Readers Write In #43: Why I can neither like nor hate Kaala

Posted on August 1, 2018


It has happened again. The last time I felt like this was when I saw Kabali. Now it has happened again with Kaala. The Ranjith-Rajni combo films always leave me stranded between ‘liking’ and ‘hating’ camps situated on opposite ends of the  street.

The most important reason why I like Ranjith’s films are because they are the rare ones whose sequences look like they really ‘breathe’. In other words, Ranjith stages even ordinary scenes so well that you almost get a feeling that the people on the screen already exist on a parallel universe and that you are only getting to see a very carefully chosen slice of their lives. For example in Kabali, you might have noticed the few casual, inconsequential moments Kabali and his daughter share inside the Star Hotel Suite soon after they reach Chennai. If you have missed, please go back and catch the sequence where Kabali walks across the room just how we survey a totally unknown place immediately after reaching there. Moments like these add nothing to the story and there is no good reason why Ranjith must prevail over the editor who probably wants them out of the final cut. Kabali has a lot of moments and frames like these, which by themselves are no great things, but in the context of today’s superfast editing patterns of KV Anand – Hari legacies, these are very nice things to do. In contemporary Tamil cinema there is a too holy convention of not allotting even a additional microsecond of time for a particular sequence more than that is mandated by the storyline, so as not to repel the viewer’s interest in the narrative. This convention especially with respect to commercial cinema has done more harm than good, and as a result, many films with compelling narrative arcs look no different from ordinary movie trailers, suffocatingly overstuffed with frantically assembled set pieces creating no impact on the viewer at the end (Kavan, case in point). It is very much like offering you with the right hand, a quarter of exquisitely marinated grilled chicken on a platter followed by a stop-clock from the left.

Kaala too, is no exception to this style of deliberate pacing that Ranjith generally applies to his scenes. As a result, in a movie that is set inside a massive slum, Ranjith makes us wallow in the filth and ruin of the ghettoized parts of the great Mumbai city, and also forces us to rub shoulders with the impoverished, yet colorfully diverse individuals who are waiting to stamp their authority on whomever might rub them the wrong way.

The political overtones are, for the first time in a Ranjith film, very much on the surface and the propaganda bits really work, even if your ideological sympathies are with the antagonist’s camp.

One of the reasons why they work is because Ranjith believes not only in his mission of bringing the film-goer’s attention to the issues of his own oppressed community, but also of his knowledge of the ways of how to do get them executed satisfactorily on screen. And that knowledge shows, especially in the various writing decisions he has done in the process of plotting the narrative out. One among them is the use of the protagonist Kaala, only as a symbolic head of the oppressed masses, and not certainly as a virtual superhero whose ups and downs, the fate of these hapless people are inevitably tied with. The people want Kaala to fight for them and when he can no longer do that, they are ready to fend for themselves. However, in the context of a very well marketed masala movie, this kind of a brash writing decision could be interpreted as an ’emasculation’ of the Hero Cult by the discerning viewer and potentially damage the paramount aim of breaking the Superstar’s previous box office records.

Another refreshing aspect of Kaala is the way every frame teems with people and activity. For a supposedly hero centric movie of this scale, there are few scenes where Rajni remains the sole focus. When Kaala is confronted by his son who wants to leave his birthplace and shift to a better and safer environment, the conflict is not allowed to be confined between the domineering father and the restless son. The entire family rushes in and Kaala just plays along to resolve the conflict.

You could cite multiple instances to highlight this lack of hero-centrism, like the introduction scene when Kaala is invited to stop the demolition activity. Kaala gets to mouth only a few, though decisive lines, and the rest of the arguments are carried forward by the other stakeholders of the slum. Even the much expected counter punch to conclude the scene which usually is the prerogative of the Hero, is delivered by a supporting character, refreshingly this time, by a young woman.

In other words, this could be seen as connoting the prevalence of a very healthy democratic setup inside a slum where the dependency on a particular individual is diminished as much as possible. When Kaala is chased by goons, an unnamed adolescent tries to shield him and before things get worse, his son rushes in to save him, who is later revealed to have been sent in by his mother. And on another occasion, when Kaala alone is targeted to be killed, he is joined by his wife who unfortunately loses her life, for which the villain later, chillingly apologises. Hence it is worthwhile to note that Kaala the Hero, Kaala’s family and Kaala’s slum are not altogether easily separable entities.

This sort of intertwining of individual lives is dictated by another crucial factor – the lack of adequate space for an individual inside a slum, an aspect which is being highlighted throughout the movie. This lack of privacy or space, it is implied, never allows a person to be alone and think of himself, and as a result he is forced to live in a sort of spiritual communion with his environment and think collectively. This kind of forced community living is used to great effect by Kaala to counter the predatory moves of the government. In other words, the slum behaves like a single body working towards a unified purpose (with Kaala as it’s brain) and rejecting anything that is pernicious to it.

Ranjith, if you notice, in the process of underlining these aspects of the slum life, not only reduces the limelight that falls on the Hero, but also in a beautifully directed sequence, manages to sideline Him completely. I am talking about the scene that immediately succeeds the murder of Selvi and her son, where the camera sweeps from the facade of Kaala’s house into its dark interiors, totally ignoring the reclined Kaala grieving at the porch. How much guts do you need to invite a Superstar to shoot a scene and instruct him to remain at the periphery of the frame only to disappear without doing anything worthwhile to it?

Even if there are these many reasons to like the film, Ranjith after comfortably crossing the half way mark of the running time, suddenly wobbles and hence the second half fails to build upon the solid foundation laid in the earlier one. The film becomes painfully one-note from then on, and there are no knots after a point and hence no excitement in untying them, all of which are indispensables for a masala movie.

The only thing which keeps us watching however, is the political sympathy which Ranjith has hitherto managed to generate inside us through the very effective first half. When the film ends, we cannot help seeing the gap between what was promised in the initial phases and what was delivered finally.

When I was driving home after seeing the movie, I was trying to nail down the reason why a film maker of Ranjith’s calibre had failed yet another time to create a satisfying work, that too with a humongous star to help him. I was able to find only one thing. Rajnikanth had probably wanted to feed his Superstardom through Ranjith. But Ranjith’s aims were different. He was only after Rajni, the actor and not the Superstar.

This post was written by G Waugh