly. Their war is waged through other people and situations. This is how the battle of Ramayana was fought too.

The hero’s death and living on in spirit, the narration of Kaala-Zarina relationship by multiple people, the group discussion scene enumerating people’s problems, Kaala’s family discussing their issues in the open—all of these reiterate the emphasis on the collective rather than the individual.

Kaala’s dog matters too. There are three critical moments in which I remember the dog’s presence. One at the beginning, when the entire family is introduced, and they enjoy a fun moment outdoors. The other when Kaala confronts Hari Dada, and the third, after the death of Selvi, as a shattered Kaala sits outside his house. In all three moments, the dog felt like a part of the family, its emotion resonating with that of the household’s.

While speaking to Hari Dada, Kaala pats the dog on its head, which I consider to be a statement. Here is Hari Dada, a person who’s offered water by Selvi but refuses to drink it, just as he refuses to accept the presence of Dharavi in his Mumbai. Kaala is seated in front of this person and patting a mongrel, an animal that obviously wasn’t purchased at a pet shop, but one found in the streets, and welcomed into the household as a member of the family. It is this quality of assimilation that Kaala puts on display in front of Hari Dada, who wants to eliminate anything and everything he considers dirt.

Here’s an interview with Kaala’s dog (!) and its trainer:

Pa Ranjith has ensured the ideology behind the ten heads of Ravana pervades the entire film. This makes Kaala a very interesting work of art and him a good artist. In fact, the film’s song album is a collective too, composed by Santhosh Narayanan along with singles by some independent music groups.

Untold stories

Rajesh Rajamani has written an essay in which he compares Kaala with Nayakan, the other Tamil film set in Dharavi, but one which uses the location only as a prop. Kaala is the first Tamil film that has captured the living spaces, languages and sounds of Dharavi on screen. A separate essay could be written on the various dialects of Tamil, and how they blend with Marathi and Hindi in the film. It wasn’t just Hari Dada, a Marathi politician speaking in Tamil, but every other non-Tamil character speaks in Hindi, Marathi and Tamil, like the police inspector or Kaala’s Marathi daughter-in-law. Juggling multiple languages is bound to happen in areas with multitudinous tongues. People speaking languages not their own will definitely have an accent, and the characters in Kaala do not attempt to hide their accent. I felt this added to the realistic portrayal of Dharavi.

While Kabali‘s villain felt like a stiff puppet, Nana Patekar’s performance in Kaala was menacing. The moments he spoke in Hindi/Marathi and the moments he spoke in Tamil were important emotional cues to his state of mind. For instance, Hindi comes naturally to him when he is emotional, such as when he declares Bombay was his and Mumbai will be his in the future (“Bumbai hamari thi, Mumbai hamaari rahegi!”). But he uses Tamil when his speech is planned, like the moment on stage when he says he will transform darkness into light (“Irulai prakashama maatha poren!”). Such subtle use of language added to the character building of the villain.

Borrowing cinematic methods from myths

“Cinema isn’t just about what you say but also how you say it.” This statement is used often by critics to shoot down films loaded with propaganda, films that don’t hold up to some imaginary cinematic standards. But I think Ranjith is exploring new avenues of merging cinema with traditional Tamil storytelling forms. With Kaala, Ranjith wanted to narrate an alternate epic, not one that glorifies Ravana but one that redefines what he stood for. And he does this by structuring Kaala‘s narrative like a myth.

What makes a myth? Here’s what AK Ramanujan says in his essay Three Hundred Ramayanas.

These various texts not only relate to prior texts directly, to borrow or refute, but they relate to each other through this common code or common pool. Every author, if one may hazard a metaphor, dips into it and brings out a unique crystallization, a new text with a unique texture and a fresh context. The great texts rework the small ones, for ‘lions are made of sheep,’ as ValCry said. And sheep are made of lions, too: a folk legend says that Hanuman wrote the original Ramayana on a mountain-top, after the great war, and scattered the manuscript; it was many times larger than what we have now. Valmiki is said to have captured only a fragment of it. In this sense, no text is original, yet no telling is a mere retelling – and the story has no closure, although it may be enclosed in a text. In India and in Southeast Asia, no one ever reads the Ramayana or the Mahabharatha for the first time. The stories are there, ‘always already’.

AK Ramanujan says myths, especially the Ramayana and the Mahabharatha, are like a pool into which people may dip any time, and emerge with crystals of their choice. In other words, myths are stories that evolve over time, are told and retold by different people, each one adding or taking something away. They contain various contradicting narratives within themselves. In his essay, Ramanujan mentions that there are versions of the Ramayana in which Sita is Rama’s daughter, or Sita is Ravana’s daughter and so on.

Pa Ranjith has structured Kaala like a myth. Kaala is made into a mythic character in the end. Different people have different versions of what happened to him, all of them refuse to accept he is dead. The exact details of the villain’s death are not known either. In fact, even their origin stories aren’t very clear. The film’s narrative is structured like a myth into which you may enter and fill in your branching tales.

Myths are made through telling and retelling. This is shown cinematically through the narration of the Kaala-Zarina relationship by different people. The story isn’t narrated by a single person, it is told by different people in different settings in bits and pieces. The settings in which these stories are told matter too, they are not orated on stages, they are told in cosy places like a tea shop or a street corner, places where people naturally gather. That is how myths have grown and evolved, by word of mouth and by multiple retellings.

Be it Thalapathy or Raavanan, Mani Ratnam sticks to narrating the standard version of Ramayana or Mahabharatha. Within this standard version, he explores grey areas—is Rama completely good? Or is Ravana completely evil? This grey bores me! It is an obvious truth that everyone is grey in real life. What are we going to gain by establishing this fact repeatedly? Mani Ratnam’s adaptations are very direct, the reproductions so exact that you can easily identify the mythical counterpart for each character (recall Karthik jumping around like a monkey in Raavanan).

Ranjith’s subversion of the epic is far more abstract and fascinating. He reinvents Ravana as a symbol of revolution, his ten heads stand in as a symbol of united protest. His Ravana seems to say the heads don’t matter as much as the cause. The other stock Ramayana characters and their arcs have been deliberately blurred in Kaala. While Mani Ratnam is content with armchair philosophizing, with questions like, “Is Ravana completely evil?” (to which the answer is an obvious No), Ranjith instead provokes us to dig deeper, “Why is black considered evil and impure?”

In the Tamil version of Ramayana, when Rama strikes down Ravana with one final arrow, Kamban describes it thus (I’m paraphrasing): “The arrow went into every inch of Ravana’s body, heart and soul, in search of all the hidden traces of desire he had for Sita, and removed them.” The death of Kaala is the opposite. The fire that engulfs him burns out everything, everything except Zarina.

I saw Selvi and Zarina as symbols of the two lives of Kaala or the people of Dharavi—the life they wanted to live but were denied (Zarina) and the life they have been given (Selvi). Urbanisation (Hari Dada) denied them the life they wanted, and poses a persistent threat to the life they’ve been given as well. Seen in this context, the final expression on Kaala’s face, as he looks at Zarina through the flames before dying, is open-ended. It can be interpreted in many ways. Does he see in her hope for the future of Dharavi? Does the life he could have lived with her flash before his eyes? Does he see Zarina as the living form of his love for Selvi? Does he see Zarina as the symbol of that which he has been fighting for all his life? That final, parting expression is so enigmatic, it could be any of these.

The final expression on Kaala’s face, as he looks at Zarina through the flames, is open-ended.

Beyond form and cinematic style

Setting aside matters of form and cinematic style, let us look at some questions. Which was the last film in mainstream Tamil cinema that portrayed the lives, living environs, joys and problems of Tamil people living in Dharavi? Nayakan doesn’t count—it was not a rooted film. It was more interested in paying homage to Godfather, than in portraying the real lives of the people of Dharavi. A female character in Kaala expresses the dryness of her romantic life in a matchbox-sized house. We see the interiors of these matchboxes in the film with stairs leading up to more rooms, which reveals even more families can be crammed into the available space. Ranjith tells us about lovers wresting some intimate time for themselves, as they wait in queues to use public toilets—a reminder that life goes on regardless of suffering.

Which was the last mainstream Tamil film that portrayed the private moments of an aged couple on screen, that too with one of them being a superstar? Which was the last Tamil film that showed two ex-lovers having a mature conversation about their love, in spite of their paths diverging?

Which was the last Tamil film that portrayed the “mixed cultures” of city slums? (Ranjith mentions it in this interview.) The people who inhabit the slums aren’t all of the same kind. There are diverse cultures, languages, religions and lifestyles within the same slum. This is the point that Kaala makes in the film to Hari Dada, when he says the black transforms into colours once you come closer. Has any Tamil film ever made an attempt to acknowledge this fact on screen? Our films have always been obsessed with using the narrow streets of a slum as set pieces for the police to chase criminals.

Most of us might think that we are free of any prejudices about slums, but reality isn’t that simple. This mentality is pervasive, this prejudice is present within all of us at some level. The places we choose to dine (and the places we avoid), the music we choose to listen (and the music “we can’t bear to hear”), the kind of faces and bodies we think are beautiful, the colours we think are gaudy, everything we think of as “taste” is built on classism. This mentality that black is dirt, slums are dirt, is what Kaala criticises in the film too. “The problem is in the way you see things.”

How about the women of Kaala, as detailed in this essay by Sowmya Rajendran? The moment when Puyal chooses to hit back at the policemen, even after being stripped of her dignity, is a crucial moment for Tamil cinema. The only option for women in Tamil cinema who have been wronged is to avenge the wrongdoer by appearing as white saree-clad ghosts, or have their husbands/virtuous lovers do the needful, on their behalf. How about the stories of women across India who have been raped, but make efforts to recover from it and lead a normal life? Has Tamil cinema bothered to give them a voice? Moments like these in Kaala nudge the audience ever so slightly towards the idea that rape is not dishonour, neither is it the end of one’s life.

Due to a variety of reasons, we have a vibrant Tamil diaspora in many parts of the world today. Tamil people outside Tamil Nadu lap up all of Kollywood’s films, but Tamil filmmakers do not care to tell their stories. That makes films like Kabali and Kaala important, regardless of form.

I feel disappointed when critics use form as an excuse to undermine the importance of these films. I want to show them how Kabali‘s songs and dialogues have become a shorthand of sorts for Tamil people in Singapore and Malaysia, a pop culture artifact that does not alienate them. It tells them that they exist too, their lives can be celebrated, the stories of their land and people are worth telling. It gives them the confidence to thrive in a multicultural and multiracial environment. Kaala does the same for the people of Dharavi.

When Kabali uttered the famous “Kabali da” punchline, on the big screen, he wasn’t just fighting a goon, he was bashing all of our film stereotypes and prejudices, the idea we have of people named “Kabali”. Karikalan, Kabali, Kumudhavalli, Kalaiyarasi—the many names that Ranjith uses in his films—they are the methods of a clever filmmaker, urging viewers to set aside their preconceived notions about such names. Ranjith brings this up in Kaala too, through a laidback conversation between Kaala and his grandchildren. There’s also the subliminal message to be comfortable with your dark skin colour in a country that relentlessly bombards you with advertisements for fairness creams. Ranjith, through his characters, strives to establish that dark skin is nothing to be ashamed of.

Form or aesthetics is merely one lens through which you analyse a film. There are various other lenses through which you can look at cinema, including socio-political and cultural implications. A film is not made in a cultural or historical vacuum. It is made in and for a living, breathing society.

An old man mentions in this short video, “Dharavi is nothing but Tamil Nadu.” There are many such fragments of Tamil Nadu scattered all over the world today. All Tamil films so far have only been heartbeats that emanated outwards, from the southern tip of India to these scattered fragments. Pa Ranjith’s Kabali and Kaala are landmark works of art that have attempted the reverse, bringing the pulsating rhythms of these displaced fragments back to the beating heart. But are we listening?


[1] Dada – an honorific in Hindi that means big brother

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