About 15 minutes into Kaala, even before I had dug into the Delhi multiplex’s familiarly overpriced but undercooked tub of popcorn, they burst onto the screen: A band of boys in denims etching shapes in the air around Rajinikanth, breaking into hip-hop with lyrics peppered with references to justice, resistance and fight.
In the next seat, a woman shifted uncomfortably and gasped, “So unreal, this is supposed to be Dharavi!”. Shortly before interval–by which time the popping-and-locking band had appeared multiple times–she announced she had enough and walked out of the theatre. The post-movie discussion, as one waited to collect bags or outside the washroom, also bore the same tenor–that the movie induced discomfort and that its politics didn’t fit with the potboiler it was supposed to be, a sentiment shared by many reviewers, here, here and here.
This isn’t coincidence. To vast communities of people, the sight of B-boying, freestyle dancers in slums and lower-income neighbourhoods isn’t odd–indeed, through the 90s a generation of young men in India’s poorer neighbourhoods in Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai idolised black rappers who spoke of the many things that brutalised the everyday lives of these folks –police violence, state apathy, structural ostracization and pervasive discrimination.
The likes of NWA or Tupac ironically spoke the truth of these basti children far better than any contemporary mainstream artist and the birth of rap in India was in its underbelly, far away from the genteel neighbourhoods that continue to be vanguards of culture. It is of little surprise, then, that in the imagine of my fellow movie-goer, a Dalit person living in a slum must represent a crushed soul, bent over double by the weight of the world the way our auteurs such as Satyajit Ray imagined them. That basti children may breakdance their way to resistance is impossible in this world.
But in Kaala, not only is this idea a reality, the possibility of a different kind of world is sprinkled throughout the movie: In the naming of the locality, in the innumerable references to anti-caste leaders, in the names of the characters and the retelling of a Hindu epic.
Here, the idea isn’t a simple inversion of power or a new cult leader as showcased in most gang movies but a more basic shift in what we think of respectable, worth celebrating and which lives we centre in our public discourse. Throughout the movie, the protagonist advocates for a life of self-respect, a key teaching of BR Ambedkar to communities whose self worth had been strangled over millennia. It is a philosophy that allows many Dalit communities to survive, resist and prosper, and yet, because of India’ collective cultural apartheid, remains largely absent from what we think of as public memory and record.
Ranjith’s strength is in imagining a world where this is not the state. His films are always replete with symbolism–think of how Dharavi is awash in blue, or the story arcs resembling that of Rohith Vemula, remember the large potraits of Ambedkar, Phule, Thass, or that powerful scene where Rajinikanth’s family isn’t humiliated by an act of untouchability.
But to call them only symbols, and credit the film with symbolism is to do his vision injustice. Through Kaala, Ranjith thinks of how gender relations would change if we didn’t take the Brahmin as default, how discussions on our public spaces would change if upper-caste urban wasn’t the starting point, or how we would think of sex, romance and sexuality if access to private spaces and upper-caste morality wasn’t a given. His take isn’t always easy to stomach and sometimes the brush strokes are too broad, but the attempt is revolutionary in itself.
I have regretted not being conversant in Tamil since his first film Madras came out in 2014. In that sleeper hit, Ranjith asked his audience what it meant to talk about Madras, and which communities we thought of when we spoke of “our city”. In his second, Rajinikanth-starrer Kabali, as researcher Pranav Kuttaiah notes, the idea of diaspora is explored, and the audience is asked who forms the diaspora, and how is its history formed. In Kaala, he grapples with several questions at once, but at its root is this: How would the world, this society, look and feel if the lower caste, the Dalit saw it as their equal right?
In many ways, this is the question of our lifetime, especially because we continue to refuse anti-caste work space in our “mainstream” while ignoring the tens of thousands of books, pamphlets, diaries, brochures brought out by Dalit-run small publishing houses. We judge Kaala too political to be entertaining but have no problems when Dhobi Ghat airbrushes Dharavi or Mukti Bhavan centers on the lives (and deaths) of Brahmins–these can be path-breaking cinema because they focus on the lives that the urban upper-caste is comfortable with: themselves. We shut out castes and communities from history, refuse to acknowledge their heritage, legacy and lineage, but are aghast that epics can be re-told, villains re-imagined and stories re-written. What then, is the answer, apart from a film that says again and again that caste informs everything we do, from urban planning to marriage to drinking water? In times of such cultural apartheid, what is more revolutionary than the fantasy of a different world?
(Views expressed are personal. The author tweets @dhrubo127)