A lot of Dalit activists and progressive forces will watch this film and see a ‘Kaala’ within them too.
Getting into electoral politics and earning the bourgeois label of an MLA has given me a celebrity-like status, and has helped me reach out to the masses even more.
I would expect the same from this country’s actual celebrities. Someone like the brilliant cricketer Sachin Tendulkar has remained non-committal on taking political stands. Compare that with sporting legends abroad, who have used their platform to speak up against injustice, such as the late Muhammad Ali. In Hindi cinema, given Amitabh Bachchan’s profile, you’d expect him to stand for people, but he has never spoken up. On the other hand, Aamir Khan has occasionally taken up development projects and political positions. And then you have people like Prakash Raj, who has put his whole acting career at stake and is bravely asking questions, speaking truth to power even as it has cost him future Hindi film roles.
Seeing Rajinikanth’s larger-than-life image, his political party and his recent remarks on the police firings on civilians in Thoothukudi, I have my reservations about whether his real life imitates art. But my faith lies in Pa. Ranjith the film-maker and his political narrative, rather than Rajinikanth’s.
Ranjith’s film is a brilliant cultural response to the Brahminical ideology, and I love the fact that he has been able to harness the most commercial medium to do so. I strongly believe that alternative cinema, where you can take the liberty to be who you really are, is important, but it sadly doesn’t reach the masses. With Kaala, the director has shown how one can use pro-poor subliminal messaging in the most commercial way. Art can never be fully separated from ideology, and he brings out his politics in latent ways, and I can only hope he continues to keep making movies.
While Kaala may not be aesthetically sublime, the content was great. Our cinema has been badly affected by the post-globalisation era. After the 1990s, we hardly get to see a working class hero, a chawl, a basti, or the plight of a working widow. In this context, films like Kaala come as a relief.
Most Dalits and the working-class across the country have a feeling that their issues aren’t covered by cinema and journalism. In films like Kaala, hearing the slogans of Jai Bhim, or seeing paintings and imagery of Ambedkar and Gautam Buddha is understandably very appealing to the Dalit masses, who are otherwise invisibilised in mainstream media.
Choosing Dharavi is an important statement on bringing out contradictions between the crony capitalists, the politician class and the working class, who are Dalits. The film lacks the conventional Rajinikanth action scenes, and I don’t think one should resort to sticks and swords for justice, but it’s refreshing to see a working-class hero after years of NRI-style protagonists.
What was most poignant was how Ranjith has shown subversion and counter-culture in subtle ways. Take for instance the mythological character of Ram: even as most of the people in this country call him a ‘Bhagwan’, other accounts have also contested that he was a killer of Shambuk, who was a shudra. Meanwhile, Ravan is held as a hero for many shudras. Kaala subverts the narrative of Ram and hails Ravan as a leader of the exploited masses.
To be ‘Kaala’ is to be black, and to be black is to have known struggle. Why should we not reclaim being ‘Kaala’? Rulers always have control of machinery and state power, and when someone emerges from the masses as a struggler, they are discarded as Ravan.
When the character of Kaala is killed in the film, Ranjith comes up with the dialogue that if you cut one head off, one more will spring up – drawing a parallel to Ravan’s 10 heads. The message is clear: you tried to kill Kaala, but you can never kill dissent. Many more Kaalas will spring forth.
Friends who were watching the film in the cinema hall told me that they found me to be their Kaala. I used to be a Kabali a couple of years ago, and now I am a Kaala. A lot of Dalit activists and progressive forces will watch this film and see a Kaala within them too.
Jignesh Mevani is an independent MLA in the Gujarat assembly and convener of the Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch.
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