Synopsis – Kaala is about the life of Nellai / Tirunelveli based Tamils who live in large number in Mumbai.
My Take – There are some star actors and actresses who require no introduction, mainly as their onscreen personalities have been accepted in such a phenomenal level that their fans end up cherishing their presence irrespective of the quality of the films they choose to star in. South Indian superstar Rajinikanth, is one such example. Over the years we’ve seen how he has evolved to be a synonym for entertainment, and even at the age of 67, he’s someone who has every ounce of heroism still alive in his blood. The joy of watching him showcase his stout-hearted charisma, accompanied by every on screen move of his, is inexplicable.
However, despite receiving unanimous acceptance throughout South India because of his choice of films over the past four decades, his last few releases, from Kochadaiiyaan to Lingaa and Kabali, have been considered colossal disappointments, either financially or critically, mainly as this subjects were obviously more focused on his political inclinations. Here, re teaming with director Pa. Ranjith (of Kabali), in a film produced by his actor son in law, Dhanush, Rajinikanth is back with his style and charisma, in yet another social message film packaged as an entertainer. While it does contain his stereotypical tropes such as a mandatory introduction song, some hardcore fist fights, a very young love interest, mass self-praise dialogues, and a seething villain, but for some reason Ranjith’s direction gives all these elements a new lease of life by breaking stereotypes by bringing in his own personal take on the superstar’s aura, and like fine wine, the superstar is getting better with age and has chosen a role which helps him bring out his larger than life image in a convincing manner.
The story follows Karikalan aka Kaala (Rajinikanth), who with his family had migrated from Tamil Nadu at a younger age, and had settled in second-largest slum in the continent of Asia and the third-largest slum in the world, Dharavi in Mumbai. Following his father’s death, Kaala emerges as the slum lord and the savior of the locals, who now request him to defend their land from the corrupt politicians.
Settled in the same area with his family, consisting of his loving wife Selvi (Easwari Rao), their four sons, their grandchildren and his best friend Vaaliyappa (Samuthirakani). Kaala gets his chance to display his power when his social activist youngest son Lenin (Manikandan) and his girlfriend Puyal (Anjali Patil) get embroiled in a redevelopment project that seeks to re-imagine Dharavi as a shimmering oasis of high-rises and golf courses. Things complicate when Kaala’s former flame Zarina (Huma Qureshi), a world renowned housing rights activist, supports the scheme to uproot Dharavi’s hard-working denizens and move them into vertical slums.
Despite the essential prosperity and the confirmed success, Kaala recognizes this is as ploy played by Haridev Abhayankar aka Hari Dada (Nana Patekar), a former goon who is now a white clad politician and party leader whose platform seeks to clean India, by essentially claiming eminent domain over these unincorporated sections of town and bulldozing them to replace the homes of hundreds of thousands with expensive high rises. Sharing a long history of enmity, going back to Kaala’s early adulthood, this most recent conflagration stirs up deep feelings in both, as Kaala tries everything to protect his fort Dharavi, while Hari leaves no stone unturned to destroy him and anyone who supports him.
While the story is as old as the hills, but it’s the packaging here mixed with Rajinikanth’s style factor and dialogue delivery makes the film worth a one-time watch. Keeping his political entry in mind, here he is portrayed as a common man and a leader of the downtrodden who takes on the politician – or real estate mafia — and saves a slum from demolition. Right from his first scene, in which he holds a cricket bat high, Rajinikanth plays it straight and steals the show. Thankfully the film isn’t just a did-you-catch-that game, and not just about hoardings of Swacch Bharat that leer down upon Dharavi at Kaala’s home. The film is surefooted in going beyond that, and weaves a compelling story around characters we cannot easily predict. One of director Pa Ranjith‘s ideas here is to rework the old formula where the color white is perceived as pure and good while black is considered as bad and evil. Here, Kaala is always dressed in black and Hari Dada is in symbolic white (the color worn by our Indian political leaders). Director Ranjith also pushes his agenda of showing the downtrodden as the oppressed while the rich can kill and get away with it. It’s hilarious how in a scene, Hari Dada’s granddaughter tells him that Kaala looks like a good man and that he should not kill him.
While the first half of the film deals with the setting up of the characters and the milieu, the film picks up the pace and delivers the thrills in the second half, but those without strong constitutions may very well check out after the first 90 minutes. In the post-interval section director Rajini begins to deliver the kind of ass-kicking and celebratory machismo that we expect from his hero characters and almost makes the entire saggy first section worth the wait. What separates this one from your typical Rajnikanth film is the film making style and motives of director Pa Ranjith who is known to not shy away from putting his ideologies and political views through his films. The idea is that the only true wealth is land ownership, as everything else in transient, and that those who work to build up the land are entitled to it. A bit pie-in-the-sky for sure, but the right kind of optimistic for a film like this. Along with this there are stabs at caste discrimination, the issue of migrant workers in Mumbai as Kaala and most of his associates originate from Tamil Nadu and migrated to Mumbai for work, racism, human rights and utilities mismanagement for underprivileged communities, class warfare, the role of NGOs in settling or advocating for local populations, and even gender dynamics.
On a cinematic level, this one is a refined version of Kabali, from the Dalit politics to on the face of criticism of current political picture, this film is an entirely political film that impresses you with its boldness, while balancing with the ingredients of an entertainer and a socially-driven film in a good manner. There is a scene which argues the definition of Rowdism, as a man who questions wrongful doings are branded rowdy, so is Kaala a Rowdy? A Gangster? Of course the lead here has faint shades of grey, but its director Ranjith’s definitive touch that elevates the film’s strong intent. It’s the story of a man who takes pride in protecting his people’s land, the very land where the foundation of a family, a community and livelihood was built on. But does is it contain what bowls over Rajinikanth‘s fans? Well, there’s that stunningly shot superman rain fight which will have fans go crazy along with a scene at the police station where he mocks a minister with a punchline.
Even the incendiary climax is superbly orchestrated. The major drawback of the film is the 159 minute run time of the film, which just adds on to the baggage of the film. The first half of the film also spends a lot of energy setting up characters and relationships that don’t really pay off in any satisfying way. There is a nominal female lead in Huma Qureshi‘s Zareena, Kaala’s former flame-cum-NGO worker who returns to Dharavi to negotiate between the developers and the residents, but her character feels very much like an afterthought, and as Kaala is married when the story begins, the character just felt unnecessary. There are also a number of half-assed villains for Kaala to contend with who merely seem like video game style mini-bosses through which he must go to get to his ultimate adversary. None of them have any real depth and they only serve as cannon fodder to make him appear strong.
However, director Ranjith deserves a huge round of applause for getting the best out his actors as the film is rich in performance. From swirling wood-sticks in the air to knocking down dozens of people with nothing but an umbrella, the film never shies away from being a Rajinikanth feature. Yes, writers have toned down his character to give it a humane touch and it works at places. But, the most engrossing thing about the film are those scene in which Rajni is just being the real him. Rajni’s unadulterated swag, his paramount dialogue delivery is a treat to watch even for the nth time. Nana Patekar too is effortless in his portrayal of Hari Dada.
Even in few scenes, leaves a roaring impact with his presence. Hari is not a character as much as one of the film’s numerous symbols of upper-caste tyranny, but Patekar uses his considerable experience to ensure that his handful of scenes will be remembered. His face-offs with Rajini work so well because both stars are at the peak of their game. The supporting cast are equally impressive. Eswari Rao and Huma Qureshi as the leading ladies are brilliant, with the banter being the delight. Samuthirakani, Manikandant, Dileepan, Aruldoss and Anjali Patil are also likable. On a whole, ‘Kaala’ is a fun film with enough mass elements to satisfy Rajinikanth‘s hardcore fans and enough thrill to satiate the needs of the general audience.
Directed – Pa. Ranjith
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 159 minutes