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How political is Rajinikanth’s ‘Kaala’? Director Pa Ranjith has some answers

‘Kaala’, Ranjith’s second film with Rajinikanth after ‘Kabali’, will be released on June 7.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
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.
Rajinikanth and Eswari Rao in Kaala. Image credit: Wunderbar Films.
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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.