A powerful movie on a topical issue of our times, dealt with very little distraction – one where all right thinking people would be able to empathise and agree with. However, one only wishes Pa.Ranjith was not as easily brainwashed in his life, to turn hostile to popular Hinduism likening it to Brahminism. He artistically articulates that Periyarism (anti-Hinduism of Tamilnadu kind, not rationalism as such) – Ambedkarism (Educate-Unite-Agitate) – Communism/Leftism (Empowerment of the underprivileged) combine is the only potent weapon to thwart thuggery unleashed by fascism.
1) Powerful story line and good contemporary direction – it’s tough to do a movie on a heavy topic such as this and yet avoid the weariness of a documentary. Credits to Pa Ranjith for his artistic and general talent as a passionate director
2) Excellent casting of Rajnikant – he has always been a director’s actor; with no need to play to the gallery of his fans, no punch dialogues, no surfeit of physics defying stunts, no 0.5 mm thick cream to hide his dark skin tone, he is a relieved man who can just focus on the job, which he does rather well, exuding excellent screen presence and fine understated acting (his forté)
3) Huma Qureshi, Nana Patekar and all supporting actors are cast superbly, with a degree of characterisation not common in Tamil cinema – reminds one of old K Balachander movies (he would, sometimes, make us remember a bus conductor’s face too, despite occurring in just a few frames)
4) At least 60-70% realism in showing Dharavi shots. Mani Ratnam had set the bar high in Nayagan – the first of its kind in Tamil/Indian cinema (one needs to undergo the torture of watching Dhayavaan, its Hindi remake, to realise difference Mani Ratnam brings to the table). It’s the kind of realism only directors familiar with pan-Indian knowledge, proficiency in Hindi (at least familiarity), a stint in North India (Mani Ratnam had done MBA in Jamnalal Bajaj institute, Mumbai) could bring along and hence hardly a few directors measured up. Pa Ranjith surpasses Mani Ratnam in many scenes but trails behind him in many others. With time, he will do it really well
5) Excellent, innovative use of cut-out art and other powerful use of colours to convey meanings beyond what meets the eye
Not so good:
1) Background score is atrocious on quite a few scenes – at times, interrupting dialogue audibility and at other times with irksome wailing (when old flames look at each other, in a haunted way)
2) Tamil accent in haphazard, jarring way: some do a great job of consistent Thirunelveli diction, few others use it sparingly with amateurish effect while the main man – Kaala himself – doesn’t bother at all with such prerequisites and speaks normal Doordarshan Tamil!
3) The Tamil Hip-Hop gang who loiter around, to reinforce the film’s non-conformity and ‘ uprooted ‘ nature, do add to the plot’s gravity in some scenes while utterly irritable in many others
4) Where the Dharavi set falls apart (e.g. the huge open space in front of Kaala’s house or some houses with lavish spaces that compete with a decent flat in Andheri) it dilutes the gravity and becomes a caricature that mediocre directors churn out. One wonders why Ranjith lets his guard down. Kaala, whatever early mover advantage he may have had to the area, is shown as first among equals, in a rather unnecessary way
Now, the troubling aspects of the film:
Feudalism is rife in Pakistan, a self-professed Islamic Republic than in Hindu majority India. As a matter of fact, worldwide, cutting across religions (Islam, Christianity), ethnicity/race (Arab, Turk, Caucasian, Black), feudalism has been curbed or tamed by gargantuan efforts of (welfare) state than by mind numbing iconoclasm of EVR kind. Yet, Pa Ranjith, indoctrinated in the staple diet of Dravidian hate politics before picking up Dalit activism (evidently) can’t resist throwing more Black than more Blue or Red.
Even if 80% audience may miss his strong and purposeful symbolism, it will register in their subconscious, and for this huge service to EVR cause, I won’t be surprised if K Veeramani holds a function and honours Ranjith as DK’s warrior sword. A look at some salvos he fires and the dangers they pose:
1) Hari dada, Vishnu, Perumal swamy (the traitor among them) – all Vishnu manifestations are shown foisted upon vulnerable people or in subjugation of them to misery. As a Ram (evil God’s) function is held, Raavana’s men (good, son-of-the-soil people) are slaughtered. It’s not a shown as if the person does injustice to Ram’s name (as a blot) but indeed it’s precisely because he is Ram’s devotee that he is disgusting, as a natural corollary. None in Tamil film have been as devious or pugnacious
2) Ayub (Zareena’s father), entire Muslim skull capped people are progressive and fine – to the point that they had agreed to their daughter marrying out of faith with no qualms; the only people bothered about religion are caste Hindus while Muslims are comrades who happen to be Muslim. In a scene, Kaala, the otherwise religious recluse who has no use of normal Tamil deities’ photos (including the usually ubiquitous Murugan) or lamp, incense sticks, camphor paraphernilia would be shown offering namaz alongside brethren – Pa Ranjith, the Dravidianist reprises his credentials in the long lineage of Karunanidhi, Stalin and other DK/DMK luminaries – anti-God means anti-Hindu-God only!
3) The unknown pastor (and perforce all Christians) are fine too – the pastor has connections to send Zareena to US for higher studies. Their kindness knows no bounds – money or geography
4) Tamil speaking non-Christian, non-Muslim people can wear their ‘pottu’ (bindi) as it’s just a cultural heritage not Hinduism as such; they can celebrate Pongal too so long as no deities are worshipped; they can have secular names such as Selvi, Selvan, Lenin, Vengaiyan, Vaalyappan etc. but even a brief association with Murugan, Ayyappan or Mariamman is a taboo as it would make them appear as tethered slaves of Brahminism, not worthy to include as Vishnu and other Brahmin Gods may gain legitimacy at the other end of the rope. They are however shown worshipping a Sudalai Madan art work, as if that’s their prime deity. Ranjith then, very generously, allows for Ganesha to make his rounds among Tamils; you see, it’s Mumbai, Dharavi etc. some imagery of Ganesh would just lend credibility to the soil if not augur the cause of Hindu faith. Ganesha, therefore, is also spared the misery of gracing evil doers while they unleash terror on secular people. Let’s thank Ranjith for sparing one deity.
5) Normally, in movies made by a non-Dalit upper caste Tamil Hindus (including Brahmins such as Kamal Haasan), villainy or the sidekicks who fill in villain’s ears are shown as a Iyer or Iyengar (e.g. Madan Bob as lawyer in Thevar Magan). Pa Ranjith, given his Blue politics, has dispensed with that perfunctory need. Just when a Tamil Brahmin may sigh relief, he’d realise Ranjith has trained guns on something even more potent – the deities that (he thinks) are exclusive preserve of Brahmins and hence Brahminism. This is not even done in a subtle way, but with brazen candour.
6) Ranjith has picked names, surnames rather scrupulously – Abhyankar is a Marathi Brahmin surname, not a Maratha surname. While it’s well known that in Maharashtra, the powered, especially political and land owning ones are typically Maratha (Manohar Joshi became the first Brahmin CM and was just about ‘tolerated’ by Maratha), Ranjith doesn’t have to go by local knowledge of how it works in Mumbai. Imported Tamil hatred for Brahmin first and Brahmin last is enough to navigate and see rest of the world with same prism. Somehow, however, he lets go of this scrutiny when a helpful police cop spells out his support for the cause as ‘Shivaji Rao Gaekwad’, the real name of Rajnikant. Perhaps he was tired of hunting for the right surnames and wanted it as a tribute to Rajni. That Gaekwads are, unfortunately, as Brahminist as Abhyankars is lost on Ranjith.
7) There’s immaculate care exercised in showing Ram worshippers as those who are colour obsessed racists and as a metaphor for their worldview that regards dark as ugly, dark people as inferior so on and so forth. Ranjith obviously sidesteps fundamental knowledge/awareness of Hindu beliefs for EVR acolytes are never meant to go by facts (as much as Hindutva ones don’t need it either). It would really help if Pa Ranjith could have a change of heart, learn Hinduism for what it is and not from EVR/DK writings. Krishna = Shyam = Vishnu = Rama = Kaala. In ancient Tamil poems Karuppuswamy actually meant Krishna and Vellaiyan was for Balaram. There’s no other prime deity in Hinduism who is explicitly described and celebrated as dark God. Much of the blame lies in tenets of Hinduism not reaching all at the right age and in right way and in popular media being racist all along.
So far, DK brainwashing (ably supported by vested interests) had vilified Brahmins as a community alone. Now, the game is raised up. Popular Hinduism is directly equated as Brahminism and disentangling from that is seen as prerequisite for Dalits being set free. The origins of this disenchantment is understandable. It is unfortunate too. It needs to be remedied. But, in the current climate of Hindutva politics, those carrying the Ram baton will peddle precisely the line of thought of Hari dada and only accentuate the divide than bridging it. That is a cause of anxiety and despair.
Pa Ranjith takes recourse to three colours – Blue (Ambedkar), Red (Empowerment of needy) and Black (as an anti-dote to Hinduism, in line of EVR/DK). While the first two can be co-opted by people of all religions, castes as they are universal, the Black as Ranjith uses it, is just as divisive as the saffron he tries to shame and confront.
For now, I seek comfort from Anoop Jalota’s superb bhajan:
वो काला एक बांसुरी वाला,
सुध बिसरा गया मोरी रे ।
Roughly translated as:
That handsome black one (Krishna), the one with flute
Is verily the cause I have lost myself in trance!