The politics of Rajinikanth's Kaala: Pa Ranjith film aptly shows the divide between rich and poor, real and reel

TS Sudhir

Jun,08 2018 08:48:19 IST

It is an amazing coincidence. Last week, when Rajinikanth visited the Tuticorin hospital, 21-year-old commerce graduate Santhosh Raj embarrassed the Superstar by asking him, "Who are you?'' and "Where have you come from?'' Santhosh Raj is one of the active participants in the anti-Sterlite protests and was upset that his favorite actor, who has now embraced politics, had not cared about their protests for 99 days or even bothered to lend support on the 100th day of the agitation on 22 May when the Tuticorin police fired to kill 13 protesters.

Very soon, Rajinikanth's sheepish reply "Naan thaan pa Rajinikanth'' (It is me, Rajinikanth) was trending on Twitter.

Cut to Kaala, where in a scene, Rajinikanth's character Karikaalan is forcibly brought to a police station to negotiate a deal with a minister. An inebriated Karikaalan asks the middleman, over half a dozen times, ''ivvan yaaru'' (Who is this man?) much to the embarrassment of the minister. It is quite possible that Rajini in Tuticorin would have been foxed at Raj's query, wondering if he had had any access to the Kaala footage or script.

Rajinikanth in Kaala. Image via Twitter

Rajinikanth in Kaala. Image via Twitter

In fact, it would seem as if Kaala predicted Tuticorin would happen. Just like the protest for clean land, air and water in the Tamil Nadu district, the climax scene of the movie is an uprising to protect their land from being taken over. Karikaalan exhorts the people of Dharavi that their body is their only weapon. In Tuticorin, the people marched to the collectorate and once the protest turned violent, took the bullets on their chests.

On 23 May, Rajinikanth condemned the animal-like behaviour by the gun-toting cops in a video on Twitter.

"What happened in Sterlite is a result of government's carelessness and the inhuman act by the police. I condemn this,'' he had said.

A week later, much to everyone's surprise, Rajini made a U-turn, siding with the police. He came down heavily on "continuous protests'' arguing that it will only "turn Tamil Nadu into a graveyard''. He found fault with the "anti-social elements'' and said because of them, the police had to resort to firing.

Rajini needed to have only refreshed his memory from the rather realistic portrayal by director Pa. Ranjith of how powerful political and corporate interests try to sabotage the Karikaalan-led revolt in Kaala. For someone whose image in the political theatre draws oxygen from his screen image, it is rather disappointing to see Rajinikanth on the side of the people on screen and with the powerful state off screen. How Tuticorin and Tamil Nadu wished it would be the other way round!

Is Kaala then Rajinikanth's political launchpad? Ranjith shows his character as a secular person, almost as if to deflect criticism that Rajini in his political avatar is a proxy for the BJP.

If the actor had not made those remarks during the trip to Tuticorin, the 'Kaala Karikaalan is Rajinikanth' narrative would have given a huge boost to his political career. But with Rajini endorsing the government line, the movie will be seen only as a filmmaker exploiting events taking place around him.

Police personnel tackles the agitators demanding the closure of Vedanta's Sterlite Copper unit. PTI

Police personnel tackles the agitators demanding the closure of Vedanta's Sterlite Copper unit. PTI

Kaala, in fact, draws liberally from the Tamil Nadu of today. During the Jallikattu agitation at the Marina beach in Chennai in January 2017, Mathiazhagan, a constable of the Armed Reserve Police took to the mike to support the people's movement. In Kaala, a constable of Mumbai police defies his superior to openly side with the people of Dharavi. Ranjith, interestingly, names the constable as Shivaji Rao Gaekwad, which is Rajinikanth's original name. The constable gets killed in the film, almost as if to confer on the real Rajini the halo of a martyr for the cause of the people.

Given that Kaala is a deeply political film, it is difficult not to jump to conclusions about who Ranjith is referring to. In fact, Nana Patekar's political character, Haridev Abhyankar emphasises throughout the film on a pure and clean India. During a speech, he also makes a reference to Digital India. But just in case, the audience thinks of only one person, Patekar's party symbol is shown as the tiger, like in the case of the Shiv Sena.

Kaala, using Dharavi as its canvas, is a commentary on modern-day India. It is a social treatise wrapped in a commercial format, on the rich-poor divide. Ranjith uses it to articulate his position on land acquisition, communal polarisation, Swachh Bharat and people's movements to make the point that the more things change for the rich, the more they remain the same for the poor.

In all of Ranjith's films, caste plays an important part. Here too, the use of the colour blue to signify triumph in the climax scene and the backdrop of Gautama Buddha Vihara, suggest a Dalit uprising of sorts. The film shows Dharavi going on strike to cripple Mumbai. In a broader sense, Ranjith is alluding to the power of the downtrodden, that can overthrow the established political gentry should it choose to. In the context of attacks on Dalits in the last couple of years, Ranjith uses Rajinikanth as the mascot of his political beliefs and leanings.

One of the most brilliant scenes in the movie is when the police in order to shame Anjali Patil who plays a social activist, disrobes her. As she lies sprawled on the ground, Patil's character has a choice what to pick up first — her clothes to cover her honour or the lathi lying by the side. That she goes for the latter to hit the three leering cops is not just a formulaic cinematic moment. It makes the point that hitting back is no longer an option for women in distress. It is THE option.

Updated Date: Jun 08, 2018 08:48 AM