Historically, Indian cinema exploited the labour of Dalits in its making, whilst erasing or appropriating their stories. This was not an accidental practice. When their stories were told on screen, it would be by savarnas who also played their characters with patriarchal, sexist and casteist undertones.
The scenario has slowly changed, and the identity of Dalit characters in cinema — directed by a Dalit (and a few non-Dalit) filmmakers — has become explicit, transcending boundaries of caste and class. These filmmakers have helped shape visual storytelling that combines “justice with aesthetics”.
“Justice with aesthetics” was rarely present in cinema made by savarnas, or it was seldom honest. Dalit-Bahujan filmmakers have filled this gap, while creating a new wave of cinema that is more appealing to a Dalit-Bahujan audience.
Movies in India had long ceased to be based on the shared issues of the masses, and perpetuated the existence of their hunger into the hunger for materiality of art, in this case cinema. This is why Kaala is a breakthrough movie in the lives of the masses as an audience, and in their memories of movie-watching: all of them can relate to it, all of them are in it, all of them have subjectivity in it. Each frame is evidence of this.
Karikaalan aka Kaala (Rajinikanth) lives in Dharavi, referred to as “the biggest slum in Mumbai” by elites. He is a Tamil Dalit, whose father migrated from Tirunelveli to Mumbai decades ago when Dharavi was not Dharavi but just a marshy land sheltering the homeless. Gradually, the area becomes a home for thousands of people, across castes, languages and religions, all of them in the city to secure a livelihood. Dharavi shelters them.
Kaala is born here; his lives through many ups and downs, and also witnesses the murder of his father. He goes on to become a godfather of Dharavi, fighting for the rights of his people. He is well aware that people like him must resort to “rowdy-ism” at times, because often ‘law and order’ fails to protect them, and at times the executioners of law and order harass people like him. Kaala not only expresses the anguish of the masses but also paves the way to transform it into a philosophy of action in their struggle. This is a rare achievement. It puts an end to the alienation between viewers and cinematic stories; both become one.
Throughout the movie, icons such as Periyar, Buddha, Dr Ambedkar recur in the frames and in the background. Although this is part of the story and also the storyteller’s intention, their inclusion also suggests the need for democratisation of cinematic frames. While this iconography has existed in public spaces, it has rarely appeared (or been deliberately erased) by savarna filmmakers in their movies. Kaala reclaims the erased anti-caste world. It reifies the aesthetics of “black”, the symbol of labour, struggle and strength.
In Kaala, land is the protagonist. The story’s villain, Hari Dada (Nana Patekar), is swallowed by it when he attempts to seize it. As the narrative opens, it takes viewers to a time when land was free, then introduces them to a time when land became a matter of rights and power. Dharavi as a place which shelters many people across castes, religions and languages, seems to inherit this history as well as the story of land when it was free and when it started becoming a matter of power and subsequently rights, for the masses.
Kaala addresses the problems of people across the world who are struggling to acquire land for their survival, and in whose lives, land is equivalent to their dreams. At the same time, this is a story rooted in the psyche of India, a caste society.
By 2018, the political fabric of Indian society had become far too intrusive in the lives of the masses for it to be neglected. “White” as the symbolic colour of Indian politics took on an oppressive hue; it became a villain. ‘Kaala’ (black) — as a colour, an idea, or symbolic persona — had never been seen as a hero, certainly not in cinema. This aesthetic is turned upside down in Kaala.
It is not the case that Indian movies have never dealt with political subjects or politics in their stories, but they lacked aesthetics from the lives of the masses. Kaala breaks this monotony. It reclaims the existence of the common man into the cinematic imagination.
Yogesh Maitreya is a poet, translator and founder of Panther’s Paw Publication, an anti-caste publishing house. He is pursuing a PhD at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.