There is a reason why epics are timeless. The human emotions they locate within the theatre of life are eternal. The struggles they speak of have always existed. But there is yet another reason why epics endure - they are open to interpretation. The stories within the story have the power to change its meaning, depending on which episodes the storyteller wants to emphasise. And from whose point of view.
The storyteller here is Pa Ranjith, his voice more assured than ever before. The point of view is that of Ravana's, the symbol of evil for caste Hindus. The idea isn't new, of course. Epic re-tellings have made their way to Tamil cinema before (Mani Ratnam's disappointing Ravanan, for one). It's the defiant way in which Ranjith situates it which makes Kaala such an immediate, thrilling experience.
Rajinikanth plays Kaala, a don under whose protection the people of Dharavi live. Their fight is for the land - and as the film tells us in the beginning, war began with private property and it continues to be fought for it. Ranjith's films have been discussed a great deal for their subtext. In Kaala, however, the subtext isn't hiding in the margins. It's out in the light, for everyone to see. It's in the clothes Kaala wears - either blue or black. It's in the name of the builder who wants to destroy the slum - Manu realty. It's in the name of the political party the spotlessly white clothed Hari dada (Nana Patekar) belongs to - Navbharath Nationalist Party. Even in the breed of the dogs the two men own. Kaala has a mongrel named Asami. Hari dada has an almost white Labrador we spot briefly in a shot.
But the film isn't just a did-you-catch-that game. It's not just about hoardings of Swacch Bharat that leer down upon Dharavi or the Buddha at Kaala's home. It's not merely the glimpses of Ambedkar in the background. Kaala is surefooted in going beyond that.
It weaves a compelling story around characters we cannot easily predict. There's Zarina (Huma Qureshi), Kaala's long lost love. But she's not just that. There is Lenin (who is suitably dressed in red for a good part), Kaala's son who disapproves of his father's ways and yet lives under the same roof as him. There's Charumathy/Puyal (Anjali Patil) who overturns Tamil cinema's favourite ideas of honour in one terrific scene that brought tears to my eyes. There is Selvi (Easwari Rao), who orders Kaala around (reminding us a little of Kumudhavalli) and shares a deliciously crafted romance with him. And of course, there's Valliappan (Samuthirakani) who is something of a semi-awake Kumbhakarna, always by Kaala's side.
All of these people matter to the story, a story whose age suits the style of an epic.
They are not there to make Kaala look good against the army of Ram. Nana Patekar is effortless in his portrayal of Hari dada. His dubbing in the trailer had some of us worried but in the film, the mix of Hindi-Tamil-Marathi that he slips into crawls under our skin in the way it is meant to. His face-offs with Rajini work so well because both stars are at the peak of their game.
Is it a Rajinikanth film? Well, there's that stunningly shot superman rain fight which will have fans go crazy. There's that scene at the police station where Rajini mocks a minister with a punchline (hint: if you've followed the Thoothukudi protests, the irony hits you in the face). Or the one where he actually seems to transform into a Ravana, waging battle through the flames. However, the joy of watching Rajinikanth the performer, minus the swish-swash music that has accompanied every on screen move of his, is inexplicable. He is still a demi-god but not one whose feet you need to touch. Ranjith is much more confident in handling Rajinikanth's star power and harnessing it than he was in Kabali - the 'young' Rajini in Kabali was to pander to the audience. In Kaala, young Rajini's story is an animation strip - to tell us what happened, not to get us clapping. Vengayin mavan is standing by himself, all right.
Murali G's cinematography and Santosh Narayanan's background score up the ante in nearly every scene. But, all of it is melded into a framework that has Pa Ranjith's signature all over it.
The ending, which explodes in a riot of colours, mimicking Holi (celebrated to mark the death of a demon...you know, the kind who is associated with Ravana) is brilliant. As black, blue, and red triumph and overturn our ideas of Good and Bad, Black and White, Pa Ranjith's achievement is unmistakable. He has made Rajinikanth meaningful, not a mere prop.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film's producers or any other members of its cast and crew.