“Kaala”… The second Rajini-Ranjith outing is better than ‘Kabali’, but still an odd fit for both

Posted on June 7, 2018

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Spoilers ahead…

Read the full review on Film Companion, here: https://www.filmcompanion.in/kaala-movie-review-rajinikanth-pa-ranjith-dhanush-huma-qureshi-baradwaj-rangan/

Six years after Mullum Malarum (1978), director Mahendran and star Rajinikanth made Kai Kodukkum Kai, a sensitive drama now remembered mostly for the Ilayaraja beauty, Thazhampoove vaasam veesu. The film bombed. It’s difficult to say why exactly a film fails — it could be a wrong release date, or maybe it wasn’t publicised well, or maybe it just wasn’t very good. With Kai Kodukkum Kai, however, there was another consideration, that the actor of Mullum Malarum had now become a huge action star, having made a series of hits (Murattu Kaalai, Thee, Moondru Mugam, Paayum Puli) in the intervening years. This resulted in Mahendran making some compromises, and Anandha Vikatan, in its review, complained that the film was stranded in between Mahendran-ism and Rajini-ism. I was reminded of this statement when I watched the first Pa Ranjith-Rajinikanth collaboration, Kabali. I remembered it again when I saw Kaala.

Can a filmmaker with a unique vision retain that uniqueness when the film stars a one-size-fits-all brand like Rajinikanth? This is not a new question. It came up when Mani Ratnam took the superstar on in Thalapathy. But because the story was a largely emotional one that spun variations on familiar beats — action, drama, relationships — the shoe fit. Ranjith, however, is a far more political filmmaker, and unlike Mani Ratnam, he isn’t content to tell a story around his star. He wants his star to be the speaker through which he disburses his ideologies. In that respect, it must be said that Kaala is far more accomplished than Kabali — far more interesting as well. If Mani Ratnam looked at the Mahabharata, Ranjith takes his inspiration from the Ramayana — though not the traditional versions. His Ramayana is the one from rationalist readings by intellectuals like Periyar (whose name is found on a road sign in Kaala), which also cast the epic in an Aryan vs. Dravidian light. Not only did Rama become a bit of a bad guy (and a racist), the dark-skinned Ravana was reclaimed as something of a hero, whose kidnapping of Sita was simply an act of revenge for the cruelty Rama inflicted on his sister, Surpanakha. Hence the colour reversal in Kaala: the hero wears black, the villain floats in a sea of white (which includes his clothes, his walls and even the upholstery in his living room).

This is a story about land. Ranjith has always been invested in real estate and issues of ownership. In Madras, it was a wall fought over by political parties. In Kabali, the protagonist spoke of how Tamil labourers transformed a region of forests into present-day Malaysia, and were now being driven out of the country they helped build. Kaala begins with an animated prologue (oh, how Ranjith loves his scene-setting prologues!) about the urban poor in Indian cities, and zooms in on Mumbai, where slums spread out like the shadows of skyscrapers. This sounds like a ripe premise for a masala movie, with the land grabber as the villain. After all, Tamil cinema has made villains of soft drinks manufacturing MNCs and organ-trafficking gangs. A “social issue” is so often reduced to an easy target, so the hero can deliver clap-worthy punch dialogues about exploitation.

Continued at the link above.

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