There are many similarities between Kaala, Pa Ranjith’s second film with Rajinikanth, and their first together, Kabali (2016). The thematic one is the most obvious, where Ranjith brings class mobility, caste discrimination and social welfare into mainstream cinema using Rajini as his cutout. In Kabali, this was done using the lens of labour rights and political identity. In Kaala, this has been done using community and political organisation.
Kaala is Kabali‘s successor in spirit. In Kabali, the focus was on the eponymous hero’s rebellion against his presumed overlords – on his refusal to stay down when pushed down, a defiance depicted as the exclusive product of individual perseverance. Kaala is the first-order derivative of this tale of protest: social and political organisation and community work, together with the reminder that individual struggle – while a necessary first step – won’t work by itself if we are to break the shackles of power and become free.
The social themes Kaala prominently explores include disenfranchisement through loss of land, infighting within the family and between members of the same community, commitment to the betterment of others even when suffering personal loss, and sacrificing one’s personal ambitions in order to join a greater cause. Some of this was there in Kabali, too, but not in focus. In Kaala, solidarity is the leitmotif, and disunity the villain.
In both films, Rajini plays an emancipatory leader of the masses in their fight to get what is rightfully theirs – identity in the first and land in the second. Also, in both films, Rajini succeeds powerful men to this role and battles enemies who have felled his predecessors. Curiously, both films also end on an ambiguous note, but this is executed in unsubtle fashion in Kaala.
In Kabali, Rajini was restrained onscreen, made room for other characters, didn’t pull off superhuman feats and didn’t deliver punchy lines. In Kaala, Ranjith has let Rajini free to be himself, the superstar who beats his assailants to pulp singlehandedly, delivers comebacks in situations that don’t really need them, who – despite having made a show of his age by acknowledging that he’s often a grandfather – sings and dances and works tirelessly for his neighbourhood. While this renewed focus on Rajini will be all too familiar to his fans, it comes at the cost of a film that loses its dedication to a cause, or at least couldn’t stay focused long enough with the same intensity the way Kabali did.
The constant comparison to Kabali is, quite frankly, inescapable. Rajinikanth makes two consecutive movies with the same director who, unlike other directors, is in turn using the opportunity to delve into themes Tamil cinema has often exploited for the mass factor. Nonetheless, Kaala is an average production not because most Tamil movies are bad but because Kabali was able to deliver better. Not because Kaala deserves to be treated like a standalone movie in its own right but because it embraced a difficult subject like Kabali had.
Of course, in many other aspects the film is just as good. There is evident attention to detail in the sets, as a friend I watched the film with and who had worked in Dharavi said. The cast is mostly good, particularly Easwari Rao as Selvi, to whom Kaala is wedded.
Another way the film is remarkable is in its portrayal of protest. There are people sitting and shouting slogans or marching from place to place but they use different protest music for different kinds of agitation. Ranjith especially infuses elements of hiphop, rap music and breakdancing into the way protesters present themselves, the way they deliver their message and, most importantly, in the way different cultural groups in Dharavi meld in their common struggle.
The fact that three of the numbers Santhosh Narayanan composed for the film have powerful lyrics but are either not used in full or feature only as incidental music – Nikal nikal (‘Leave leave’), Katravai patravai (‘Educate and agitate’) and Theruvilakku (‘Street lights’) – suggests they were intended as songs of protest available for use outside the film’s story as well.
All of this holds up an interesting mirror to Rajini’s political ambitions in real-life, although Kaala was written before he announced he would be contesting the state assembly elections next year. Many commentators have noticed a stark difference between Rajini’s “spiritual politics” and Ranjith’s Ambedkarism, and it would be undoubtedly interesting to see how the actor/politician squares the two off.
It is worth asking whether Rajini even knew what he was talking about when he spoke of “spiritual” politics. As Kaala opens, there is a montage showing how land has an always been an instrument of governance before it became the instrument of rule. One frame shows Lord Krishna blowing his conch as Arjuna charges on his chariot on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.
Kaala‘s climax, in similar vein, begins with a line at the start of its second half – “If it is your god’s dharma to take my land away from me, then your god is also my enemy” – and ends with an attempt to recast the Ramayana from Ravana’s point of view (arguably over-focusing on this metaphor as it draws on). It crescendoes with a valorisation of the demon-king’s ability to regrow his heads as Kaala’s followers keep rising in waves to resist Hindu chauvinists burning down their homes.
However, on December 31, 2017, when Rajini announced his decision to enter state politics, he read out a verse from the Bhagavad Gita, where Krishna suggests to Arjuna that he focus on his work and not worry about the consequences. While Tamil Nadu and the rest of India wonder what Rajini’s labours will be all about, there is certainly a difference between his silver-screen persona in Kaala – the first Rajini film in the post-political phase – and the kind of leader he says he is going to be. M.G. Ramachandran, whose mantle Rajini clearly wants, never had to contend with this sort of contradiction.