Trevor J. Raj
The average cost per square foot in Mumbai is 21,000 and the average per capita income is 2.5 lakh per year and a 500 square feet house costs more than 1 crore. It is against this backdrop Kaala; the latest film by Pa. Ranjith is set. Kaala is the name of the family deity, a responsibility that Karikaalan carries on his shoulders, to lead and to protect the masses. The trope of the film is confronting the evil twins of Hindutva and Capitalism.
It is against the background of land as the site of battle, if not war, an ideological tussle that weaves itself through the prism of a family but not necessarily about the struggles of the family alone, Ranjith’s clarity about legitimacy of leadership that belongs to all of the marginalised people in the Dharavi lifeworld puts the focus on the people and the icon is only an enabler unlike Hari Dada whose wanton power mongering cannot be equated with the sharing of resources that Kaala stands for. The film is a balance of ideology and personality for Kaala, for Hari Dada, the power is concentrated on one person. For Hari Dada, power alone is life and for Kaala the cause of the people is his only (selfish) agenda.
Capitalist brand of Hindutva acts as a superstructure that provides the rationale to subjugate the masses in the name of patriotism and purity, both stands as a proxy for Hindutva. Hindutva married to capitalism as a moral-religious ideology kills, bombs, displaces in the name of nation, religion and caste which are interconnected with each other’s visions of a pure and unified idea, a pure race and religion from which the likes of Iyothee Thass, Ambedkar as Radical Buddhists and Phule’s idea of Baliraja were opposed to.
Pa. Ranjith the director of Attakathi, Madras, and Kabali seems not interested in box office commercial hits but puts the focus on people’s struggle. Kaala is not about creating one large icon like Hari Dada but celebrating the thousands of icons of Dharavi who face the brutality of capital, caste, and religious bigotry. The film appeals to the state which was bound to offer affordable housing or social housing for the people but has become a silent and complicit spectator in the face of private interests taking over land, post-Liberalisation era. The film revolves around the issues of Tirunelveli Tamils a significant population among them are the middle castes, Dalits and Pathamadai Muslims who have come to Dharavi at least 60 years ago and call Dharavi their home.
The film is a take on Capitalist-Hindutva’s war on the generations of the Raavanan, the descendants of radical Buddhists who are killed through lynchings and bombings, a pure nation that wants Raavanan and his generations to be sacrificed, Valmiki wants Raavan dead according to Hari Dada. The threats of displacement due to the policies decided by the Navbharat Nationalist Party resembles the fundamentalist party that is on a warpath with people, the Party’s policies of eviction in the name of development is about golf courses, separate schools for rich kids and pubs. Cricket, kabaddi, and football played by the Dharavi youngsters is not the concern of Manu Realty. Children, Teenage boys, Muslim women and their girl children at home, rap/ hip-hop artists all of them have their opinions on issues who are affected by the eviction-minded policy of the Hindutva party. One Young man even says that the name of Dharavi itself must be done away with which signifies their ‘dirt’ / ‘untouchable’ tag while some wish to leave the place for the sake of their children.
One of the opening visuals of Hari Dada, the don-cum-politician is the billboard where saffron is the dominating hue, a criticism of the millions spent on an advertisement by the saffron party that talks about development and kills those who cannot be part of this development. Kaala as social realism is a balance of pragmatism and idealism. Kaala both questions reality and records reality and therefore narrative linearity does not appear as the priority. Towards the end, even as the slums are burning, Hari Dada listens to the chants and sermons of the priests.
Ranjith’s advice for the casteist Tamil society who can no longer erase the issues of casteism in the name of a larger Tamil identity while asking for the need to come together is a message for every Tamil, whether at home or away. Ranjith does not make the pains of one marginalized group dominate the issues of the another. Ranjith projects an idea beyond a politics of expediency. Dharavi holds more lessons for the Caste-infested Tamil Nadu politics that plays its Dravidian masks tirelessly. Dharavi’s politics of the land is about organic solidarity. If the Tamil society is only rhetorical about its Ravana-Rajya anti-Aryanism then those who wish a fascist Ram Rajya through development and nationalism might be winning, the ideology that bombs/ destroy mosques are not only an idea of the past but an issue that will bother the ‘pure’ Indian conscience before Summer 2019. The film lays the importance of a constructive identity politics and also its limits. Identity politics as mere rhetoric cannot work unless the Brahmanical war on people via capitalism is confronted through the struggles shared together, through education, music, and emancipation for each and everyone among the marginalized section, the most disregarded being children and women who must be allowed every opportunity to exercise their agency.
Women in Kaala like in Kabali and Madras are not the condescending characters but persons with their voice and agency. Zarina’s gusto that can speak to Hari Dada as well as Kaala, Selvi’s performance as both a housewife but more importantly playing an equal role with the protagonist. Puyal’s radical politics is a classic case of iconoclasm. Women’s roles in Kaala are subversions of the Tamil heterosexist male norms, both on and off the screen and a critique of the masculinist Ambedkarite movement as well.
The politics of desire crosses the edifice of identities i.e. Kaala’s ex-lover in Zarina, a Muslim woman, speaks of the subjugation of desires between two different identity groups that must remain untouchable, unseeable and unthinkable. Kaala’s constant companion who is an alcoholic brings to the fore the issue of alcoholism. The politics of music as part of the life of Dharavi, the ideology behind the naming of Lenin, Zehra are worth the mention and the aesthetics of colors blue, red and black is a radical response against the domination saffron. News18 TamilNadu, the channel that reports the successful protest of people to stall Manu Realty’s Pure Mumbai project, ironically, is owned by Mukesh Ambani whose palatial home Antilia in South Mumbai is worth 1 billion dollars i.e. 6 Thousand 500 crores.
The movie ends with the Tamil Dharavi rap song Theruvillaku (street light) by Dopeadelicz, Muthamil, speaking of the importance of education and the hard-working spirit of Dharavi is a tribute to Anitha, the brilliant girl from a poor Tamil family who gave up her life last year because of the NEET exam. Perhaps Ranjith wants to say that Education is the major force shall give birth to 1000s of Ravans, Ambedkars, Iyothee Thassars, Rettai Malai Srinivasans, Veerammals, Annai Meenambals, Fatima Sheikhs, Savitribai/Jotirao Phules to confront Manu’s designs of power and subjugation through knowledge that is conquering the oppressed majority for 1000s of years. As a Christian, I find the priest’s words in the film echoing in me and like that of Jesus Christ, there will be resurrections possible even if Hindutva and Capitalism is successful today. Kaala is not a commercial-masala film for a quiet weekend, it is a visual documentary of social, economic, political and spiritual liberations waiting to bloom and explode.
Trevor J. Raj finished his M. Phil (English) from University of Delhi and was the Coordinator of Ambedkar Reading Group [Delhi University]. He has previously contributed to The Companion, Round Table India, Raiot and Pir Panjal Post.