Kaala is a film built on juxtapositions. Hari (Nana Patekar) and Kaala (Rajinikanth) aren’t just antagonist and protagonist, they are opposed in every way possible. Hari’s shiny white clothes and house are contrasted to the honest black of Kaala’s dhoti-kurta. Hari, a politician, talks about cleaning the slums, making Mumbai “pure"; Kaala talks about the integrity of dirt. Hari is compared to Ram, Kaala to Raavan. Even their pets are contrasted: Hari’s dog is a foreign breed, Kaala has a desi one.
That Kaala finds so many ways to contrast its main players is fitting—after all, there are opposing forces in the DNA of the film itself. At one level, it’s an urgent, involved look at caste struggle in the country today. At another, it’s a Rajini vehicle, with all the simplistic, macho, patriarchal trappings that come with the territory. This is Pa. Ranjith’s second film with the actor, and while Kaala is a good sight better than 2016’s Kabali, it’s tough to shake the feeling that their respective styles, when combined, are a drag on each other.
In theory, the seriousness of Ranjith’s political approach should find a nice counterbalance in the escapism of a Rajini narrative. Yet, this can give rise to scenes which feel like they’re from different movies. This is a film wide-ranging enough to include references to Kenyan activist and Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai and the South African Landless Peoples Movement’s slogan of “No land, no house, no vote". This is also the film where, when Kaala goes to Hari’s house, the politician’s granddaughter says, “He seems to be a very nice person, please don’t kill him" (when he leaves, she thanks him for making good on his promise).
Assuming its basic import hasn’t been altered in the Tamil-to-Hindi dub, what are we to understand from this exchange? That this child knows that her grandfather has people murdered? That she’s normalised it to the extent that she can drop it into casual conversation? Of course, the film isn’t suggesting anything that dark—it’s just one of those moments when it doesn’t bother to make sense because it assumes mainstream audiences won’t care.
Thirty-one years after Nayakan, Kaala gives us another Tamil godfather in a Mumbai chawl. Kaarikalan is a Dharavi strongman—not really a criminal, more a senior “rowdy" and benign king. Kaala, as everyone calls him, isn’t big on organised revolution; arriving at the last moment with hot-headed followers ready to break things is more his style. His son Lenin, on the other hand, is goading the community into action; builders backed by Hari are trying to acquire the land on which the slums stand and force the residents to resettle. He’s joined by the fiery Charumathi (Anjali Patil) and Zareena (Huma Qureshi), a social worker who was once close to Kaala, which leads to a contrived subplot involving his rightfully miffed wife, Selvi (Easwari Rao).
Patekar, who played one of the great psychotic film villains in Parinda’s Anna, is handed a more serene antagonist to essay here. Ranjith hints at both regional political players—Hari’s lion insignia recalls the Shiv Sena’s tiger—and larger national ones. Hari’s “pure Mumbai" and “digital Dharavi" are seeming stand-ins for “Swachh Bharat" and “Digital India", and terms like deshdrohi (anti-national) echo the rhetoric of the far right. As with Kabali, Kaala uses the grammar and symbols of caste struggle in India: Ambedkar murals, “Jai Bhim", a Tamil rap lyric that roars “Educate! Agitate!" (part of Ambedkar’s famous dictum; the missing third—"organise"—informs the film’s sensational ending).
Cinematographer Murali G. and Ranjith worked together on Kabali; on Kaala, they find their feet. There’s a lifelike chaos to the crowd scenes, with bodies packing the frame and the camera either right in the middle of everything or retreating overhead for perspective. As befits a film that abhors white, strong colours invade every scene. The big action set piece takes place on Marine Drive in the driving rain, with Rajini (carrying that quintessential Mumbai accessory, an umbrella) single-handedly taking on a series of armed toughs. It’s ridiculous, and weirdly beautiful. Even more stunning is the explosion of colour in the film’s final scenes, a visual storytelling stratagem as unexpected as it is intuitively brilliant.
Kaala may end strong, but the road that gets us there is wildly uneven. For every subversive idea—the overlaying of an attack on the chawl with the voice of a priest describing Ram’s victory over Raavan, for instance—there’s one that’s lazily structured, like a communal riot conjured out of nowhere and defused just as quickly. In a 160-minute film, there are scenes that feel surprisingly rushed, and others that meander on without apparent point. Even so, smuggling large amounts of incendiary political material onto the most commercial of Trojan Horses is no mean feat.