The much awaited Pa Ranjith film with Rajinikanth, Kaala, released on June 7.
The film has been praised and criticised in equal measure. With its unconventional grammar, it has managed to generate several articles 'decoding' the politics that flows through almost every frame.
Although the film does not mention the word 'Dalit', the assertion of the identity is apparent from several visual cues - the colourful Buddhas and images of leaders like BR Ambedkar and Phule, for instance. One can also spot a beef shop in the background in a few scenes. Moreover, the film boldly takes on right wing politics, with three colours - black (Periyarists), blue (Ambedkarites), and red (Communists).
Kaala released in three languages - Tamil, Telugu, and Hindi.
'Kaala' fever on social media
The film has clearly struck a chord with the Dalit youth. In the two Telugu states, several Dalit social media users reviewed the film, sharing their personal impressions on it. Many also put up 'punch' dialogues from the film, uploaded posters and even changed their WhatsApp display pictures to that of Kaala.
This, even as a section of film critics are involved in debating if the film is a Pa Ranjith one or Rajinikanth's. To the Dalit youth, however, such a question is irrelevant. They see it as "celebrating the colours of Dalit lives".
Arunank Latha, a scholar from Osmania University, was among those who reviewed the film on social media. In concluding his review, he says, "Kaala is a movie which has spoken about the importance of visual art in the cultural movement. It is the story of the people, who are fighting and turning their broken dreams into towering ones."
Speaking to TNM, Arunank said, "Mumbai slums have had rap culture right from the '70s and '80s. In fact, Sudhir Dhavle, the Dalit activist who was recently framed in the Bhima Koregaon riots case also came from a rap background."
Arunank went on to add, "The movie has shown how modern music can be an effective medium in cultural movements. Perhaps contemporary Dalit and progressive movements should adopt these (rap and other forms of modern music), without excluding the subaltern dappu or dolak."
Pa Ranjith, the hero
Pa Ranjith's vision has touched so many that Ravi Kumar N, a lecturer from Andhra Pradesh, penned a poem in praise of the director. The lines go, "Who is he? He has made 'black' a flag, turned dirt into a rainbow...and kicked power right in its heart."
Seshu Chemudugunta, is one of the five scholars who was expelled from the University of Hyderabad along with Rohith Vemula. Rohith, a Dalit youth, killed himself due to alleged witch hunting by the University. His suicide led to widespread anger, especially among the Dalit community.
Seshu took to Facebook and wrote a fiery post on Kaala, warning 'cultural fascists'. He said, "You people may not like Kaala. But it is a landmark in our history, we will keep it in our heart and preserve it safely."
Speaking to TNM, Seshu said, "Who else can show us A1 beef shop? It's beautiful, the storytelling is uncompromising. Ambedkar's idea of cultural revolution has been rightly represented."
Seshu went on to add, "I'd always wonder when such storytellers would come. And Pa Ranjith has come like a revolution."
Several people pointed out that Pa Ranjith had made it a practice to popularise subaltern literature in his films. In Kaala, it was Asura. In Kabali, it was My Father Balaiah, a well-known novel by YB Satyanarayana. Untouchable Spring by G Kalyan Rao was shown in Madras.
'A true Ambedkarite film'
Pasoonuri Ravinder, a young writer and Kendra Sahitya Akademi winner, changed his Facebook profile picture to the Kaala poster, with Pa Ranjith dressed in blue in the background.
In his long review which got hundreds of shares across Facebook and WhatsApp, Ravinder said that Kaala was a true Ambedkarite film.
He wrote: "If Ambedkar's slogan 'Educate Agitate Organise' was made into a movie, it would be Kaala. He (Pa Ranjith) has taught history. He has organised the people and he has shown how an agitation should be done. That is why this is an Ambedkarite film."
Like Ravinder, Indus Martin, the author of Katikapulu, a collection of musings which recently raked up a debate on food, cultural practices and Dalit aesthetics, also wrote in praise of Kaala.
In his brief post, Indus Martin drew to attention the difference in politics between two subalterns, Kaala and Kattappa (a slave in the popular film Baahubali).
"One chose black to represent slavery, inferiority, denigration, lowness and lack of self respect. The colour was demonised. The other chose black to represent labour, self respect, aspiration for freedom, defiance of oppression, and the beauty of the soil. Decide for yourself which film to watch," he said.
Dr Gurram Seetaramulu, a cultural critic, hailed Pa Ranjith as this era's 'real hero'.
He said, "Karikalan (Kaala) has the legacy of Periyar. The story is one of defiance against punitive violence, the consequences of the politics of Rama and Ravana. It's rebellion against inequalities in the name of 'purity'. Karikalan is the Robin Hood of this generation who has shown what is needed for the times we're living in."
The film's take on "development" has not gone unnoticed in all the discussions on the Ramayana and identity politics.
Shiva Thrishul, a lecturer from Hyderabad, spoke to TNM about the film and said, "The entire concept of 'development' is seriously questioned in the film. The director equate the firm Manu Realty to the Manudharma shastra, which offers no liberty, equality or justice to Bahujans."
Prof Dr Challapalli Swaroopa Rani, an academic and popular Dalit writer was impressed with the treatment of women characters in the film. Titling her Facebook review 'Kaala is the black moon on the silver screen', she discussed the politics in the film.
When TNM spoke to her, the professor said, "Swarna, Zareena, Bharati (names in the Telugu version) - each of these women is politically assertive and vibrantly independent. From Swarna asking Kaala to book train tickets as she wants to meet her boyfriend, to Bharati picking up a stick instead of her salwar bottom which the police remove and throw, the portrayal is unconventional."
Dr Challapalli further pointed out that the women characters stay assertive till the very end: "Though we see women asserting themselves in other films, in the end, they will become passive and will not strive for radical change".