Kala has the texture of an old-school Hollywood western as well as a spaghetti western. It’s a revenge drama that later transforms into a home invasion thriller.
Tovino Thomas’ Shaji evokes the flawed protagonists from some of the John Ford Westerns made in the 1950s. He also shares some traits with the protagonists of William Friedkin’s The French Connection or To Live and Die In L.A.
There’s also a bit of Travis Bickle-style narcissism inside him. Remember how you were rooting for, almost idolising, Travis Bickle at first, but later found yourself gradually detaching from him because of what he does in that film’s second half?
We first assume someone in Kala is the ‘hero’, but then a ‘villain’ arrives to shatter our perception of both characters. You may surprise yourself by rooting for someone who was initially perceived to be the ‘bad guy’. Kala plays with this contrast so beautifully.
When we first see Tovino Thomas’ Shaji, he resembles a ‘mass’ hero. But he also has the look of a for-hire thug with a chiselled physique. It’s only when his supportive and loving wife (Divya Pillai) and little son enters the picture that we learn about a soft, vulnerable side to his personality.
The situation gets more embarrassing when we learn that he is not on buddy-buddy terms with his father (Lal), who keeps Shaji, his wife, and son at a cold distance.
Shaji is like that college student who dresses up like a South Indian masala movie hero and rides a Royal Enfield but instantly switches to the ‘humble boy-next-door’ mode the minute he returns to his parents’ home.
Shaji is at his softest, humblest form in front of his father — and he is now tired of living under his shadow. Their equation is reminiscent of Mohanlal-Thilakan from Spadikam or Narasimham, or most recently, Prithviraj-Ranjith in Ayyappanum Koshiyum. Kala subverts the idea of the typical Malayali macho hero.
Shaji walks around as though his life is a ‘mass’ movie in which he is the hero. During one particular fight scene, he seems to be delighted by the idea that his son is watching him through the window. This scene is slightly disturbing and funny at the same time.
Some men are heroes in their own heads but weak to the people occupying their space. You don’t for a moment think that Shaji’s wife and kid are in awe of what he is doing.
He is a restless character who, one assumes, has been desperate to exhibit his ‘mass’ hero skills for a long time.
You also get the sense that he is suffering from an inferiority complex on account of his past failures, particularly with regard to business — a fact which he is constantly reminded of by his father and brother-in-law. He is also the sort of guy capable of theft and then blaming it on a daily wage worker.
The class divide, not just among humans but also animals, is suggested. This factor also adds to the film’s unpredictability.
When Sumesh Moor’s character shows up like Charles Bronson from Once Upon A Time In the West and stirs up trouble, he establishes himself as an adversary who relentlessly pursues Shaji with the intention of — well, I’ll leave it for the viewer to find out. Suffice to say, Shaji goes through the wringer. But he is not someone who takes everything lying down.
Kala has as much fury as the Indonesian film The Raid. The film is a long, bloody duel that impresses with its rawness and ingenuity.
Most of the action takes place around Shaji’s home and the vast expanse of land surrounding it. But the central conflict is so gripping that you only begin to notice the limited geography when you start thinking about it.
The same goes for the number of cast members. When the film opens, it doesn’t immediately become apparent if the trouble will be caused by a single individual or several.
The suspicious characters are introduced in a way that evokes the films of Sergio Leone. Every gesture, facial tic, water drop, mud, flora and fauna becomes a participant. Some images stand out — two butterflies photographed against the backdrop of two duelling men, or both father and son having a bandaged foot each.
If I have a minor quibble, it’s in the way a few portions felt overstretched. These two men seem to possess a near-superhuman endurance level despite going through one intense fight scene after another, which makes you wonder whether either or both will come out of it alive — or whether both will meet their makers. It requires you to suspend your disbelief to a certain degree.
Your appreciation of the film will also depend on your ability to withstand, for a long period, the sight of blood — and Kala has the characters bleeding a lot. But at the same time, this aspect made me ask why we are willing to digest such insanity in The Raid or other international action thrillers of a similar nature but not in Malayalam or Indian cinema.
Akhil George’s camera manages to explore as many inventive angles as possible. Thankfully, this approach doesn’t go to Ram Gopal Varma-level extremes.
The camera sometimes sits on a gate, moves with Shaji, or sees things from either his or his adversary’s perspective, you know, Hardcore Henry-style.
At one point, it peers through a snake pit — we see eggs but not the snake, so the possibility of seeing one around soon adds to the mounting anxiety.
In another scene, we get a variation of the split diopter shot when Shaji’s senses heighten. Also making a significant contribution is Dawn Vincent’s ominous background score and Chaman Chacko’s perceptive editing.
When Kala ended, it reminded me of a line from Paatal Lok. “When a dog loves a man, he is a good man. When a man loves a dog, he is a good man.”
Just like that series, director Rohith VS’ new film has dogs playing an important part. A raw action film structured around a man’s bond with an animal, Kala attempts to measure a man’s worth by the degree of love he has for his pet.
Though the concept of the ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’ doesn’t exist here, Kala reveals whose side it is on when the end credits roll — the placement of the two main actors’ names in the end credits should give you the answer.