The Mumbai locality of Dharavi is the largest slum in Asia. Dharavi is home to three-quarters of a million people and also plays host to a bustling economy of nearly a billion dollars in manufacturing capacity and internal trade. It's also one of the most heavily under-protected environments in India, constantly under attack from Mumbai's rapidly expanding economic powers who seek to gentrify the area in spite of the fact - or perhaps because of it - that most of Mumbai is under perpetual construction and the rising prices have forced huge segments of the population onto the street to begin with.
Director Pa. Ranjith's second feature starring India's biggest star, Rajinikanth, is the story of a man who stands for the poor and unrepresented in the Dharavi slum against these economic powers that seek to destroy the communities that call the slum home. Rajini stars in and as Kaala, a character that amounts to a feudal lord or tribal chieftain in Dharavi, who makes it his business to keep the land for the people who work to preserve it.
Fighting against him is Hari Daada (Nana Patekar), a white clad politician and party leader whose platform seeks to clean India - a not so subtle swipe at Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Swachh Bharat program with similar aims - by essentially claiming eminent domain over these unincorporated sections of town and bulldozing them to replace the homes of hundreds of thousands with expensive high rises.
Kaala and Hari Daada have a long history of enmity, going back to Kaala's early adulthood, and this most recent conflagration stirs up deep feelings in both. When Kaala (the Hindi word for the color black) goes up against the all-white clad Hari Daada, shit gets real, but the way the film goes down, it's not quite as engaging as it should be.
Pa. Ranjith addresses a lot of issues in Kaala, the primary of which is the issue of land ownership and stewardship in the slum. The idea is that the only true wealth is land ownership, as everything else in transient, and that those who work to build up the land are entitled to it. A bit pie-in-the-sky for sure, but the right kind of optimistic for a movie like this. Along with this there are stabs at caste discrimination, the issue of migrant workers in Mumbai as Kaala and most of his associates originate from Tamil Nadu and migrated to Mumbai for work, colourism, human rights and utilities mismanagement for underprivileged communities, class warfare, the role of NGOs in settling or advocating for local populations, and even gender dynamics.
The thing is, even though this seems like a lot to tackle, it is all completely relevant and the issues are so deeply intertwined that one has to acknowledge them all in order to tackle any of them. While Ranjith has worked in this kind of serious territory before, he kind of misses the mark when he attempts to incorporate Rajini's larger-than-life image into this relatively serious subject matter. The film feels like a retread of better hero-centric films like Rajini's Baasha from 1995 and the Mani Ratnam/Kamal Haasan masterpiece Nayakan from 1987 among many others, but with the gravitas stripped out in favor of what are commonly thought of as "mass" moments, moments for the hero to step out of the reality of the world and into the role of a superhero.
The first half of the film spends a lot of energy setting up characters and relationships that don't really pay off in any satisfying way. There is a nominal female lead in Huma Qureshi's Zareena, Kaala's former flame-cum-NGO worker who returns to Dharavi to negotiate between the developers and the residents, but her character feels very much like an afterthought, and as Kaala is married when the story begins, she's not even effective as a romantic lead. There are also a number of half-assed villains for Kaala to contend with who merely seem like video game style mini-bosses through which Rajini must go to get to his ultimate adversary. None of them have any real depth and they only serve as canon fodder to make him appear strong.
Thankfully the film picks up the pace and delivers the thrills in the second half, but those without strong constitutions may very well check out after the first 90 minutes. In the post-interval section Rajini begins to deliver the kind of ass-kicking and celebratory machismo that we expect from his hero characters and almost makes the entire saggy first section worth the wait.
Kaala's intermittent confrontations with Hari Daada, played solidly by the dependable Nana Patekar, are among the films highlights as the two actors have very interesting conflicting styles. Rajini is an old school movie star who depends largely on his immense charisma and ability to deliver chessy macho dialogue likes he owns it, while Patekar is a serious actor who broods with the best of them. Their clashes are impressive, though when he's not sharing the screen with Rajini, Patekar feels out of place in the film, too serious.
I'm a Rajinikanth diehard, I will see anything he makes at the first available opportunity, and I know that Kaala is going to disappoint some of his fans. Many hope for a return to the form of films like Baasha or even Sivaji where the actor plays a larger than life character, or perhaps even his more serious work like Thalapathi, but his last two films, Kabali and now Kaala seem to uneasily straddle the line between the two, which puts Rajini in an awkward place. Not big enough to be bigger than life, but not real enough to be taken seriously outside of his filmy persona, Kaala is a middling film that doesn't seem to know which side of the fence it wants to be on.
I am conflicted.
I want to see Rajinikanth as the hero he was ten, twenty, thirty years ago, but I know that those years are gone and he's moving on. There's a huge part of my that is excited to see him embrace his age and incorporate that kind of life experience into his stories. For example, in Kaala the 67-year-old Rajini plays a grandfather where as just 12 years ago in Sivaji he played a young man who'd just come back from the USA almost right out of college. It feels like he's still trying to figure out where he fits in, where does he go from here? Kaala is a step in the right direction, I think, in spite of it's non-Rajini related flaws, but he hasn't found the right masala to make it work just yet.