‘Kaala’ is not ‘Kabali’ but questions Rajini’s politics more

There are many similarities between Kaala, Pa Ranjith’s second flick with Rajinikanth, and their first film together, Kabali (2016). The thematic one is the most obvious, where Ranjith focuses on class mobility, caste discrimination and social welfare and brings them into mainstream cinema using Rajini as his frontman. In Kabali, this was done using the lens of labour rights and political identity. In Kaala, this has been done using community and political organisation.

Kaala is Kabali‘s successor in spirit. In Kabali, the focus was on the titular character’s rebellion against his presumed overlords, on his refusal to stay down when pushed down, a defiance depicted as the exclusive product of individual perseverance. Kaala is the first-order derivative of this tale of protest: social and political organisation and community work, together with the reminder that individual struggle – while a necessary first step – alone won’t work if we are to break the shackles of power and become free.

Some of the prominent themes that are explored are disenfranchisement through land rights, infighting within family and between members of the same community, commitment to the betterment of others even when suffering personal loss, and sacrificing one’s personal ambitions in order to join a greater cause. Some of these aspects were there in Kabali, too, but not in focus. In Kaala, they are the centrepieces; its tragedies are tragedies of disunity.

In both films, Rajini plays an emancipatory leader of the masses in their fight to get what is rightfully theirs – identity in the first and land in the second. Also in both films, Rajini succeeds powerful men to this role and battles enemies who have felled his predecessors. Curiously, both films also end on an ambiguous note, but this is executed in unsubtle fashion in Kaala.

In Kabali, Rajini was restrained onscreen, made room for other characters, didn’t pull off superhuman feats and didn’t deliver punch dialogues. In Kaala, Ranjith has let Rajini free to be himself, the superstar who beats his assailants to pulp singlehandedly, delivers comebacks in situations that don’t really need them, who – despite having made a show of his age by acknowledging that he’s often a grandfather – sings and dances and works tirelessly for his neighbourhood. While this renewed focus on Rajini will be all too familiar to his fans, it comes at the cost of a film that loses its dedication to a cause, or at least couldn’t stay focused long enough with the same intensity the way Kabali had.

Why the constant comparison to Kabali? Frankly, it is inescapable. Rajinikanth makes two consecutive movies with the same director who, unlike other directors, is in turn using the opportunity to delve into themes Tamil cinema has often exploited for the mass factor. Nonetheless, Kaala is an average production not because most Tamil movies are bad but because Kabali was able to deliver better. Not because Kaala deserves to be treated like a standalone movie in its own right but because it embraced a difficult subject like Kabali had.

Of course, in many other aspects the film is just as good. There is evident attention to detail in sets, as a friend I watched the film with and who had worked in Dharavi said. The cast is mostly good, particularly Easwari Rao as Selvi, to whom Kaala is wedded.

Another way the film is remarkable is in its portrayal of protests. There are people sitting and shouting slogans or marching from place to place but then there are also different kinds of protest music for different kinds of agitation. Ranjith especially infuses elements of hiphop, rap music and breakdancing into the way protesters posture themselves, the way they deliver their message, most importantly in the way different cultural groups of Dharavi meld in their fight.

Notably, three of the more peppy numbers Santhosh Narayanan composed for the film are either not used in full or are but in a way that is supplementary, not complementary (played as the end credits roll). They are Nikal nikal (‘Leave leave’), Katravai patravai (‘Educate and agitate’) and Theruvilakku (‘Street lights’). Together with their lyrics, this suggests they were composed as songs of protest available to use outside the film’s story as well.

All of this together holds up an interesting mirror to Rajini’s political ambitions in real-life, although Kaala was written before he announced that he would be contesting the state assembly elections next year. Many commentators have noticed a stark difference between Rajini’s “spiritual politics” and Ranjith’s Ambedkarism, and it would be undoubtedly interesting to see how the actor/politician squares the two off.

To start with, did Rajini know what he was talking about when he said that? Many think he doesn’t. As Kaala opens, there is a montage that plays showing how land has an always been an instrument of governance before it became the instrument of imperialism. One frame shows Lord Krishna blowing his conch as Arjuna charges on his chariot on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.

Kaala‘s climax, in similar vein, begins with a line at the start of its second half – “If it is your god’s dharma to take my land away from me, then your god is also my enemy” – and ends with an attempt to recast the Ramayana from Ravana’s point of view (arguably over-focusing on this metaphor as it draws on). It crescendoes with a valorisation of the demon-king’s ability to regrow his heads as Kaala’s followers keep rising in waves to resist Hindu nationalist insurgents burning down their homes.

However, on December 31, 2017, when Rajini announced his decision to enter state politics, he read out a verse from the Bhagavad Gita, about Krishna’s advice to Arjuna that he focus on his labours and not worry about the consequences. So what will Rajini’s labours will be?

While it is unclear what Rajini meant by “spiritual politics”, or whether he meant a plank that respects the spirit of civilised politics, there is certainly a difference between his silver-screen persona in Kaala, the first Rajini film in the post-political phase, and the kind of leader he says he is going to be. M.G. Ramachandran never had to contend with this sort of contradiction. If Rajini wants to succeed him, as he did Tamizh Nesan (Kabali) and Vengaiyan (Kaala), then he will have to be more reflexive and question his proximity to nationalist politics.