Cut from the same cloth

Black and whiteRajinikanth and (right) Nana Patekar in stills fromKaala.Special Arrangement

Black and whiteRajinikanth and (right) Nana Patekar in stills fromKaala.Special Arrangement  

In the late 1890s, a plague broke out in Bombay, and close to 200,000 people died. The British administration derived wisdom from it. They gradually began a process of pushing out polluting industries and poorer natives, mostly migrant labourers, to the north of the city. The outward expansion of Bombay included an area pervaded by mangroves, which at that time appeared to be far away from Ballard Pier, the city’s business district. Dharavi then was already a fishermen’s colony. Land was cheap and plentiful. Squatting was seen as a right.

By the beginning of the 1900s, Dharavi and its surrounding areas had begun to behave as a kind of underworld. No one asked questions because all of it was out of sight. After Independence, when Indians came to power, they stuck to the same marginalising philosophy of governance. Neglected, Dharavi grew unchecked and under the scanner. It is only recently that Dharavi has come to be seen as developable land in a city short of it, and that it is important to pull it back into the mainstream.

In the newest Rajinikanth movie, Kaala , the villain Hari Dada wants the land that Dharavi sits on. Kaala and his homeboys don’t intend to be evicted from the slum, but no institution steps in to help them. In one scene from the film, a sign in the backdrop reads: ‘No house, no land, no votes’. It might well have read, as did the placards of the Glorious Revolution in Britain (1688-89) when the Stuart dynasty was overthrown, ‘No taxation without representation’. We are only 300 years behind the West in matters of governance.

In a scene, post-interval, an assured and savarna Hari (Nana Patekar) goes over to meet Kaala, played by Rajinikanth, to negotiate. Hari refuses the offered drink of water, and clearly means this as an insult to the lower caste Kaala. Nevertheless, Kaala is a king; he is Hari in black. He has the biggest house in the area. Kaala’s is a joint family, as is Hari’s. Four grown-up sons and their wives and children stay with the cult patriarch. His wife, Selvi, is the typical, self-sacrificing housewife whom, it is repeatedly made clear, Kaala loves dearly, even though his hand is tattooed with the name of Zarina, his former flame.

Slum fiefdom

Decades ago, Hari killed Kaala’s father, and went on to become all that he is now — politician, businessman, appropriator. In a different way, Kaala has done the same. He behaves as if he owns Dharavi. His word is final. At the meeting in the courtyard of his home — common ground, but more Kaala’s than other slum dwellers’ — Kaala accuses Hari of all the ugly things the Establishment is guilty of. When Hari rebuffs Kaala and gets up to go, Kaala says he can try, but without his permission, Hari won’t be able to get out of the slum. He goes on to show how, until a wiser Hari comes back and requests for an egress.

Kaala’s word is final. There is no institutional democracy or rule of the law at work in Kaala’s world, just as it isn’t in Hari’s world. Nowhere in the movie is it made clear exactly what Kaala or his family members do for a reasonable living, besides running their slum country. To me, just about everything Kaala does seems to be a mirror image of what Hari does in the wider world, except that Patekar is not Rajinikanth.

Francis Fukuyama defines political development as “change over time in political institutions”. Individual leaders are fluid. What ought to be fixed is the “underlying rules by which societies organise themselves”. If the rules are not impersonal — it is not who you know, but what you have a right to get — societies will decay.

Indian slums are great examples of India’s political decay. Political decay directly translates to basic deprivations. No water, no power, no toilets, no privacy, perpetual dirt and grime. The key words of the abiding Indian story. The slums are only the most heartless instance of this breakdown in our governance, even though in general, as a country, we are far from ‘getting to Denmark’.

Primitive state

India is a shell democracy. There is no consistent institutional guarantee to one’s rights. What we do have is a primitive state, what Max Weber might call a ‘patrimonial’ state. The fixtures of the state, including people and property, are the ruler’s privileges. The state is run by the ruler and his acolytes, and the benefits tend to accrue to them.

Pa. Ranjith’s movie’s basic flaw is not just that it is clichéd. Which mainstream movie isn’t? It is his inability or reluctance to see through the politics of his own characters. The slum lord in the movie runs the place like a fiefdom exactly as his enemy does it in the world outside and, like Hari, he has no plans to abdicate his throne. Nor has he any alternative plans for the better administration of his patrimonial state. He is the mirror image of Hari.

Kaala throws up more questions than it intends to. They will not go away once the curtain comes down. In the impending Tamil Nadu assembly elections, Rajinikanth’s party cadre may opt for the black nylon shirt and veshti as their sartorial vow of fealty, but our hero’s problems, as he will find out once in power, are cut from a different cloth and colour. Black may be the new white. But someone still has to do the laundry.

The writer, whose latest collection of poems is Available Light, is working on a novel next, and believes Trump met Kim Jong-un’s double in Singapore.

Indian slums are great examples of India’s political decay; decay that translates to deprivation

The movie’s basic flaw is not that it is clichéd. It is Pa. Ranjith’s inability to see through the politics of his own characters

Recommended for you