The Dharavi story in Tamil cinema: How 'Kaala' inverts the 'Nayakan' gaze

'Kaala' is a deliberately crafted anti-thesis to 'Nayakan', rewritten from a Dalit-Bahujan perspective.
The Dharavi story in Tamil cinema: How 'Kaala' inverts the 'Nayakan' gaze
The Dharavi story in Tamil cinema: How 'Kaala' inverts the 'Nayakan' gaze
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Like any other film by Pa Ranjith, the release of Kaala (2018) too witnessed several analytical and 'de-coding' pieces written on it. One thing that was common among all these pieces is that they compared Kaala with Mani Ratnam's Nayakan (1987) on some point or the other. This was understandable for two reasons. One, the story in both movies is located in Dharavi, Mumbai. And secondly, one of them starred Kamal Hassan and the other, Rajinikanth. The careers of these two competing stars have been continuously compared and contrasted since the 1980s.

Ashameera Aiyappan (The Indian Express) wrote, “Even the story of a vigilante gangster in the slums of Dharavi isn’t new — we have Nayagan, a classic that will be cherished by generations, from Mani Ratnam again.” S Shivakumar (The Hindu) claimed, “The similarities in plot with ‘Nayakan’ are striking though any other comparison with Mani’s classic would be odious.” And Baradwaj Rangan (The Film Companion) said, Now take the other Tamil drama based on the life of a Dharavi don, Nayakan — every time someone died, it felt like a hammer blow to the chest, and it changed the protagonist in some way.”

However, most of these pieces missed out the most interesting inference. That Kaala is a deliberately crafted anti-thesis to Nayakan. It is almost as if Pa Ranjith wanted to erase the Brahmin-Savarna gaze of Dharavi in Nayakan and rewrite it from a Dalit-Bahujan perspective. And we can easily deduce this if we look closely at any aspect from these two movies.

Seeing is Believing

The most obvious and stark difference between Kaala and Nayakan is in the visual. It is in how both these movies choose to use the colours white and black. Mani Ratnam generously lends the colour white to his frames. For most of the movie’s running time, the protagonist Sakthivel ‘Velu’ Nayakkar (played by Kamal Hassan) is clothed in white. But what is surprising is that even the supporting characters and the locations in Dharavi are dominated by the colour white. In fact, some of the movie’s frames shockingly look like a pre-Independence Congress conference.  It certainly seems like an odd choice because apart from maybe the dabbawalas, when did working class people in Mumbai wear so much white on an everyday basis?

On the other hand, Ranjith takes the ‘black’ from his movie’s title and lends it to the entire movie. From the protagonist Karikalan Kaala’s (played by Rajinikanth) clothes and jeep to the stylishly choreographed rain fight scene to the ideologically colour-sequenced climax to almost every frame, the colour black dominates. Ranjith uses the colour not only as a metaphor for the sweat and toil of the working class but also as a symbol of resistance.

What is however interesting is that, Ranjith doesn’t just stop with choosing the colour black over Mani Ratnam’s white. He goes a step further, and gives the colour white to everything connected with his movie’s antagonist Haridev Abhayankar (Hari Dhadha). It looks as though Ranjith wanted to put Nayakan’s protagonist and his own film’s antagonist in the same plane.

The Birth of a Hero

Mani Ratnam introduces his protagonist as an orphaned boy who finds shelter in Mumbai’s Dharavi. Velu Nayakkar, who is from the landed Nayakkar community, grows up among landless, lower caste slum dwellers and rises up to become their saviour. Here, the narrative uses the tried and tested trope of an upper caste male saviour protecting oppressed people.

This trope is nothing new and has been overused from the times of Mahabharata. Lord Krishna and Karna grow up in a Yadav and charioteer family respectively, but the story doesn’t let us forget their upper caste roots. And this trope has been faithfully followed by Tamil cinema, including some of the progressive movies of MG Ramachandran. These movies make sure that the protagonist can only belong to an upper caste even if he is living among lower caste people. Not wanting to disturb this popular saviour template, Mani Ratnam too replicates it, even when Dharavi is actually a reserved SC constituency. His protagonist is a ‘one man army’ with limitless capabilities. However, the narrative offers no agency to the people he is saving.

On the other hand, Ranjith intentionally places his protagonist Kaala in the midst of Dharavi’s population. He isn’t an outsider. Neither does he have a privileged parental connection. He is like anyone else in the community and grew up as one among them.

Kaala is no ‘one man army’. His strength lies in bringing together oppressed people from different backgrounds and leading them. He is challenged ideologically by his own son Lenin. NGO worker Zareena doesn’t agree with his ways to emancipate people. Apart from this, there are a bunch of other characters who don’t easily agree with Kaala’s radical ways. By giving agency to multiple characters in the movie, Ranjith documents the conflicting solutions that come up in a community and how a people’s leader eventually emerges.

The Good, the Bad and the Criminal?

There is an interesting point in Kaala where Ranjith establishes how his protaganist is the direct opposite of Nayakan’s. In Nayakan, the existential question that bothers the protagonist is “Am I a good person or a bad person?” Mani Ratnam makes the protagonist’s own grandson pose this question to him. As someone who indulges in smuggling, narcotic trafficking and goondaism but also helping those who come to him in need, Velu Nayakkar is left with no clear answer to this question.

But Ranjith has no existential doubts about his hero.  Kaala is clearly established as a radical people’s leader with charismatic and democratic authority. Unlike Velu Nayakkar, he doesn’t engage in illegal activities to uplift people. But only bends or breaks rules that trample upon the basic rights of residents. During the State Minister’s interrogation, the movie suggests that Kaala is a small time businessman who runs a factory.  And as a leader, Kaala is seen emphasising the importance of education to liberate oneself throughout the movie.  On the other hand, by glorifying the illegal activities of the protagonist, Mani Ratnam criminalises Dharavi residents and strengthens the negative stereotype around them.

Ranjith slyly counters Nayakan’s protagonist by staging a moment between Hari Dhadha and his granddaughter when Kaala visits their home. Contrary to what Velu Nayakkar’s grandson asks him, here the antagonist’s granddaughter tells Hari Dhadha, “Dhadhu! He seems to be a very nice man! Don’t kill him!”

The Story of the Place

Nayakan primarily remains the story of a don. Like in most other Mani Ratnam movies, the socio-politics of the location where the story takes place is used as a mere backdrop in this one too. Here, Dharavi only acts as a prop to stage the rise and fall of Velu Nayakkar. Instead of rooting the story in Dharavi, Mani Ratnam chooses to often film his movie in touristy Mumbai locations. The scenes are liberally staged around the ‘town’ part of the city – in CST (VT) Terminus, Gateway of India, Marine Drive, Jehangir Art Gallery in Kala Ghoda and Flora Fountain. Characters living in Dharavi decide to brave the traffic and travel a whole 15 km to South Mumbai and then well, accidentally bump into each other. Mani Ratnam chooses to do this bizarre thing in order to keep a Tripadvisor-like exotic look of Mumbai intact. Perhaps if he had filmed Nayakan in the 2010s, he would have staged a scene that overlooks the Worli Sea-Link as well.

On the other hand, Ranjith’s narrative consciously stays within Dharavi and its streets. The camera leaves Dharavi only when the story necessitates it. Like towards the end of the movie, when the Dharavi strike spreads across the city, the camera follows the protest to South Mumbai. And even here, it stays firm in not capturing South Mumbai in a touristy way. The scene is used to only illustrate the magnitude of the protests and not to exoticise the city.

This leads us to another direct contrast between Nayakan and Kaala. If Mani Ratnam uses Dharavi as a prop in his movie to tell the story of an individual hero, Ranjith uses Rajinikanth as a prop to tell the story of Dharavi and its people. He explicitly demonstrates this in the climax sequence by showing that the face of Kaala/Rajinikanth is nothing more than a mask. A mask that anyone can wear and assume its identity.  The movie actually gets meta here, because like the Dharavi residents, Ranjith too is wearing the mask of Rajinikanth to speak his own politics.

Both Mani Ratnam and Ranjith almost concede their movie’s scope in the final summarising song. Nayakan ends with its theme song ‘Thenpandi cheemayiley’, which empathetically cries for its hero. On the other hand, Kaala ends with ‘Theruvilakku velichathiley’ song, which draws its lines from Ambedkarite politics and speaks on education, progress and liberation of the community.

The Bahujan support system

Although Nayakan greatly borrows from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), one significant aspect that Mani Ratnam leaves out of it is the importance The Godfather places on the family system. In Nayakan, Velu Nayakkar loses his dad and becomes an orphan, has a foster family in Mumbai, later loses his wife and son, post which his daughter too leaves him. Later, he does not even know about the existence of a grandson for a few years. Mani Ratnam chooses an almost ‘lone wolf’ sort of narrative for his protagonist with some occasional family touches.

But as someone who is aware of how Dalit Bahujan movements function, Ranjith doesn’t get into any of this lone wolf business. Instead, he stresses on the importance of the support system provided by family and community members in his narrative. There is a beautiful moment in the initial part of the movie when Kaala’s wife Selvi makes everyone in the family sit together and performs a popular home ritual to break the evil eye. Ranjith re-writes the ‘lone wolf’ into a ‘24/7 family man’, who is always accompanied by his son Selvam and relative Valliyappan.

De-Brahmanizing the narrative

The most shocking aspect of Nayakan is how much Mani Ratnam brahmanizes Dharavi. Velu Nayakkar’s house is adorned with images of Hindu gods and goddesses and even Shirdi Saibaba. In a deliberately staged scene, his wife applies kumkum on his forehead and from then on, he continues to wear it at all times. He is also shown as an ardent supporter of  the Ganapati festival. A Brahmin priest is consistently employed for all ritual purposes in the movie. At one point, we can even hear Suprabatham playing in Velu Nayakkar’s house.

Contrast this with the images and/or statues of Buddha, Ambedkar, Phule, Periyar, Marx, Lenin and Kamaraj that we abundantly see in Kaala. Even in their religious affiliation, Ranjith documents the diverse beliefs that Dalit Bahujans follow. You can see a Hindu  temple, a Buddhist Vihar, a Mosque and even local dieties that are appropriated by Hinduism like an Ayyanar place of worship and a Mariamman temple.

The Hindu god and goddess images that you see in Velu Nayakkar’s house are now seen in Hari Dhadha’s house. And as an answer to Velu Nayakkar’s support for the Ganapati festival, Ranjith juxtaposes the dissolving of Ganapati idols in the sea with the killing of Hari Dhadha’s proxy election candidate. At a microscopic level, Hari Dadha is the antagonist. But at a macroscopic level, Kaala recognises Hinduism and its caste system as the real oppressive structures.

Caste away?

For a story located in Dharavi, Nayakan has too many upper caste men in the front. Apart from the protagonist who, of course, belongs to the land owning Nayakkar community, we see that he is assisted at all times by a knowledgeable ‘Iyer’ (full marks for positive stereotyping!). In a scene where a woman from Dharavi comes to Velu Nayakkar and seeks help to save her sick child, we learn that the government ambulance does not visit her house because it is located in a cheri. But surprisingly, instead of looking at it as the existence of urban untouchability, Mani Ratnam dilutes it into a question of poverty. Like typical Brahmin-Savarna gazing, all questions of caste are happily converted into poverty-related issues.

But in Kaala, Ranjith re-instates the importance of seeing caste in a caste society. Because how can one be anti-caste if you refuse to see caste in the first place? The documentation of the vibrant visual images of anti-caste politics proves the anti-caste consciousness of the residents. And the influence of caste is recorded by not only showing how Hari Dhadha refuses to drink water at Kaala’s place but also in how one of Kaala’s son thinks he can escape caste by leaving Dharavi.

Real Women Characters

Mani Ratnam fills Nayakan with extremely weak woman characters and does great injustice to how Dalit Bahujan women are shown on screen. Nila, an underage sex worker, is forced into a marriage with the protagonist, without even the slightest hint of consent. But the movie expects us to look at it as an empathetic act, because Velu Nayakkar is supposedly ‘giving life’ to a sex  worker. Shyla, the protagonist’s non-biological sister, is depicted as a perennially helpless woman. And a fisherwoman character is hyper-sexualised in an ‘item song’. Velu Nayakkar’s daughter is the only one shown with some amount of agency. And Ranjith gives her name 'Charumathi' to Puyal in his movie.

Contrast this with the fiery woman characters that Kaala has. Charumathi Puyal Gaekwad is an articulate and assertive political activist. Zareena is a politicized NGO worker who has a mind of her own. Even Selvi, whose politics we don’t get to know, is a confident, authoritative woman. As against Velu Nayakkar ‘giving life’ to a sex worker, in Kaala, Puyal gives a lesson on honour to the policemen attacking  her (and the audience) by choosing to fight back when she is stripped.

Ranjith clearly wants to erase the memory of helpless, sexualised women of Mani Ratnam’s Dharavi and populate our minds with real-life like Dalit Bahujan women.

Bahujans in Police force

Nayakan has caricatured, cinematic individuals from the police force. Raghavan, the Superintendent of Police, is a typical ruthless policeman. But later in the movie, he softens only to seek Velu Nayakkar’s help in taking a personal revenge. Inspector Kelkar is a womanising, corrupt and violent man. And Assistant Commissioner Patil is an upright, aggressive policeman, but strangely doesn’t know that Velu Nayakkar is his father-in-law.

Contrast this with how Ranjith portrays the police force. At one end, he acknowledges how the State unleashes the ruthless police control over the most marginalised in the form of Superintendent of Police Pankaj Patil. At the other end, he also documents the presence of socially conscious Bahujans in the force through Constable Sivaji Rao Gaekwad. Importantly, Ranjith looks at the police force as a State’s tool and not as individuals who are stereotypically womanising or seeking revenge.

Pasmanda Muslims

In Nayakan, Velu Nayakkar is adopted by a Pasmanda Muslim family that is engaged in criminal activities in Dharavi. Apart from criminalising the only Muslim family shown in the movie, it keeps the Bahujan relationship across religions mostly superficial. Brother-sister relationships between Hindu men and Muslim women is an easy mainstream narrative and Nayakan too follows that with Velu Nayakkar and Shyla.

Not wanting to settle down for such convenient narratives, Ranjith introduces a romantic relationship between Kaala and Zareena. Their wedding is only stopped by external factors and not because they belonged to different religions or any sort of family resistance. By doing this, Ranjith establishes the camaraderie and intermingling that exists among Bahujans across religions.

But the movie doesn’t stop with just this.  The ‘Oppressed Republican Party’ that Kaala supports has the colours blue and green sandwiching the Ashoka chakra. As against the criminalisation of Pasmanda Muslims in Nayakan, Kaala shows them as equal political partners for Bahujan liberation.

The Godfather link

The Godfather is a fictional story of crime families set in New York. There is an interesting link that both Nayakan and Kaala share with it but in exactly opposite ways. In The Godfather, when Michael Corleone stands at the altar as his sister’s child's godfather, he also sets in motion the assassination of other New York dons. The quietness in the church is juxtaposed with the violent murders that are happening outside.

In Nayakan, Mani Ratnam almost rips off this scene and stages a similar set of assassinations that are executed when Velu Nayakkar is seen by a river, performing the last rites of his wife.

Following this tradition, one might expect Kaala to have a similar scene. And it does. Except, this time it is not the protagonist but the antagonist who is seen in a tranquil Ramayana recital along with his family members. And we see that he has set in motion a series of assassinations of Dharavi’s key members.

Like how Ranjith gave Velu Nayakkar’s ‘white’ to Hari Dhadha, he also gives this critical The Godfather scene to him, clearly telling us that Kaala is the opposite of Nayakan, in intent and form.


The contrast doesn’t end with the above. Ranjith even begins his climax sequence by inverting a moment in Nayakan. In Nayakan, when an unsuspecting Velu Nayakkar reaches a crowd of people waiting to celebrate Holi, a young boy comes into the frame and throws colour on Velu Nayakkar’s face. In Kaala, the beautifully choreographed, colourful climax begins with a young girl throwing black coloured powder on Hari Dhadha’s face. Ranjith leaves absolutely no stone unturned to directly confront Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan and say, ‘Your hero is my villain!’

The more one scratches the surface of both these movies, the more we notice the opposing nature of them. Kaala is undoubtedly a carefully crafted re-writing of Nayakan, that attempts to tell the Dalit Bahujan story from the Dalit Bahujan perspective.

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