Ambedkar, Akilan and Hip-Hop: The political subtext of 'Kaala' teaser explained
The teaser for Rajinikanth's Kaala, director Pa Ranjith's second outing with the superstar, was released at 12.00 am on March 2. The date was pushed from March 1 because of the death of Kanchi Jayendra Saraswati - the irony is not lost on Pa Ranjith fans who enjoy the political depth in his films immensely.
In all three of his films released so far, Attakathi, Madras as well as Kabali, Ranjith has brought in narratives of the oppressed in a "mass", celebratory way that has seldom been seen on the big screen. What was subtle in Attakathi and Madras, exploded in Kabali, with none other than the superstar himself lending his body and voice to political expressions.
With Kaala, the team seems to have notched it up further. The teaser begins with a chorus of voices shouting, "Poraduvom" or "We will fight", placing it immediately in the context of a people's struggle.
Nana Patekar, who plays a politician in the film, is dressed entirely in white, and is pitched opposite Kaala - a man whose name means black and is also dressed entirely in the colour.
Interestingly, white has usually been the colour of Good and black, the colour of Evil. Ranjith subverts these hegemonic colour associations to give us a villain who wears white and speaks of "cleaning" the country and a hero who wears black and is proud of the "dirt" in his home.
We already saw an assertion of "Karuppu" politics in Kabali, with Rajinikanth speaking about the power of black. While Rajini films in the past have had heroines fawning around the actor, and justifying why they fell in love with a dark-skinned man, Kabali avoided the condescension. What's usually a romantic song and dance sequence in the superstar's film took on political overtones in Ranjith's film. Kaala plays with the same idea with much more confidence, directly re-imagining the colour black as heroic, something we saw Black Panther accomplish with great success recently.
Interestingly, in the teaser, as Rajini does his trademark walk, we see Hip hop dancers in the foreground. An art form that originated on the streets and incorporated the dance of the African-American and Latino communities in the US. The voice-over (Samuthirakani) explains what the name 'Kaala' means - as Rajini walks with blackened joyous faces behind him, we're told 'Kaala' means 'black' and he's also 'Karikalan', the one who fights in order to protect.
The first teaser of big star vehicles seldom features women characters. Kaala, however, not only has shots of Eswari Rao and Huma Qureshi, Eswari even gets lines! The actor, who plays Rajinikanth's wife in the film, can be heard complaining about his tendency to get into fights and doesn't seem as awed by Kaala as the watching viewers. In Kabali, too, Ranjith broke the mould of the overly impressed heroine who was a fixture in Rajini's earlier films. A spirited Kumudhavalli (Radhika Apte) berated Kabali whenever required and wasn't the stereotypical subservient wife. Ranjith's films are inclusive of all kinds of hierarchical politics, including that of gender and the director is increasingly attempting to bring these "upsets" to the mainstream.
The "punch" dialogue in the teaser is undoubtedly the portion when Kaala says, "Kya re, settingah? Vengayin mavan, I have come alone, come if you have the guts!" Speaking in the Nellai dialect (Ranjith has said in an interview that this was because several Tamils in Dharavi, where the film is set, are from Tirunelveli), Rajini's mix of Hindi and Tamil has already set the Internet on fire.
But what does "Vengayin mavan" mean? The word 'Vengai' means 'Brave', and is used to refer to a fierce animal like the tiger, but it could also be a reference to Tamil writer Akilan's Vengayin Maindhan, a historical novel about Rajendra Chozha, the son of Rajaraja Chozhan whose reign is considered to be the most glorious in Tamil history. Recently, there have been attempts by different caste outfits in Tamil Nadu to claim Rajaraja Chozhan as their own. Kaala using the phrase challenges this notion of ownership.
Further, Karikala Chozhan, a king who ruled in the Sangam era, is considered to be the greatest of the early Chozhas. Given Rajini's name in the film and the use of the phrase, it's unlikely that the link is a mere coincidence.
Many say that Nana's character is modeled on the Thackerays, given that the film is set in Mumbai. Ranjith has denied that any of his characters are based on real life people, nevertheless, one can be sure that the audience will watch for similarities closely.
For now, the reference to the desire to "clean" the country seems to be a potshot at cosmetic "cleanliness" campaigns like Swachch Bharat conducted by governments which do little to improve the lives of the oppressed. Adjectives like "clean" and "pure" (a word dear to fascists around the world) that Nana's character throws around are politically loaded and signify an awareness within the narrative of the systemic failure to emancipate the oppressed, even as cosmetic changes are made.
Pa Ranjith's films always have portraits of personalities who have inspired people's struggles and Kaala is no different. Even as Rajini delivers his finishing lines in the teaser, we spotted a picture of Wangari Maathai, black environmentalist activist, Nobel Laureate and founder of the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, on the wall. There's another picture too, but too blurry in the teaser for us to identify.
Towards the end of the teaser, Kaala says that there's more "rowdyism" on offer but Ranjith brings it to a close with Ambedkar's powerful words - "Kattravai, Pattravai" which mean "Educate, Agitate". The third word in the strategy that Ambedkar gave to his followers was "Organise" - but that does not complete the slogan in the teaser although the lyrcis leading up to the end suggest it. Is this because Ranjith sees Kaala as a sequel to Kabali? In the first film, Rajini played a Malaysian Tamil don who sets up an educational institution for his oppressed people - Educate, done (Madras, too, stressed on education before agitation). Is Kaala then the second phase - Agitate? And will we see another film to complete the trilogy - Organise?