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‘Kaala’ film review: Rajinikanth to the rescue in a saga that’s high-minded but heavy-handed

Rajinikanth plays Dharavi’s uncrowned king in Pa Ranjith’s new movie.

Pa Ranjith’s Kaala, like his previous films Madras and Kabali, is loaded with so much political meaning and revolutionary fervour that it is almost possible to miss the absence of a convincing plot.

Ranjith’s 166-minute movie is part semiotics lesson about the Rajinikanth mythos and part sermon on housing rights for the urban poor. Rajinikanth’s evolution from villain to hero to superstar has made it challenging, if not impossible, for filmmakers to look beyond his demigod status and cast him as a mere mortal with the same fears and dreams as his fans. Director Shankar took the next best option in Enthiran (2010): Rajinikanth played a robot whose downfall began when he tried to snap out of his heavily programmed existence.

Ranjith has his personal take on the Rajinikanth aura, and it comes with more annotations and footnotes than a culture studies paper. In Kabali (2016), his first collaboration with Rajinikanth, Ranjith used the star to tell an alternative history of Dalit politics in Tamil Nadu and the migration of Tamilians to Malaysia. In Kaala, Ranjith brings the screen god down to earth – and not just any in old corner.

Rajinikanth is Kaala Karikaalan, a gangster and uncrowned king of Dharavi, the massive slum in the heart of Mumbai. Our first view of the invincible icon isn’t encouraging – he is clean bowled in a neighbourhood cricket match by a knee-high kid. It’s the first of many subversions in a movie that tries to position Rajinikanth as a man of the people.

Kaala is no pushover, of course – he is the master of slowburn and the surprise move. Kaala gets his chance to display his power when his son Lenin (Manikandan) and Lenin’s girlfriend Puyal (Anjali Patil) get embroiled in a redevelopment project that seeks to re-imagine Dharavi as a shimmering oasis of high-rises and golf courses. For unfathomable reasons, Kaala’s former lover Zarina (Huma Qureshi), who is described as a successful housing rights activist, supports the scheme to uproot Dharavi’s hard-working denizens and move them into vertical slums.

Kaala, however, recognises the project as a ploy by Hari (Nana Patekar), a nativist politician who declares that he hates the colour black and wants to cleanse Mumbai of its dirt and grime. Colour coding is equated with character shading in Kaala: while its anti-hero is nearly always clad in black, Hari’s entire wardrobe is as white as the furniture in his house. Into the literal-mind struggle between noble black and hypocritical white, Ranjith throws in shades of blue to point to Kaala’s possible Dalit heritage and his position as the mascot of those at the bottom of the social pile.

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Kaala (2018).

For residents of Mumbai and long-standing consumers of Hindi cinema, Kaala is both dated as well as fresh. Over the years, Dharavi has inspired numerous filmmakers from the city and elsewhere, and many of the visitors have come away with similar stories of despair and courage in the face of inhuman poverty and disenfranchisement. The slum has been endangered by rapacious politicians and property developers for some decades now, but Ranjith adds new layers to the debate. The movie has been fabulously shot and designed, with cinematographer G Murali and production designer T Ramalingam creating a very real sense of Dharavi’s density. Ranjith delves much deeper into the absence of housing rights than most other filmmakers, and many scenes dramatise the lack of access of the slum residents to the basics of human existence. (There’s a nice line about finding romance in the queue for a community toilet).

Less credible is the projection of Kaala as the one-man solution to Dharavi’s problems. Rajinikanth remains an indelible presence, who commandeers the camera without seemingly doing anything at all, but his character never finds its balance between messiah and mortal. Kaala has many declamatory scenes and instances of Rajinikanth’s action prowess that will add to the canon, but these moments contradict the movie’s emphasis on verisimilitude and plausibility.

Of all the characters who have been created to prop up Kaala’s stature (including Samuthirakani as Kaala’s permanently drunk friend), Lenin and Zarina suffer the most. Lenin has the gumption to oppose his father’s intervention when a protest gets out of hand, but the young man’s observation that vigilante justice can never replace the need for grassroots organisation is soon forgotten. Manikadan is a fine actor, and ensures that while Lenin’s revolution is eclipsed, the character isn’t.

No such luck for the severely limited Huma Qureshi. Zarina never justifies her presence in the plot, except to pander to Rajinikanth’s image as a ladies man. The sub-plot involving Kaala and Zarina somewhat lightens the mood and allows Kaala’s garrulous wife Selvi (Eswari Rao) to assert her claim over Kaala, but it also reduces Zarina to yet another satellite revolving around Planet Kaala.

Kaala. Image credit: Wunderbar Films.
Kaala. Image credit: Wunderbar Films.

But Zarina does have the honour of rolling out one of the film’s most provocative lines, one that takes it out of Dharavi and into a broader Indian reality: “To ask questions and be killed, that is fascism,” she declares (in English).

Among the secondary figures, only Nana Patekar makes his mark. Hari is not a character as much as one of the movie’s numerous symbols of upper-caste tyranny, but Patekar uses his considerable experience to ensure that his handful of scenes will be remembered.

The one-note Hari gets to deliver another rousing rewrite on the conventional wisdom. “If Valmiki has said so, then it must be true that Rama will eventually kill Raavana,” he says, blissfully unaware of how this myth is going to play out in Kaala. The incendiary climax is superbly orchestrated, but the movie is too high-minded and heavy-handed to engage the viewer as pure fiction.

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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.