In, arguably, the most significant vignette of PA Ranjith’s Kaala (a film that is essentially a collection of rhetorical set pieces), a minor character named Shivaji Rao Gaikwad (Rajinikanth’s actual name), speaks up for the protesting slum-dwellers that he, as a policeman, is tasked with repressing. ‘Shivaji Rao’ who, one might reasonably assume, is a signifier for the ‘real’ Rajinikanth, concludes his revolutionary speech with the Ambedkarite cry – ‘Jai Bhim’. This conjunction of speech and speaker, of message and context, of the text and its tag, presents, in a nutshell, the conundrum of Rajinikanth’s political entry. Are we being given insight into Rajinikanth’s intended political direction and allegiance … or is this merely Ranjith’s cinematic fantasy – aligning the voice of an illusory SUPERSTAR with his own fervent Dalit cause, without any grounding in Rajinikanths’s actual politics … Indeed, as the upcoming Tamil Nadu elections unfold, it will be fun reading and re-reading this scene in the light of that moving political context! Indeed, the Gaikward vignette appears to be a most intricate double, perhaps triple, feint, made in the course of a momentous Kollywood engagement between rising director and risen SUPERSTAR – the highlight of an exchange between two powerful agendas in Tamil Cinema … Tamil politics even!
The SUPERSTAR hoardings are back. Kaala, the ‘man in black’ is walking tall on cinema walls all over Chennai. It seems that PA Ranjith’s second collaboration with Thalaivar is doing fine at the box office regardless of controversies in Thoothukodi and in Karnataka. There were relatively poor advance bookings and even now there are mixed reports about the first days takings but at least one heralds an all-time record take across Chennai cinemas and cineplexes of 17,000,000 rupees which is over 250, 000 USD. Reviews suggest that Director has struck a better balance between the SUPERSTAR persona and the serious social and dramatic ambit of his work. Ranjith is an outspoken champion of the left in Tamil Nadu. By left I mean Periyar’s Dravidian movement, whose colour is the black of Kaala, and Ambedkar’s Dalit movement, whose blue is equally prominent in the film. While the pairing of actor and director pairing holds up well in the fictions of Kabali and Kaala, there are signs however that this unity of actor and auteur is unraveling. How Rajinikanth will square this new politicized SUPERSTAR persona with his, apparently not so slightly saffron tinged (saffron being the colour of the Hindu right) real life ‘spiritual politics’ remains to be seen ….
With PA Rajinth’s Kaala, staring Thalaivaa Rajinikanth due to open on the 7th June 2018, and with all the controversy around Rajinikanth’s encounter and intervention in Thoothukudi recently, I feel it is timely that I release this video of my own little intervention on the streets of Tokyo as a part of Cowboys and Indians: Tokyo Edition on May 11th 2018. Rajinikanth’s outburst brings into focus the liminality of art and life, and indeed the ultimate severality of these categories. Rajinikanth the politician came out quite harshly against the culture of protest and resistance in Tamil Nadu. While his character in Kaala is a rabble rousing revolutionary, real life Rajinikanth has come off looking rather reactionary. This self-inflected break between person and persona threatens to eviscerate not only the credibility of Rajinikanth’s politics but also that of his highly developed artistic identity. Still, I will be there at the Hollywood 3 Cinema in Surrey for the opening night in the Fraser Valley, British Columbia, Canada!
As we eagerly await Kaala, Rajinikanth SUPERSTAR’s first movie after his entry into Tamil Nadu politics, it is pertinent to reflect on the messages embedded in this and his last release, Kabali. Both films are the directorial works of PA Rajinth, the rising Kollywood auteur of Dalit origins who has successfully presented critical social messages with mass commercial appeal. Rajinth is vocal on Dalit issues off the screen and here is an important document evidencing his rage and articulating his core message – TAMILS ARE DIVIDED BY CASTE … ADMIT IT! – It is a message that is steeped deep in Ambedker Blue and, incredulously, one that SUPERSTAR Rajinikanth seems to be taking upon his crisp new political mantle whose own native hue is allegedly a Hindutva Saffron.
The boss is back and his colour is Black but it seems a to be a Black tinted with strong hues of Blue. The eagerly awaited trailer for Kaala is out and for me, and most of the 10 million other early viewers, the thrill ain’t gone! SUPERSTAR adulation aside however, there has been a lot of talk about Rajinikanth’s colour in the context of his recent entry into Tamil Nadu politics. The concern has been, as his friend and rival in life, art and now in politics, Kamal Haasan, has put it, that Rajinikanth’s hue is Saffron. Saffron is the colour of the Hindu nationalist (Hindutva) politics of India’s ruling BJP, with whose values Rajinikanth has shown some affinities.
In my own view the equation of nation state with religion, that Hindutva represents, is a tragic and disastrous misunderstanding and misuse of both religion and nation. Nevertheless, there is still hope that Rajinikanth is not on the Hindutva page and that his colour may not be saffron after all! Kaala is the followup to Rajni Sir’s earlier collaboration with activist director PA Rajinth. Rajinth is a ground breaking mainstream Kollywood director who is of Dalit origins, and who brings Dalit issues to the central forum of contemporary Indian cultural life. In their previous collaboration, Kabali, this dark duo addressed the caste issue both with external references and reflexive dialogue that deconstructs character roles in Tamil cinema.
In the Kaala trailer Black is presented as the colour of class resistance, but the colour of our hero’s the Mumbai ghetto is clearly blue. Blue is the dominant roof colour in an ariel shot of the ghetto. As observed in an Indiaglitz.com commentary, it is also the colour of the hero’s ghetto flag, the colour of co-star Huma Qureshi’s dress, and also of the drapery that surrounds her in a dance sequence. Blue is the colour associated with the great Indian and Dalit leader B R Ambedkar, who always wore blue suits. Indeed, Blue is the colour of Buddhism and, symbolically speaking, the opposite of the aforementioned Saffron. Blue has become the colour of the Dalit resistance that Ambedkar set into motion at the time of Indian independence. While it must be noted that the hero’s own spouse (one presumes) is seen dressed in a saffron saree, one is not unjustified in hopefully speculating that Rajinikanth’s Black is, indeed, just the darkest shade of Blue.