How Rajinikanth’s Kaala, Dulquer’s Kammatipaadam tackle poverty and human cost of urban development

Hemanth Kumar

June 13, 2018 08:35:07 IST

‘Right to land’ has been one of the most common tropes used in mainstream cinema to highlight the chasm that divides the rich and the poor, the oppressed and the oppressor, the marginalised and those in power. While most filmmakers turn it into a battle between rich vs evil, with a hero standing up for the rights of the marginalised people, two films in recent times — Rajinikanth’s Kaala and Dulquer Salmaan’s Kammatipaadam — turned this often repeated subject into a deep study of how cities evolve and what happens to those at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid.

Rajinikanth in a still from Kaala. Image via Twitter

Rajinikanth in a still from Kaala. Image via Twitter

A lot has been written about Pa Ranjith’s Kaala, which has Rajinikanth as a messiah of his people in Dharavi who are on the verge of being evicted from their land to make way for a clean and pure neighbourhood. In one of his confrontation scenes with Nana Patekar, Rajinikanth says, “Land might be power to you, but it is our life.” The bone of contention between the two characters in the film is a vast area, which is right in the middle of the city. That it happens to be one of the largest slums in the world makes it a canvas, that’s ripe for development politics and gross misuse of power and state to evict people who have been living there for generations altogether. In an animated clip, Ranjith explains how the city grew around Dharavi, and why its location makes it very enticing for every politician and builder in the city to turn into an urban dream. It sounds like a no-brainer considering that Hari Dada (Nana Patekar) wants to clean up the city and make it beautiful; however, Pa Ranjith digs deep into the politics behind it and the human cost behind such a political move. And he goes on to ask important and pertinent questions — If only the rich and upper class have access to everything, then what happens to people on the other end of the spectrum? And what is the cost of human lives that are at stake in the long road to progress and development?

Also read: Kaala opening weekend box office collection: Rajinikanth-starrer garners Rs 114 cr worldwide in four days

Disempowerment of backward classes is one of the recurring themes in Pa Ranjith’s work so far, and he digs even deeper in Kaala to narrate a story of human lives from their perspective. Take for instance, the scene where several people are quizzed about the protests in Dharavi, and one of the them expresses how repulsive it is to see the sight of a slum right in the middle of the city. On the other hand, Pa Ranjith equates the colours of the slum to a rainbow and highlights how people want to live their lives with dignity and respect. “You don’t have to build skyscrapers for us and promise a better life. Leave that decision to us about how we ought to live our lives,” says Kaala (Rajinikanth) in another scene when a builder pitches a plan to change the whole landscape of the area. Throughout the film, there’s a constant dialogue about what’s a good way of living and if tall, beautiful buildings are the answer to Dharavi’s problems. And all of a sudden, it hits you that Ranjith is telling a story inside out by giving the poor and oppressed a voice in Kaala.

Expansion of cities has a huge impact on communities that were in the suburbs before the city grew around them. In some cases, you might even become a stranger in your own land because of all these external factors. In Rajeev Ravi’s seminal work Kammatipaadam, starring Dulquer Salmaan and Vinayakan, the story begins several decades before Ernakulam became a sprawling metropolis in Kerala. The lush green fields all around Krishnan (Dulquer) and Ganga’s (Vinayakan) neighbourhood become a symbol of the relationship between man and nature around him; however, people are still divided on the lines of who gets access to water. Few years later, Ganga (Vinayakan) follows in the footsteps of Balan (Manikandan) and helps the latter in illegal liquor business, which paves way for him to do much more nefarious things. As the world around Ganga and Krishna changes in the globalised world, they find themselves engulfed by an environment which alienates them from their own life.

Dulquer Salmaan in a scene from Kammatipaadam. Image via Twitter

Dulquer Salmaan in a scene from Kammatipaadam. Image via Twitter

When Krishnan comes to Ganga’s house years later, he is shocked to see the conditions that his friend had been living in. As the city grows around them, their own lives shrink to a level where they have to fight back for their own existence. To underline how marginalised Ganga’s life becomes, after he’s released from jail, he fears for his life constantly, and time and again, he goes back to his former boss seeking help. Having taken Ganga’s help to secure the land by brute force from the original owners, Ganga’s boss, who’s now a prominent builder in the city, obliges to help him, but he begins to grow uncomfortable with the presence of Ganga around him. He even compares Ganga to a rabid dog. The class difference couldn’t be more stark. The ensuing tensions between the two results in a tragedy which brings Krishnan back to the city from Mumbai. Towards the end of Kammatipaadam, Krishnan says, “The foundation of Ernakulam isn’t strong. It stands on the marshy land of Kammatipaadam. It isn’t made of cement or stone, but it’s made of human blood. Blood of people like Ganga.”

Although the two films have different stories to tell, the underlying themes that they address have quite a few similarities. It’s about how we end up treating up others who are in a different socio-economic spectrum, caste, and colour. Both Kaala and Kammatipaadam focus on the fundamental question — What’s the price you’re willing to pay to live with dignity? And will you treat everyone with same respect, no matter where they are from? In an ideal world, none of this would have mattered. But we live in a world which has been built on a shaky foundation at the cost of scores of lives.

(Also read — Kaala is not a 'Rajinikanth movie': A Dalit-Bahujan reading of the anti-caste politics in Pa Ranjith's film)

Updated Date: Jun 13, 2018 08:47 AM