Cast: Rajinikanth, Nana Patekar, Samuthirakani
Direction: Pa. Ranjith
There is so much that reminded me of Mani Ratnam's 1980s Nayagan in P Ranjith's latest Rajinikanth starrer, Kaala. While Ratnam's Kamal Haasan as a little boy runs away from his Tamil Nadu village to what was then Bombay, Rajinikanth, as Karikaalan or Kaala comes away to Mumbai's Dharavi slum from Tamil Nadu -- to ultimately become a don. Much like Haasan, with a noble heart, a do-gooder for his brethren. Kaala's tragic losses as he fights a brutishly powerful politician, Harinath, played with extraordinary power and punch by Nana Patekar, also seem to run close to Velu Nayagar's life in Nayagan.
However, unlike Nayagan, Ranjith's film is firmly rooted in a land struggle between Dharavi's have-nots and rich grabbers, whose nexus with the police and politicians appears overwhelmingly frightening. Shedding their blood to save their hearth and humble homes, the folks of Dharavi, led by Kaala, put up a brave front in the face of one debacle after another, one tragedy after another that often leave then helpless and frustrated. But Kaala's grit and determination – even in the face of his personal losses – push his men and women to carry on in a struggle whose end can only be expected.
Ranjith introduces a romantic element in his narrative: a long lost love of a now married Kaala (Eswari Rao essaying his wife Selvi) played by Huma Qureshi, who as Zareena returns to Dharavi (a slum where she grew up) after many years, this time as a consultant to the Government's scheme to demolish Dharavi and rebuild it with plush, modern flats. But Kaala's steadfast sincerity to the cause of his people (“Our land is our life, we shall never part with it, he says) and Harinath's arrogance, exhibited through his demand for slavish obeisance, get her to understand that her former boyfriend, now 60 and ageing, must have a point.
At 167 minutes, Kaala could have been liberally trimmed of its exaggerations, but some wonderful bits of acting by Samuthirakani, Kaala's most trusted friend, and Anjali Patil (as Puyal, a girlfriend of Kaala's son, seen a while ago in a completely different avatar in Sri Lankan director Prassana Vithanage's With You, Without You) lift the movie to another level. In fact, there are moments when both Samuthirakani and Patil outshine Rajinikanth. Even where we see Patekar and Rajinikanth framed together, Nana clearly has an upper hand.
Obviously, Rajinikanth is jaded, almost coerced – or so it seems – into repeating himself in film after film. We saw the same don in Kabali, a movie where Ranjith promised us to give us back Rajinikanth the actor, whose early films explored the brilliance in him, a brilliance he threw away to disappear into a fog of gimmicks. There is not much of it in Kaala, mercifully, but surely Rajinikanth comes off as an actor who has lost his ability to mesmerise his audiences. Not surprisingly though, for how long can an artist get into the same sort of character. A suited and booted underworld don in Kabali, a dhoti-and-shirt-clad Kaala in his latest outing, his gaunt body telling us a tale all too loudly.
With Patekar in full white, purportedly portraying goodness (watch the scene at the end when verses from the Ramayana are being read at Harinath's bungalow), and Rajinikanth attired in black, the colour combo is obviously meant to nudge us into a world where looks are often deceptive. Harinath tells his grand-daughter that Kaala is Raavan, but when the little girl meets the man himself, she is charmed. “I am glad you did not kill him”, she quips to Harinath, who places his polished sword on a table separating the two adversaries.
Undoubtedly, Kaala is a better effort than Kabali, but this is not saying much, given the fact that Rajinikanth is still being called upon to play a hero, who is made out to be larger than life, though he is left holding a physique that does not quite match his screen persona. He looks so listless in scene after scene. Surely, the superstar himself must be tired of glaring at his opponents, and knocking around with men who are ready to fall down even before Rajinikanth's blows land on them!
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and move critic, who may be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org )