Kaala is not a political film. It is a propaganda film.
Pa Ranjith’s films have always carried political messages and social commentary, but none before has been carrier for propaganda. This is it.
The director has never less tried to make a movie, and never more to weave a plot around his messages. His messages shine through as clear as day, and that is unmitigated victory for the film he chose to make.
Present day Tamil Nadu has been a civilisation in decline despite the state’s abundance of educated workforce, high per capita incomes, commendable public health outcomes, and decentralised infrastructure and industry. Current politics seems to have lost its connection to polity, and there is a deep sense of singular abandonment by successive state and central governments in its people.
The trigger in 2016 was the sudden death of its Chief Minister, J Jayalalitha although the rot had been building for many years prior. The invisible hand of the centre in handling the state, a part time governor who seemed to have abdicated his role, a government that was passed around as a parcel, Jallikattu, NEET, water woes, farmer distress, the en masse fleeing of industry from the state, Chennai cyclone and flooding, and most recently, though post filming of Kaala, the unabashed tyranny of state on its people in Thoothukudi.
The collective stomach of the Tamils is coiled tight and Kaala is but a reflection of that burn. Pa Ranjith’s propaganda is sheer rage against the state machine on screen. Anyone who watches it will not miss its messages.
A juxtaposing of ecumenical perceptions of good and evil, set against the marginalised truth of good and evil in the gritty context of class, caste and gender. An intersectional quelling of demons, including the ones that possess the viewer.
The perception of good: the Ramayana, blinding white gods, saffron backdrops and majoritarian overtures. Set beside the stark truth of evil: instigated violence, manufactured communalism, manifest casteism, class entitlements, land grabbing thuggery and devalued life.
A powerful monotonic world of a few men and nearly invisible women is set against a sea of vibrant multi-tongued men and strong women. A world that elevates and empanels flawed gods and ritualistic insular worship is pictured against a montage of human heroes, Ambedkar and Periyar perched on the street side, communal celebrations of Pongal, free intermingling in mosques and temples.
A concentrated all powerful state run by a rarefied few, one Hari Daada, some underlings, lone builder, few policemen and fewer bullets, contrasted with the eclectic masses of dispossessed, Lenins who grow up, Zareenas with gestalt, and Puyals with righteousness, everyone a Kaala.
His propaganda is simply an inversion. A mirror that reflects the other as you. White isn’t clean, and black isn’t dirty. Worship isn’t of god but of people. Wrong isn’t of residence but of eviction. Lesser people do not have lesser rights. Odium is not of the gutter in Dharavi but of the arrogance of authority that deems usurpation as progress and murder as sacrificial offering at “pooja” while alleging, even condemning victims as criminals. An outing of hypocrisy, if you will.
And that is why Rajnikanth was the necessary instrument. The covert messaging in Kabaali and overt propaganda of Kaala needed a vessel that could carry.
Everyone gets this but Pa Ranjith has also tuned his message for appeal to a specific audience. Not all of the audience that watches the film across India and the world, but specifically those, who in many shapes, forms and contexts have a reality that intersects with the context of the Kaala narrative.
Oppressed. Urban poor. Landless. Marginalised. Outcaste. Voiceless. Minority. Daily wager. Slum dweller. Manual labourer. Dark skinned. Lesser gods, lesser lives.
A people who not only struggle daily for water, power, toilet, sanitation, safety, education, livelihood, and roof but face that relentless moral dichotomy that none others face.
To escape with an engineering degree or stay and fight? To shift to a gentrified locality or stay and struggle? To shield one’s children or stay in solidarity with one’s own people? To spend a lifetime in grime and pollution, or to be co-opted? To suppress the oppression or resist and revolt?
The audience for his messages are those that face these philosophical dilemmas day in and day out. It is for those who’s quality of life is as low as the quantity of such lives is mind boggling. Density of strugglers over sparseness of privilege.
Thus far a divided polity, the message to them is to unite, organise, agitate and persist. The only counter to tyrannical power is aggregation of sheer numbers of the disempowered and their sympaticos, as with the taxi drivers and IT professionals in the film. Anyone can be Karikalan, conqueror despite great odds, if everyone is in the army.
The message could not come at a more momentous time for Tamil Nadu. Repressive state. Restive people. Repeating moral dilemma. Raw propaganda flick, vivid and gritty, barely packaged in screenplay.
If the Tamil audience were ready, Michael Moore would work, but for the sentimental lot, Pa Ranjith needed a courier in Rajinikanth.