On ‘Black Panther’, ‘Kaala’, and Pa Ranjith’s career

Posted on March 8, 2018


Read the full article on Film Companion, here: http://www.filmcompanion.in/rajinikanth-black-panther-kaala-pa-ranjith-baradwaj-rangan/

In which I try to figure out the irony of a filmmaker who wants say very specific things and yet yields to the generic demands of a star vehicle.

I kept thinking about Black Panther as I watched the teaser for Kaala, the new Pa Ranjith movie starring Rajinikanth. If the former attempts to co-opt a black narrative into the arc of the superhero blockbuster, the latter seems a thematic extension of Kabali, an attempt to co-opt a Dalit narrative into the arc of the Super Star blockbuster. In other words, both films use a “commercial” language to address – or least, glance at – issues that mainstream filmmakers typically do not touch with a bargepole. Both films rest somewhere in the continuum between “it’s high time someone did this” and “is this enough?” (When I speak of Kaala henceforth, it’s not about this particular film, but about the Kabali tradition of filmmaking.)

And the “messages” in both films are compromised by the need to work across a broad cross-section of audiences. US viewers will bring to Black Panther some of the tensions about race that simmer in their backyards. But the viewer in Taiwan or India is just going to turn up for a fun film. Given the budget, the director has to make sure that Black Panther caters to both constituencies. Likewise, those attuned to Pa Ranjith’s politics view his films as sugar-coated bitter pills. More general audiences (like me) may sigh that it’s difficult to make a movie that’s at once sharply political and a general entertainer that won’t ruffle too many feathers. Anthony Lane, the New Yorker’s very white film critic, had this to say in his review of Black Panther: “I wonder what weight of political responsibility can, or should, be laid upon anything that is accompanied by buttered popcorn.”

I bring up Anthony Lane’s whiteness for a reason. The writer/podcaster Carvell Wallace, who is black, reacted very differently. In a New York Times essay titled Why ‘Black Panther’ Is a Defining Moment for Black America, he quotes Jamie Broadnax, the founder of a pop-culture site named Black Girl Nerds. Broadnax observes, quite rightly, that the characters in Black Panther “are rulers of a kingdom, inventors and creators of advanced technology. We’re not dealing with black pain, and black suffering, and black poverty,” which are the topics usually addressed in acclaimed films about the black experience. Similarly, Pa Ranjith’s Dalit characters aren’t the victims we usually get. The most famous line in Kabali (see teaser below) had Rajinikanth proclaiming that he wasn’t the subservient “Kabali character” from earlier Tamil cinema, but a Kabali for a new generation.

Continued at the link above.

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