Set in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum, a whole different universe of sorts with words ‘dirt’, ‘garbage’, and ‘scum’ associated with it. The inhabitants of Dharavi are your average dhobiwaala, ironwaala, security guards, auto drivers, bus conductors, et al. They are the society’s downtrodden who have long bore a cramped life of living together in matchbox houses, access to limited water and amenities. But they aren’t the scum of the earth, contrary to what the elite of Mumbai would think.
Enter Kaala, the messiah of all the subalterns in Dharavi, who takes care and ensures that ‘his’ Dharavi is never harmed. Much like his dog always by his side, Kaala is territorial and rightly so, always thinking of the inhabitants who fight for their rights and state of living, something that politician Haridas Abhyankar (Nana Patekar) stands against. He’s the villain who can cower in fear when needed but his ego won’t let him. An eviction is called for, driving all the slum dwellers away which later becomes a bone of contention between the power hungry Haridas and the determined Kaala. In the midst of it, Zareena (Huma Qureshi), a social worker who grew up in Dharavi and a former lover to Kaala, comes into the picture. People get hurt, things go awry, and Kaala and the people of Dharavi are forced to take things in their own hands. Do they rise above the authorities?
If Kabali was a Rajinikanth film directed by Pa Ranjith, then Kaala is a Pa Ranjith film starring Rajinikanth. While the story might be old wine in a new bottle, the political undertones and commentary on the growing divide between the ‘haves and the have-nots’ is brilliantly depicted with lots of symbolism. And Ranjith isn’t subtle about it, spelling it out in loud words through Kaala and the dwellers of Dharavi. There’s a lot to takeaway, from the indication towards propaganda and orchestrated communal tensions to taking a dig at those who harbour resentment towards those who are “beneath” them. In other words, Kaala represents the story of a particular fabric of society who are not just ignored but also exploited, and through Ranjith’s deft work of visually representing power play, we witness a revolution on screen. Perhaps Ranjith’s best film yet, Kaala thoroughly belongs to him.
Albeit a duration that’s longer than usual, with bits about Kaala’s past that could have been avoided, what blatantly stands out amidst all this is a certain amount of hypocrisy that silently looms in the air. If one were to observe Rajinikanth’s recent comments on the shootings in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, and juxtapose it to what he says as Kaala the character on screen, the irony is too obvious to ignore.
The commentary and symbolism apart, the music is well-placed and perfectly in sync with Kaala the character and Kaala the story. Nothing seems out of place, melding in musicians from the real Dharavi and incorporating a sense of belonging in every beat, every verse. It’s stylish enough to have you humming it later with lyrics that speak of all things red, blue, and black in Dharavi.
Characters played by Easwari Rao, Huma Qureshi, Nana Patekar, Samuthirakani, Anjali Patil, and Manikandan deserved better but still walked away with scenes that made them significant enough. Watch the film not for the superstar, but for what it represents. It’s not a movie for all, but it’s not a movie that ought to be dissed. There’s so much that Ranjith promised, and so much he delivered.