Note: This is not a review. Spoilers ahead.
Pa Ranjith's Kaala will undoubtedly draw comparisons to Kabali, his first collaboration with Rajinikanth. Kaala, which released on Thursday, sees a more confident and assertive director, someone who appears to have figured out how to use Rajinikanth's larger-than-life image to make films that challenge the mainstream.
Social thinkers and anti-caste revolutionaries like BR Ambedkar and Periyar have spoken extensively about the intersection of caste with other identities, especially that of gender. Ranjith, who has been vocal about caste oppression, in his art and real life actions, also recognises this.
His women characters in Kabali came as a pleasant surprise, given the levels of misogyny usually present in a Rajinikanth film.
Kumudhavalli (Radhika Apte) and Yogi (Sai Dhansika) defied several stereotypes of women characters in Tamil cinema. They were not merely decorative; they talked back to Kabali (Rajinikanth), and Yogi even protected him from the villains. Ranjith also did away with ideas of purity and honour that are considered vital for women characters in Tamil films - Kabali goes in search of Kumudhavalli despite knowing he might find her in a brothel; he adopts Meena (Riythvika) who allows men to molest her for money so she can buy drugs; he does not lecture Yogi on her appearance or behaviour, as far from the norm in Rajinikanth films as they are.
In Kaala, too, Ranjith's women characters rise above the roles usually relegated to them.
It starts right from the animation strip we're shown at the beginning of the film, explaining how war began with the origin of private property. It's common for popular art to depict the evolution of 'mankind' only through male representations. However, the animation strip in Kaala shows women hunters and gatherers along with the men. Interestingly, the women disappear as the wars for land become an established practice.
Patriarchy is intertwined with the origin of private property; and though poets have waxed eloquent about a beautiful woman 'triggering' war between nations, the actual reason has simply been a desire for land and power.
Kaala, which revisits the Ramayana and sets it in the hotbed of contemporary politics, sets the tone with its little hark back to history.
Interestingly, though the film makes overt comparisons to the Ramayana, it is difficult to say who Sita is in it.
The only character who comes closest to the Sita of the epic is Huma Qureshi's Zarina - she is someone Kaala (Rajinikanth, who plays Ravana) desires but cannot have. They were meant to be together but they are separated by flames twice in the film (like Lanka going up in flames during Rama's righteous war in the epic). Kaala is married to Selvi (Easwari Rao), who is kind towards Zarina though she has her insecurities about her - much like Ravana's wife Mandodari.
Zarina is also a single mother, like Sita was, after she was abandoned in the epic.
The Rama in Kaala, represented by Hari dada ('Hari' is another name for Vishnu), is not romantically interested in Zarina. The first time he hears her Muslim-sounding name, he asks her to repeat it, with a slight distaste on his face. He displays his abject disrespect for women with that casual line on a 'pombala' (woman) not being able to survive on her own. Then, he humiliates her by expecting her to touch his feet. Zarina's version of a trial by fire she must endure for the greater good?
Was Zarina merely added to the script to give Rajinikanth another heroine to boost his ego? I don't think so. Zarina is a fair-skinned, assertive woman who was educated abroad. She is also romantically interested in Kaala, despite knowing he is married. In a Rajini film, this would automatically make her the villain - remember Nilambari of Padayappa?
Instead, we have a Zarina who calls Kaala by his name, has agitated political disagreements with him (this is important, too - women rarely have such discussions with men in Tamil cinema), but is still his friend who understands her boundaries. And surprise, surprise, it is Kaala who jokingly compliments her on how young she looks - a certificate that's reserved for the Thalaivar in his films.
There's a scene when she speaks in English to Selvi, Kaala's wife, and translates it to Tamil - a perfect opportunity to showcase her condescension or arrogance. But Pa Ranjith changes it to an endearing moment of bonding between these two women.
Zarina also reminds Kaala that just as he has changed, she too isn't the Zarina of the past. When Kaala recounts their first meeting as young people, he tells Zarina that he noticed how she draped her shawl over her shoulders when he set his eyes on her. In the shot after Hari dada humiliates her by expecting her to fall at his feet, an angry Zarina drapes her dupatta over her shoulder as she walks out of the house - but the expression on her face is sheer rage and defiance. Not shame, not modesty.
Selvi has shades of Kumudhavalli to her, but she doesn't have the latter's sophistication. She is the only one Kaala is afraid of, the only one who can shout him down.
The casting of Easwari Rao in this role in itself surprised several people. Though she is at least two decades younger than Rajinikanth in real life, she is much older than the women who've usually played his heroine. She is also much darker than the average Kollywood heroine, a factor which held her back in her career.
Selvi may not advise Kaala on his political moves; she may even strike us as naive. But it is Selvi who points out to her daughters-in-law that though Hari dada looks like a nice man, he is a casteist person who won't even drink water at their home.
It's also Selvi who orders everyone to leave the room so Kaala and Zarina can have a private moment together when they meet after years. This is in sharp contrast to how the women in Hari dada's home behave - they are kept to the background, confined to their quarters when the patriarch of the family is having his discussions in the drawing room.
When Kaala comes back after a dinner with Zarina, an annoyed Selvi tells him to book her tickets to Thirunelveli. Why? So that she may see her past lover, too! The scene is tender, comic and surprising all at once. It's not what one would expect Rajinikanth's heroine to say at all. She is also not the overly sentimental mom you find in Tamil cinema, even slightly mocking her sons when they are being dramatic.
Kaala's to be daughter-in-law, the fiery Puyal (Anjali Patil) stands up to goons and politicians without fear. She's also a delightful subversion of the 'marumagal' role, calling Kaala by name and openly pooh-poohing her to-be-mother-in-law. And nobody reprimands her for the sass.
Because Puyal isn't just Kaala's son's girlfriend. She's an activist who has a mind of her own. She is in the front line of every protest in her area, speaking out boldly even as her boyfriend tries to rein her in.
The defining scene in Kaala's gender politics is when Puyal is stripped by policemen trying to quell a protest. They remove her salwar bottom and throw it. The senior cop watches in sadistic pleasure as she crawls towards the piece of cloth. But Puyal does not pick up the cloth, she picks up the stick next to it. She rises, partially undressed, and rushes towards the police to beat them black and blue once again.
Contrast this to Rajinikanth's Endhiran, in which a woman commits suicide because the robot carried her naked to the road (the robot was saving her from a fire, by the way). With this one scene, Pa Ranjith succeeds in demolishing years of morality lessons on 'chastity' and 'honour' that Tamil cinema has delivered.
Kaala's minor women characters, too, are palpably different. Beemji's mother remains defiant even after her son is murdered; women speak vocally about their sexual needs in a discussion on housing facilities; women dare policemen to shoot them dead when they are protesting; even the child who throws the first fistful of black powder on Hari dada in the end (which reminded me of the last scene in Fandry), is a girl. When the people of Dharavi strike, it is the men who cook meals for everyone.
Like Kabali, Ranjith's second film will lead to many discussions in the coming days. Not everyone will embrace Kaala. But at least, Ranjith cannot be accused of not walking the talk. Kaala's women will stay with us longer than box-office numbers and ticket sales. That is the victory of art over time, epic over mere story.