Land, labour and life: The politics of 'Kaala' and its contemporary relevance

Urban policies, evictions and counter-resistance are entangled within the existing social landscape where land is one of its central features.
Rajinikanth in a black shirt standing with a crowd behind him in Kaala
Rajinikanth in a black shirt standing with a crowd behind him in Kaala
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‘Singara Chennai’ (Beautiful Chennai), the ambitious initiative which was introduced by MK Stalin when he was the Mayor of the city, is all set to be revamped as ‘Singara Chennai 2.0’. While Tamil Nadu Governor Banwarilal Purohit announced the launch of the programme in his ceremonial address in the first session of the 16th Legislative Assembly, the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) has already started to work on Chennai’s Third Master Plan for the period 2026-2046 through a participatory approach. At this juncture, it becomes inevitable to revisit the series of dispossession that the city’s marginalised inhabitants are subjected to. Urban policies, evictions and counter-resistance are entangled within the existing social landscape where land is one of its central features. And that is why Kaala, directed by Pa. Ranjith, becomes an important movie of our times for the more subtle realm of land politics that it registers via the medium of cinema.

Kaala is not the first Tamil movie to talk about the evictions of marginalised sections and their resistance to it. A recurring scene in Tamil cinema —  like Nayakan (1987), Vietnam Colony (1994) —  is where colony houses are destroyed with bulldozers when the hero confronts, fights and becomes a saviour. However, in all these depictions, the site is reduced to ‘housing’ where land remains a passive ground, a stage set for the story to be played out. On the other hand, Kaala stands out of this gimmick box, it goes deeper starting from showing the profound meaning of land and the way in which it is contested.

Kaala thus takes the audience through the various forms of processes that shows land to be an alive space: as a life form constructed through the labour of its Dalit-Bahujan (the majority of the oppressed castes and classes beyond individual identities who are deprived of their right to land by the existing caste and class order) residents. It then shows the complexity of evictions —   attempts of forceful dispossession in terms of law, the complexity of negotiations involving different actors and their inner conflicts and desires, and most importantly, organised resistance of the masses. Finally, it emphasises the Dalit-Bahujan idea of land beyond just and only real estate value and such framings that reduce it to a business deal for “better housing”.

The Politics of Land

Kaala is extraordinarily crafted with detailed documentation of the complex network woven around the politics of land which becomes its lifeline. The movie starts with narrating how land had been playing a significant role all through the history of human civilisation — its evolution from being a source of survival to becoming associated with god, religion and caste and finally transforming into a symbol of power. Post the formation of the modern state, land which marks one’s social status, also validates or invalidates people’s claim to citizenship rights. Furthermore, the movie ends with the protest slogan “Land is our right”, showing how land continues to be an unsettled conflict in an unequal society, where land is ‘Power’ for the ruling class and ‘Survival’ for the historically deprived castes and the working class. This also has been explained in one of the dialogues by Kaala (Rajinikanth, the protagonist) addressing Hari Dhadha (Nana Patekar, the antagonist) as, “To you, Land is Power… To us it means Life”. 

Land politics and its complex network is captured by contextualising this unequal socio-economic society and foregrounding the material conditions of the toiling masses such as land rights, housing and other basic amenities and their everyday struggle for the same. The movie has clearly shown how, in contrast, the urban development policies are framed from the ruling class perspective rather than reflecting the interests of the marginalised and improving their living conditions. This top-down approach adapted in the State’s policies and projects, and the consequential displacement and marginalisation of the slum residents, engagement of various stakeholders in the eviction process and housing development projects, the role of NGOs in lobbying for the State, objectives and interests of the planners and builders contradictory to the interests of the people etc., are documented in detail throughout the movie.

Contextualising ‘Legal’ and ‘Illegal’

Residents of slums are often framed as criminals and illegal occupants of their own lands by the ruling class. In one of the opening scenes of Kaala, when the builder justifies demolishing Dhobi Ghat as a part of a new project, claiming that everything was happening lawfully with permissions and procedures, Kaala confronts him saying “You (ruling class) are going a bit easy on us only because of some laws that favour us.” However, he also issues a warning that they (working class) know how to deal with the same law which oppresses them. In the following scenes, when a part of the Dharavi residents complain of being made to run around for documents to receive water supply, the youngsters who have been democratically fighting for the rights of Dharavi residents attempt to write and submit a representation on the issue. Meanwhile, Selvam (one of Kaala’s sons) breaks the pipe connection to supply water for the affected residents. In the scene where the builder (from Manu Construction Builders) presents the housing plan, he explains that the planned houses will not be allotted for everyone but only those who are deemed qualified by the government, which requires proofs of their settlement over years, land documents, paid bills for supplies etc. These scenes distinctly demonstrate the conflict between the ‘legal’ and the ‘illegal’ modes through which the marginalised articulate, aspire, agitate, negotiate and survive. The movie also brilliantly narrates how ‘the legal’ have constantly failed the oppressed, especially in terms of land ownership and their subsequent dispossession and disenfranchisement. 

Purity, Beautification and Capital: Caste and Land

The State adopts various strategic methods to exploit the land capital by uprooting the labouring class who have been toiling on that same land. Sustainable development, poverty eradication, housing development and slum clearance, smart city mission etc., are a few prominent global catchphrases deployed by the State for the same.

Here, the movie’s plot is about implementing the ‘Pure Mumbai’ scheme in Dharavi which is the State’s ‘beautification’ project by the ruling party. Also, the movie depicts two extreme perspectives through which the question of land is approached —  one is Kaala who represents the Dalit-Bahujan’s standpoint where land is their rights, and the other is through Hari Dhadha who represents the caste elites for whom slums are just illegally occupied land that needs to be secured and ‘cleansed’.

Here, it is quite important to highlight how the movie reflects on the Brahminical notion of purity. However, purity is not discussed as merely an abstraction, but in terms of how it reproduces caste capital and in this particular context, how it is used in land accumulation and the resultant marginalisation of the Dalit-Bahujans. And just as Dalit and land is constructed, the movie forces us to think about how purity is also constructed, consequently facilitating the framing of the 'illegal'. Most importantly, the movie highlights how the hegemonic idea of ‘for the good of all and the nation’ is conceptualised — the construction of apartments for the settlers in return for what and whose benefits. In films like Vada Chennai (directed by Vetrimaran), however, the tropes of urban sustainability justify the State’s attempt to accumulate coastal land through eviction of the fishing community from their livelihood, displacing them to distant locations.

In order to counter such a hegemonic top-down approach, the State often places an alternative which emphasises inclusiveness in the decision-making process by ensuring the participation of all groups, especially the marginal and local communities. This participatory approach, by definition, is initiated to engage with the people, involve locals, know their problems and needs and develop their social and economic conditions. However, this idea of participation in practice is reduced to mere a tool to legitimise State policies and ensure their smooth implementation. The idea of ‘need’, framed via the participatory method, is shown to be a narrow one, ‘part of the deal’ while the developers get ‘real estate’. Kaala becomes exceptional for actually capturing such nuances within State policy implementation. The movie clearly depicts how the participatory approach has been taken over by NGO groups particularly, and they become one of the core and conflictual subjects spoken about in the movie.      

NGO Activism and Subversion of Movements

Zareena (Huma Qureshi), despite representing an NGO, constantly asserts herself as an ‘insider’ and begins engaging with the residents by listening to various needs expressed by them. However, later when the building plans are questioned by the same residents, she is infuriated and demands that they represent their concerns and problems through writing. In an argument with Kaala at her home, she confronts him saying that he treats her as if she supports Hari Dhadha, the antagonist. Ironically, in the next scene, she appeases Hari Dhadha reassuring him that she would get ‘consent’ from the people for the project. Her conscience, which was undaunted by the ‘Pure Mumbai’ project, the eviction process and the violation of people’s interests, is suddenly unsettled when she is ill-treated by Hari Dhadha. 

This is an evident portrayal of the hypocritical modus operandi of NGOs who play a crucial role in subverting people’s struggles against government policies and upholding the interests of State and capitalists. There are reflections of such ‘developmentalism’ in Vada Chennai too —   the meeting to give up land due to upcoming industrialisation and the threat of climate change, and in Vietnam Colony where the researcher is in reality a surveyor for big corporate interest. Anyone familiar with politics in both Mumbai and Chennai will see this as a familiar ground.  

Land and Social Justice

Dharavi is only a geographical context chosen by the filmmaker to narrate land politics, while it could be adapted to any terrain from the Indian subcontinent, and the movie itself ends with showing the slum settlements along the Coovum River. Hence, Kaala becomes more significant today, especially after the DMK government has come to power in Tamil Nadu by promising to take forward social justice politics. The movie highlights the importance to approach the new development policies critically within the purview of social justice and anti-eviction, rather than the dominant notion of high class infrastructural development and a constructed image of the ‘global city’.

While welcoming the Singara Chennai 2.0 initiative which aims to transform Chennai into a global city, VCK (Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi) MLA Sinthanai Selvan, in his debut Assembly speech, requested the government to ensure that the indigenous habitants of Chennai who are constantly evicted, are also included while envisioning the idea of Singara Chennai. In much of the global city discourse, land and housing tends to be conflated. The assumption is that land in good locations and high quality infrastructure is for those who are ‘productive’ and for the rest, it is ‘social housing’ via resettlement colonies.

Though Kaala foregrounds land rights throughout the movie, it resorts back to highlighting housing development brought about by the intervention of an NGO group, thus blurring the sharp difference between land and housing in the context of development. On the contrary, in Vada Chennai, the protagonists hold firmly to the discourse around land rights in the meeting, while rejecting the proposed housing needs from the State. While eviction and resettlement in the outskirts of the city limits are constantly justified on the grounds of housing needs, one should also be cautious on such narrowing down of the ‘land’ struggle to mere ‘needs’ which is nothing but reduction of the complexities of Dalit-Bhahujan lives entwined with the land itself. 

Lalitha is currently pursuing her PhD in Urban Studies at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. She had also completed her Masters in Sociology from the University of Hyderabad.

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