The last seven days have been about two things— Pa Ranjith’s Kaala and everybody’s interpretation and opinion of the same. If you had gone on social media to seek solace, you’d be invited by posts about how this is the most revolutionary film in recent times or how it completely misses the point. If you had some free time and you did a little peeping around, you’d start seeing a pattern; obvious ones. The ones that didn’t like the film for whatever reason are the ones who kept reiterating that demonetization is a worthy cause and we can go a few days without currencies in ATMs. Do you catch my drift?
That wasn’t all; think pieces were in abundance — dime a dozen. Every standpoint you could possibly conceive — anthropological, sociological, ethnographical, etc. It says a lot about intention and nuance if a work of art has spawned these many perspectives from audiences who are used to being binary about the films that they are subjected to.
When I walked out of the film, I felt underwhelmed; there was no real impact that the film had left me with. Having gone through post after post about how revolutionary the film is, in my echo chamber, I felt like I was an outlier. I definitely had missed the point. But I wouldn’t find out until several hours later.
A dinner with a friend incited a conversation and both of us agreed that the film was average at best; we treated the film like we’d treat any other film of the same genre in Tamil. And then we started picking at its nuances — how well the female characters are written, the film’s depiction of the space crunch in a slum, the obvious Dalit symbolism, the understated and surprisingly mature romance between the older couples; the idea that a revolutionary isn’t one in a million but rather every single member of the community was way more powerful than seeing a Rajinikanth beat up 100 goons. The nitpicking went on for a while before we realised that we were wrong about the film. The knee-jerk wasn’t necessarily because the film was bad but maybe, just maybe, it left us uncomfortable.
The obvious antagonist in the film, played by Nana Patekar, is an upper-caste Hindu. This isn’t the first time a Tamil film has dealt with battles of the rich and the power, the oppressor and the oppressed. But this might have been the first time that representation was spot on. Ranjith being a Dalit filmmaker made a big difference; his lived-in experiences immersed us in an environment that made us question our choices as people with privilege; this wasn’t an accident.
The amount of detail that went into creating the canonical universe in the film made its depiction of upper caste spot-on. A filmmaker from a community of the oppressed was pointing fingers. And that made a lot of people, including myself uncomfortable. It took a lot of critique and self-reflection to arrive at this, but he isn’t far from right.
We go about our days, neglecting caste, like it doesn’t exist, ignoring privilege like we don’t want it, while we continue to built thrones using our inherent privilege, and go about passing off knee-jerk reactions as critique without realising the ignorance and conditioning at play here.
Well, whether you liked it or not, Kaala is an important film — a film’s whose intentions supersede the craft. Sure, it’s not the most efficient, effective, well-written piece of cinema out there, but its detail makes up for all of it.
The writer specializes in first drafts, making observations on what makes Chennai, Madras