By Vijeta Kumar
Whose father-in-law’s permission do Dalits have to take to be stylish in life?
Because somewhere in the fight to rights, power, and politics, we have been told we needn’t be stylish. Who will create a revolution otherwise?
We have been told that there are bigger things to worry about and fight against. We don’t have the time or the courage to be stylish or call something stylish anymore. If we do, we worry that it’s not the right thing to say about something so serious.
In a world governed by a Brahmin obsession to keep things in their place and prevent them from mixing, why should we please them by keeping politics and style separate from each other? If one is serious, does the other have to be a chhota bheem?
To undo this doodh ka dhula syndrome, things should be brought to mix with each other (Play and Protest- Funny and Serious – Black and White – Shudra and Brahmin.) They need to be put in a mixie and ground together. But obviously no one wants to get their hands dirty doing this.
Even so, out of this mixie, Kaala has arrived with style and it will not apologise.
Imagine a large dining table. All the directors from the last 20 years are at this table. When they are eating, the directors are careful not to mix food items, they stick to dal and roti, biryani and raita, because their parents taught them not to study while they play and not to play while they study.
At this point, they stop eating and watch with disbelief as Nagraj Manjule and Pa Ranjith mix paayasa with upma, and beef curry with obbattu. They are playing and studying.
While Manjule’s Sairat had caste at its burning middle, it told its story in Bollywood tongue. Let’s horrify ourselves for a moment and think about that dreadful movie Dhadak (the soon-to-come Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak remake pretending to be Sairat) that is neither play nor study but some school trip to Rajasthan.
Pa Ranjith’s Kaala too, has caste at its centre, told with anger, yes, but also play.
Grave death scenes are punctured by the sudden appearance of rappers who burst on screen with sexy prose. The capacity to produce tika uri (burning in bum) that I assume people feel when The Casteless Collective (Pa Ranjith’s 19-piece band which now includes a spectacular young woman, Isaivani S.) wear suits and sing songs about quota and reservation, (“you tease me by calling me quota quota, ask your grandfather who was responsible for it”,) is also found in the songs of Kaala.
Conversations about power and land happen over pink Barbie dolls and scattered toys. Murder becomes the playground for a young girl who sweetly whispers into her grandfather (villain Haridev Abhyankar played by Nana Patekar) ears “Don’t kill him (Rajinikanth/Kaala), he’s a nice man.”
And a few scenes later, “Thank you for not killing him.”
It’s a deeply hilarious moment packed with so much seriousness that you are both laughing and horrified.
A few scenes before, Haridev Abhyankar visits Kaala, warning him to let go of Dharavi. Kaala’s wife, Selvi (Easwari Rao) offers him water, which Haridev refuses. This moment is never forgotten. Perhaps because Selvi is quick to notice it and admonish her daughter-in-law who says Haridev looks like a nice man.
Perhaps also because we return to it again in the same way we were introduced to it – calmly.
Even if far more terrifying things happen in the past (like the murder of Kaala’s father by Haridev), or in the future (where Kaala’s wife and son are also killed), when he is offered water in Haridev’s house, Kaala accepts it.
In a film that has Dalit land, ownership, rights, and freedom at its heart, it is the little scenes that are ultimately unforgettable.
Let me tell you a small story. A very old Brahmin neighbor, when we first moved into our house, had a habit of stealing the packets of milk left at our door every morning. My father screamed, “Kalli Kalli!” (Thief thief!), but she didn’t stop. One day she figured out that we were Dalit and naturally, our milk packets and we were left alone happily ever after.
I don’t know what to make of this memory. I find it troubling and hilarious. In Ooru Keri, the autobiography of Dalit poet, Siddalingaiah, he writes about how difficult it was to find a house in Bangalore. Eventually someone is willing to rent their house to him, but when the keys are being handed over, they ask his caste. When he says he’s a Madiga, they say, “Oh Sorry we can’t give you our house. You are a nice man but if only you were Brahmin…”
Siddalingaiah says namaskara and leaves. He makes no further mention of either that house or, the people in it. Maybe because he too knew that return is more useful if it is brought to notice in a ‘matter-of-factly’ way.
Ongoing politics situates those who loved the film in a strange land. How do we see Rajinikanth now? But we don’t have to see him at all. Whatever becomes of him, Pa Ranjith has made it clear that anyone can be Kaala. That bit of hallucination in the climax is proof. Many Kaalas eventually destroy Haridev.
As for me, I imagined Ruth Manorama, Sujatha Gidla, Christina Thomas Dhanraj, Gogu Shyamala, and my grandmother.
For a story borne out of a blender, it’s amusing how the colours never mix in the film until the last scene, where they are brought to create chaos. They are brought there by force, by laugh, by dance, and by song. The hospital sick white purity of Swachh Bharat Pure India is made ‘impure’ as colours play with each other. Everyone’s the same colour. No one is white anymore.
Some reviews mourned Kaala. Black may be the new white. But someone still has to do the laundry it seems.
To which I only want to say, tell your thatha or, permission-giving father-in-law to do the laundry or, you do it yourself.
Despite every other brilliant thing about the film, the most stylish character to ever be written is Selvi. She is a remixed Tamil mother. She is doting but more than anything, she’s a supremely funny woman. When her son is angry and is leaving home, she wreaks havoc, only to eventually say “Please make sure you eat on time” before sending him away. She is teeth-grindingly fierce in love, just as she is sensationally sure of herself.
I can never shake off the feeling I get when I sometimes watch women in films and the women I know in life. I wonder if they could have had happier, freer lives were they not married. Selvi doesn’t allow room for this thought to grow.
She doesn’t need me or anyone’s father doing her any charity. Her face has the capacity to say I love you and fuck you at the same time. What a woman!
A thing that sets Kaala apart from most other films is the space it gives to the narrative of feet. One is Kaala’s and the other is Haridev Abhyankar’s.
Whether arriving or leaving, every prominent shot featuring a dialogue between Kaala and Haridev begins and ends with feet. While the conversation between the two men is ongoing, their feet are actually waging a silent war against each other.
As a child, I used to be fascinated with the sounds that police inspectors’ boots made. A kind of kitch-kitch sound as if only the boot could see and strangle what’s underneath it – the sound of authority. In various scenes, the slapping sound of Kaala’s chappals are heard over the loud entry/exit music.
But beyond the sounds, what stories do feet tell us?
An avarna friend of mine has often been told that his feet scare people. And the people to issue these notices have always been Savarna. By scary they obviously mean dirty, and untouched by the purity of their loofahs.
Feet, and by extension, chappals, are markers of caste. Feet have stories to tell. What other part of the body can tell you its history other than feet? And in a story about land, feet have more work than face or hands.
It takes a Dalit filmmaker to show the world that sometimes putting things in mixies can be a mess, but if you don’t risk it, you’ll be stuck with thayir sadam for the rest of your life.
Vijeta Kumar teaches English by day and binge-watches Gilmore Girls by night. She blogs at rumlolarum.wordpress.com