The message that Pa Ranjith, the director of Kaala, seems to give in his latest film is that we are the mainstream. By 'we' he means the suppressed majority (Bahujans) of this country who are deprived of land, education and resources but continue to organise and fight. To depict this narrative, Mumbai's Dharavi (the largest slum in Asia) has been chosen as the location where the story takes place.
There is very little to guess about what the social composition of Dharavi is in general, and the location of the movie in particular; the viewer can clearly observe that the name of the basti is Bhim Wada, Gautam Buddha Nagar and that there are paintings of Buddha, Mahatma Phule and Babasaheb Ambedkar on the wall. There are references to Koli Wada and Kumbhar Wada in the track 'Nikkal Nikkal', and right at the start of the film, there is a protest by dhobis against the local politicians and authorities who attempt to drive them out. Not just this, there is also a 'Periyar Chowk' near this locality, portraits of Iyothee Thasar, Marx, Lenin, and a small statue of Bali Raja near Kaala’s house, small flags of the Oppressed Republican Party with an Ashoka Chakra in the centre, and a beef shop with small green flags nearby. To put it simply, this is a creative visualisation of the socio-political currents emerging out of the anti-caste struggles of Tamil Nadu through the Dalit-Bahujan migrants in Dharavi, as well as that of the anti-caste struggles in Maharashtra.
Going beyond the notions of sanitation and crime, and victimised portrayals of urban slums — especially that of Dalit-Bahujans in documentaries, movies and newsrooms monopolised by savarnas — the characters who represent the oppressed in the movie Kaala are given a more human portrayal; they are shown as they really are. It constantly stresses on the existence of organic everyday realities of Dalit-Bahujans as human beings, that comprises banality, celebrations, sorrow, disagreements, love, relationships, and most importantly, frameworks of politics that are a part of their history.
Historically, Indian cinema has always been about the life-worlds of savarnas, fitting them into so many different plots and themes, starting from Raja Harishchandra to the most recent film Veere Di Wedding, and making heroes out of the likes of Sanjay Dutt in the upcoming film Sanju. It is their tragedies, their comedy, their romance, their historical narratives, their victories, their ghost stories that adorn the silver screen. If one has to believe the cinematic truth, then the savarnas are the poor ones becoming courageous lovers and brave saviors. This fabricated history is constructed on the altar of the exploitation and labour of a Dalit-Bahujan workforce, whose lives as human being do not exist for the savarna.
Against this fabrication and manipulation of history by the savarna-dominated film industry, Kaala stands in singular opposition by showing the historical selves of the Dalit-Bahujans of this country without any superficiality.
The ones deemed nonexistent for the savarna world are at the centre of and sustain this film, which is about their stories and lives. They are the ones whose mere presence, whose skin colour, clothing and even names are despised and looked down upon with contempt and disgust by the savarnas in their everyday lives. This social reality of caste is visualised in a scene when Hari Dada, a criminal politician who vulgarly displays caste Hindu values, comes to meet Kaala and doesn’t drink water when served it is by Selvi. In another scene, when Kaala goes to Hari Dada’s house, the latter voices his contempt and disgust while asking Kaala to touch his feet — a reminder of the social hierarchy of caste imagined as the body of Brahma in Brahmin scripture. In Kaala, those who are otherwise considered nonexistent and disgusting are the ones who speak; it is they who perform Parai and hip hop, and it is they who act, agitate and organise as conscious beings against the fringe world of Brahmin savarnas which tries to interfere through deceptive, immoral and cowardly means to encroach upon and grab their lands.
The dialogue "Kya re settinga" spoken by Kaala seems to allude to the above mentioned acts that have been used against the Dalit-Bahujans to subdue them. Against this backdrop, two important phrases stood out while Hari Dada spoke while on stage: one is 'Manu Realty' (the builder’s brand name), and the other is 'Dandakaranya Nagar', both of which appear in the background. These two phrases have immense significance for the savarna world, their religion and scriptures. Figuratively speaking, the reality of Manu is that of the ancient lawgiver putting into existence the oppressive caste system where basic human rights are denied for Shudras, Ati-Shudras and women, where their right to land, arms, resources, and above all, education is forbidden. For every transgression, the Brahmins devised a set of perverse punishments to persecute them. Dandakaranya refers to the Danda Kingdom of 'Rakshashas' (demons) in Brahmin-Savarna mythology, which comprises of certain regions around present day Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh where episodes from the Ramayana are said to have taken place.
In the movie, Manu Realty as a development model for Dandakaranya Nagar, under the banner of the Nab Bharat Rashtravadi Party (New India Nationalist Party), is used as an attempt to encroach into Bhimwada and snatch land away from the Bahujans while pushing them towards destruction. Figuratively, when one looks at the regions that fall into Dandakaranya in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha, one finds how this scriptural idea of Manu, substantiated by huge corporates, mining mafias and contractors, has snatched away lands from Adivasis resulting in devastating repercussions for them. This is something similar to what Hari Dada attempts to do in the movie. The paramount importance that land holds for Bahujans in contrast to the farce that is development is stressed on — both in the beginning of the movie, as well as during a heated exchange between Kaala and Hari Dada later, where Kaala says to him, “If land for you is power, for us it is life... Even if your gods come between us, they won’t be spared." These lines are a powerful anti-caste critique and call for the discarding of Brahmanism, which acts as an obstruction to the prosperity and happiness of Dalit-Bahujans.
The female characters in the movie — such as Toofani, Zarina, Selvi and many other women in the basti — are change makers, individuals who are at the forefront of the agitation and protests, and Dharavi's decision-makers who employ their assertive voices. When Zarina visits Hari Dada, he tries to make her appear as someone who is in need of charity, thus reinforcing dominant patriarchal notions but Zarina doesn’t let that happen. Similarly, Toofani is at the forefront when it comes to confronting the police and politicians and taking decisions about the future of Dharavi. The song 'Kannamma', written by Uma Devi and sung by Pradeep Kumar and Dhee, is a soothing track, while the rap songs are socio-political critiques and analyses of Dharavi whose lyrics have an organic flavor and local jargon, thus creating a space for young people from marginalised communities who pursue hip hop, such as Dharavi United and Casteless Collective, which are the leading ones.
Coming back to the notion of the mainstream in the movie, one particular scene that struck me was the one where the working class, that is the oppressed castes, stop working for a day in protest against the government. With the help of social media, this news spreads among the masses in the movie — an aspect that reminded me of the all-India bandh organised on 2 April to protest against the dilution of SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities (POA) Act and the protest in January by Ambedkarites in Maharashtra against the violence inflicted on Dalit-Bahujan visitors to Bhima Koregaon. Both of these protests were carried out through the powerful use of social media to coordinate and update people about the goings-on.
In the movie, the news channels criminalised the protest started by the Dalit-Bahujans of Dharavi while a seemingly elite woman is seen pouring out her anger against the protestors for forcing her to travel in the train just because of the protest. This captures the indifference on the part of the middle class and ruling castes towards the Dalit-Bahujans, where all that matters is their convenience; on the other hand, this scene also reinforces the fact that it is the Bahujan mainstream that makes possible the existence and sustenance of the savarna fringe world.
I was also quite fascinated by the explicit juxtaposition of some symbolism and myths that have very different meanings in socio-cultural discourse of Bahujans and savarna dwijas. One such instance is where Parshuram’s painting is shown on one of the walls of Hari Dada’s house, while at the same time there is a book with the title 'Asura' on Kaala's table. The second instance is when, on the one hand, a Ganesh Visarjan ceremony is taking place, and on the other, a criminal politician and aide of Hari Dada called Vishnu is killed by Kaala who is driving a jeep. This jeep's license plate reads 'BR 1956' — the very year when Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar converted into Buddhism along with his lakhs of followers, thus discarding the irreformable so-called Sanatana Dharma. The third instance is when a yajna is held in Hari Dada’s house and the Brahmin priest chants “Jai Siya Ram”. At exactly this point, people in Dharavi are killed.
Kaala contains within itself a Dalit-Bahujan life-world with an explicit anti-caste politics at the centre, around which everything revolves. It stands against Brahmanical ideas of purity, power and position, casting them to the side.
A majority of the savarnas who are reviewing the movie, writing opinion pieces and watching it as mere audience members have been shaken up by such an explicit Dalit-Bahujan assertion and exposition. Most of them are trying hard to look for a place in the plot to locate themselves. As a result, their savarna common sense is baffled by how they and their caste world can be antagonised. They realise that they are either nonexistent from the plot or are depicted as being somewhere in the fringe, creating problems. This has triggered a spiral of rants from their side. There are others who have attempted to make Kaala look like it is devoid of politics, and most specifically of anti-caste politics by projecting it merely as a Rajinikanth film by invisibilising the labour — both intellectual and physical — of its director Pa Ranjith, who is an Ambedkarite, as well as the effort and contributions of so many Dalit-Bahujans who have made the movie possible. There are also those who claim to be progressive and applaud the film for being against right-wing fascism, while still not being willing to acknowledge its anti-caste, revolutionary potential. Alas, how long will they wallow in their ignorance?
To all of them, like Kaala, I would like to say, “Kaala bahut bhaari hai, chal tere nikal nikal!"
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