Ranjith is a filmmaker whose stories are subservient to his ideology. To ask him banal questions like “why?” is to completely miss the point, especially so in a democratic medium like film. There is no curatorial requirement to fit into a box, and it is to great satisfaction that Ranjith continues to break the mold in Kaala.
For me personally, all of Ranjith’s films place a passing (and yet nuanced) commentary on some aspect of people’s lives; something that makes the experience of watching it entirely worthwhile. In Kabali, it is the hand that the house slave plays in the subjugation of the field slave. In Kaala, he takes what is passing commentary in Attakaththi and places it front and center, while continuing to build on a pet concern from Madras. A lot of Attakaththi transpires in modes of transportation – trains, urban / mofussil buses and the sort. Not once does the movie explore why – but the discerning viewer is forced to ask, why is Dinesh’s character commuting so much? In fact, one of the primary concepts Attakaththi exposes is one of a “route thala” a guardian of sorts when your space in public transportation is threatened. Clearly this is the sentiment of a displaced people; a people who have had their rightful land taken away. This is placed front and center in Kaala. The people of Dharavi refuse to be replaced and let the haves build their golf courses while they are fed 250 square foot morsels. The pet concern from Madras that stays as passing commentary in Kaala is the need for the progressive / liberal / leftist ideology to grow a spine. It’s represented in the form of Kaala’s youngest son – an ‘activist’ who believes that agitation without consequence can actually bring about real change. Ranjith accurately captures the impotent rage of these folks, one that can so easily be swallowed up the right – until of course the losses close to home mount too high for the alliance to stand. He is also quite clear on all the different veils under which fascism can arrive – fear, benevolence, progress, digitization – but that the veil itself is fairly thin.
The visually appealing aspects of Kaala can be classified under the 5 elements for me. Land, is a fairly obvious one but I specifically enjoyed the dismay on Hari Dada’s face when the dirt in his hand turns black. Water is omnipresent as well – flowing as rain, and stagnant as sewage but my favorite use of it was in a tumbler / glass. Both Hari Dada and Kaala are offered water in each others houses to very different responses and in a subtle way we’re told that tit for tat doesn’t actually make you the better person. Air is present just before Kaala enters Hari Dada’s house in the waft of a white curtain to reveal Kaala in splendorous all black. Sky is in all those birds eye top shots near the interval block providing us a little insight into how Kaala knows and moves the pieces in Dharavi. And fire, well, doesn’t fire just consume it all in the end.
There are stretches during Kaala where one is concerned that this will turn into the messianic Rajini film as the star threatened it would during the audio release. It was especially of concern given the recent occurrences in Tuticorin, and the press conference that went sort of haywire. For no other star’s real life identity is so inseparably linked to his on screen image as Rajni’s is. And it is desperately in need of being exposed for its shallowness and lack of viability when it comes to being a truly political ideology. Thankfully, the film redeems itself with the ending. In my eyes it was a clear indication that a movement must last beyond a savior and that Ranjith no longer needs Rajinikanth the star as a vehicle for his ideas.