Kaala review: Witness Rajinikanth – The Actor in this layered Pa Ranjith revolution

Kaala isn’t a Rajinikanth film — it is a Pa Ranjith film starring actor Rajinikanth; not the superstar, mind you. Ranjith makes this absolutely clear right from the word go by giving Rajini his simplest introduction on celluloid after ages. Kaala is seen playing cricket with young kids in the slum. You might be expecting him to hit a six. It is a Rajini film after all. Instead, Kaala gets his middle stump knocked out. Kaala calls to Valliappan (Samuthirakani), the umpire, and appeals for a no ball. But Valliappan gives a wide. An involuntary smile slowly spreads on my lips throughout this sequence. I knew immediately that we weren’t going to witness the superstar Rajinikanth, but rather the Rajini from the 80s, an actor with charisma and screen presence like no one else.

This doesn’t mean the absence of big moments — the slow-motion walks, the 360-degree shots, the close-ups — that every Rajini fan craves for. But, Ranjith has endearingly humanised the on-screen Rajinikanth. Unlike the usual star vehicle where the lead character becomes the Banyan tree that dwarfs the plants around, Kaala’s characters hold their own. They hit back, retort and even playfully mock Rajini. This is significant because it reiterates how human these connections are. Rajini’s age shows, especially in the action sequences; but the cameras swoop in and out, masking it. After watching Rajini play a demi-god on screen for ages, it feels good to watch him play a human on screen.

In a refreshing change to the meek, submissive women we see in Rajini films, the women of Kaala are exciting. I would have loved to see more of the Karikaalan-Selvi (Easwari Rao) track which is just lovely. A happily-married Karikaalan’s heart still skips a beat when he sees his ex-lover Zarina (Huma Qureshi). But he knows enough to not wallow in the what-ifs. And, Selvi understands and accepts her husband as he is, including the tattoo he has of his ex-lover. Rajini and Easwari (an extremely flavoursome performance) share a chemistry that is adorable. Ranjith has proved a point — you don’t need younger actors (read heroines) to show romance on screen.

However, the women aren’t there just as dramatic relief. Both Selvi and Zareena have strong voices, integral roles to play in Karikaalan’s story. Moreover, Ranjith places several easter-egg moments that deal with gender equality. The film’s most powerful moment for me was when a woman protestor’s pants are removed by the police in an attempt to shame her. Between her soiled churidar and a lathi, she picks up the lathi and charges straight at the men. She is claiming her right to occupy a space in a protest and not let anyone use her gender against her wishes. The moment speaks volumes. Kaala is filled with revolutionary moments like these that carry you through the few inorganic cuts and the story loopholes that appear on the horizon.

Kaala is loaded with symbolism. The frames are painted with blue (Ambedkar’s colour), black (the colour of protest) and red (the colour of revolution); so is Rajini who is predominantly dressed in these colours (Watch out for the climax sequence). Kaala’s mythological references are also too obvious to miss. Ranjith’s play with Rama and Ravana, white and black reminded me of the book Asura: The Tale of the vanquished by Anand Neelakanta. His juxtaposition of mythological references to the growing dominance of the wealthy and the saffron isn’t without social relevance. A riot gets ‘infiltrated’, social media uprisings — the moments are real and it is tough to imagine that Ranjith had written this way before it happened in real life. Irony plays a tough hand as it is tough to ignore the contrast between real life and reel life.

Despite limited screen time, Nana Patekar makes a formidable antagonist with his performance. The music Nana Patekar gets in this film is why Santhosh Narayanan is a name to watch out for — the background score has the sounds of devotional music presented in dark flavour. I had earlier said that the composer’s album will make much sense with the film and it does. The songs and their usage reinforce Ranjith’s idea of art being political.

Kaala isn’t a film about a gangster but a film about revolution. And Ranjith stays true to his objective. The traces of what we saw in Kabali have been fleshed out and beautifully embellished. Just the mere fact that I have mentioned Ranjith more than Rajinikanth in this review is an indication of the voice he has as a filmmaker. And it is also equally appreciable that Rajinikanth has let the young filmmaker holler through him. At the audio launch, Rajini had said that Kabali was more of a Ranjith film while Kaala was a Rajini-Ranjith film. Kabali was Ranjith trying to make a Rajinikanth film. Kaala is Rajinikanth starring in a Ranjith film.

This was first originally published on https://indianexpress.com/. You can find it here.

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