After successfully collaborating with Rajinikanth for Kabali in 2016, filmmaker Pa Ranjith was all set to make a sequel. Instead, the Tamil actor suggested a movie set in Mumbai. The result is Kaala, in which Rajinikanth plays Karikaalan, a community leader in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum who becomes an advocate for land rights. Starring Nana Patekar as the antagonist, Kaala will be released in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi on June 7.

A Rajinikanth release is never anything but an event, but Kaala is special even by these standards. In December 2017, the 67-year-old actor announced that he would set up a political party ahead of the assembly elections in Tamil Nadu in 2019. In a speech that frequently cited the Bhagavad Gita, Rajinikanth said his politics would be “spiritual” in nature.

Ranjith is on the other side of the ideological spectrum. The director of Attakathi (2012), Madras (2014) and Kabali has never shied away from talking about his Dalit heritage, and is an avowed atheist and rationalist. Promotional material for Kaala indicates that the film is loaded with ideological symbols, including the use of the colours black (associated with the Dravidian movement) and blue (linked to Dalit politics) and the placement of a photograph of Kenyan environmental activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai. “A thousand years of silence is enough. Organise, make change, revolt,” declares one of the songs in Santhosh Narayanan’s soundtrack. Kaala is about the struggle for land rights rather than a vehicle for Rajinikanth’s political aspirations, Ranjith said in an interview. (The conversation was in Tamil and has been translated.)

Did Rajinikanth’s decision to start a political party affect ‘Kaala’ in any way, or is the film likely to have an impact on his career?
Let me make it absolutely clear that Kaala was not conceived keeping in mind Rajinikanth’s decision to enter politics. Our political ideologies are completely different from each other. Kaala cannot be seen as a precursor to Rajinikanth’s political career. Kaala is a piece of fiction and the characters and the lines in the film are strictly in service of that literary universe.

My objective through this film is to talk about the politics of land and look at all that is happening with land and people, who are the haves and the have-nots and what are the core issues that need to be addressed with respect to land.

I am an atheist and a rationalist. He knows this clearly. We’ve spoken a lot about it. I will always be firm about my politics. Just because I’m working with Rajinikanth, it won’t change. Similarly, he has his beliefs and ideologies. Ours is a professional equation. He called me, we made a film together. I have ensured that my politics will never be diluted.

Kaala (2018).

From ‘Kabali’ to ‘Kaala’, how did the idea for a second film with Rajinikanth evolve?
After Kabali, when it came to deciding what my next film should be, I got a lot of suggestions from various quarters. Most of them seemed to be discouraging me from making a Kabali type film again. Some said I used Rajinikanth to say this and that. Some others, by way of giving me suggestions to make my film commercially viable, hinted that I should steer away from such subjects. Even some reviews of the film seem to have been written in that vein. But I decided that I have to do a film that yet again focuses on people’s struggles. That’s how Kaala came to be.

Why did you set the story in Mumbai and not Chennai?
When I wrote the story, I had set it in North Madras. In fact, back then, what I had in mind was completely different. I wanted to make Kabali 2. I spoke to Rajini sir and told him that I wanted to set Kabali 2 in North Madras. He suggested I look at Bombay as a viable setting for the story. It could be interesting, he felt. So, I reached Bombay and geared up to do research for a commercial gangster film set in the city.

Kabali (2016).

What were your impressions of Mumbai?
I was struck by one particular and recurring image: a carpet of slums is laid out around some of the tallest buildings. The sheer contrast between the tall vertical structures that go higher and higher and the sea of horizontal and equally aligned slums is full of meaning. The narrative that is sold to us every day is that those in the vertical structures are the bigger, better and the more important people and those below are not even people.

How does ‘Kaala’ explore slum redevelopment and relocation, both major issues in Mumbai?
I roamed around in many slums in Bombay, right from Dharavi to Wadala and Andheri. I finally chose Dharavi because there are Tamilians and Tamil-speaking families there. Using the experience of a Tamilian in a Bombay slum as the prism, I also wanted to examine what the commercial capital of the country is like.

Around that time, as part of my research, I also saw a documentary that looked at the idea of how slum dwellers are portrayed as the dirt of the city. A politician in that film argued that slums spoil the beauty of cities, they scare foreigners away and that most slum-dwellers are criminals. He wanted to send the slum-dwellers back to the villages they came from. Since they’ve come to build the city, they are no longer necessary.

One has seen similar thought processes play out around us – whether it is in Delhi during the Commonwealth Games in 2010 or the 2016 Olympics in Rio Di Janeiro. These threads joined to form a story related to land rights, ownership and politics.

I then changed the story from a gangster drama to a story of a family of four in Dharavi. The idea was to create a representational story that reflects life in the slums and a character that represents their problems.

Can ‘Kabali’ and ‘Kaala’ be called cousins, then?
Kaala, Kabali, Madras, Attakathi – they are all the same in a way.

Madras (2014).

The posters, songs and trailer are loaded with political symbols. At its core, what is ‘Kaala’ trying to get at?
The core idea of the film is that land is a human’s basic right. This idea has been with me for a long time. Land equals self-confidence, it equals identity. I’m familiar with people’s struggle for land because I’ve witnessed it in my own family. My grandfather owned a piece of land that he was forced to give up. It is insights from these experiences that I have used in this film.

What do you make of the meaning ascribed to the props and the use of colours in the trailer?

The problem is that whatever I think of, it is interpreted as a symbol. There are times when I feel people are reading and applying meaning into things I didn’t actually think of.

Of course this doesn’t mean that some of the symbolism isn’t deliberate. In Madras, for instance, we consciously worked towards all the layers and symbols we inserted in the film. I guess audiences are continuing what started with that film. Audiences have also started to interpret things according to their ideology. I cannot have the final word on how a sign or an object must be read.

A family in Mumbai has claimed that ‘Kaala’ is based on the life of their father Thiraviyam Nadar. It was also said that Karikaalan’s character resembles Mumbai gangsters Vardarajan Mudaliar and Haji Mastan.

There are at least four or five different people who have claimed that this is their story. I have clarified that the movie is not based on any of them. It is a completely fictitious tale. I have researched about the living conditions and lifestyle of people in Dharavi and set the tale there.

I have a special affinity towards the name Karikaalan. I just wanted to use it. Whether I intended it or not, Karikaalan will appear familiar to many.

Pa Ranjith Image credit: via Facebook.

As a filmmaker, what draws you to Rajinikanth?
He is a committed artist. If the schedule starts at 8.30, he’ll be there precisely at that time. He won’t interfere in the story or the lines in a script. Based on the story and the requirement of the role, he will mould himself and work hard.

At his age, despite acting in so many films, he has worked as if this is his first film. Physical ailments never stand in the way. This film has many fight scenes and songs, and we’ve worked on the streets a lot too. As an actor, once he commits to something, that’s that. I appreciate his work ethic and the respect he has for the profession.

How would you describe your equation with him, from ‘Kabali’ to ‘Kaala’?
During Kabali, he was a bit unsure about what I was up to and the kind of film I was making. He found my style of working different. He used to say, what kind of director is this, he doesn’t shout at all. A director is someone who gets angry and yells, he would say. I’m generally calm when I’m on the sets. So, that was a new experience for him.

In Kaala, even if I wanted to, I couldn’t have been calm though. That’s because each day, we had to work with 500-2,000 people. Whether it was the 30-day schedule in Bombay or the one here in Madras – it was always crowded. In Kaala, Rajini sir knew what we were doing and appeared more familiar with our method of work.

How did the rest of the cast fall in place?
We conducted auditions for most characters. With Anjali Patil and Huma Qureshi, for instance, it wasn’t what you call a traditional audition, but we picked a scene and they gave it a shot. The cast of the film fell into place gradually. I’m not someone who thinks about who will play a role when I’m writing it. The decisions about casting were taken during discussions with assistant directors.

Rajinikanth and Eswari Rao in Kaala. Image credit: Wunderbar Films.