Rajinikanth’s Kabali was a film caught in the middle of two different personalities. While it tried to merge the typical Rajinikanth mass film with the sensibilities of its director Pa. Ranjith, Kabali ended up being a film that’s neither a commercial potboiler nor an intriguing political commentary.
This time around, with Kaala , things have become far more clear. Kaala is certainly more a Ranjith movie than Rajinikanth and that isn’t a terrible thing, given the fact that Rajinikanth isn’t merely a star anymore... he’s a politician too. The timing couldn’t have been better for their reunion.
Or so we thought.
Set in Mumbai’s Dharavi, regarded the biggest slum in the country, Kaala is quick to establish its politics. A demolition drive has been ordered and it threatens to wipe out the dhobighat out of Dharavi. But the protest doesn’t remain peaceful for too long and Karikalan (Rajinikanth) is summoned to broker peace and the demolition is stopped.
One of the protesters is Karikalan’s son Lenin (Manikandan), an educated activist who relies on the system to fix its own flaws. Karikalan also has another son, Selva (Thileeban), who believes in bringing about change, even if it is by breaking a few rules. During a water shortage, Lenin sends a petition while Selva breaks open a water pipe that passes through.
- Genre: political drama
- Cast: Rajinikant, Huma Qureshi, Nana Patekar
- Director: Pa Ranjith
- Storyline: A gangster’s fight to save Dharavi from a fascist politician’s plan to ‘clean it up’
Karikalan, in a sense, is the sum of both his sons. He knows he needs the muscle just as much as he needs the tools of democracy to stick to his stand. When elections are held in Mumbai, a right wing party wins in every seat…except in Karikalan’s Dharavi.
Ranjith sets up the slum so well that we immediately become a resident there. Cinematographer Murali’s frames push us into a state of claustrophobia by taking us to houses without windows and narrow lanes without skies. There’s people everywhere and privacy is a pipedream. Karikaalan himself shares his bedroom with a grandson apart from his wife.
So when a builder promises luxurious apartments, parks and infrastructure to ‘clean up’ Dharavi, a lot of its residents are excited. But Karikalan is against an outsider appropriating their land. And when Lenin leaves his home to stay at a friend’s, we see what really happens when slums are cleared to become apartments. In a sense, Kaala does a great job in making ‘beautification’ an ugly word.
What’s equally intriguing is the person who brings in this builder to Dharavi. Her name is Zarina (Huma Qureshi) and she happens to be Karikalan’s ex-lover. The scenes where the two meet are some of Rajni’s best. There’s love, longing, and a hint of mischief in his every glance of Zarina, justifying the tattoo in his arm and of a love story that never was. There are also the scenes with his loudmouth wife Selvi (Eeshwari Rao) that’s a hoot, making Karikalan as likeable as he is respectable.
Ranjith also sets up two whistle worthy scenes, one involving Karikalan repeatedly asking a politician who he is (yes, you heard that right!) and an incredible interval punch involving Hari Baba (Nana Patekar) being held hostage in Kaala’s quila (fort).
But the good moments quickly seem to dry up as we move into the second half. If the first half saw Karikaalan using his muscle, the second half shifts focus to protests, which isn’t really the best for drama.
Karikaalan becomes less man, more a movement and the film becomes irrevocably dry from there on. Nana Patekar, though formidable in a couple of scenes, doesn’t do much beyond matching Rajini in stature. He is also a villain who can’t really think of tactics beyond arson to take revenge. The fact that Patekar’s Tamil isn’t easy to follow doesn’t help the cause. Nor does the uninspiring music, a major plus point in Kabali .
It’s difficult to think of Kaala as a film that was written for a star who claims to have had no political ambitions at the time. Now that he has become a politician, it’s Rajni the superstar that we long to see.