How Kaala upended the caste and colour paradigm

By having an Untouchable unifier versus a Brahmin destroyer, Pa Ranjith shatters the Indian film industry’s typecasts of caste and skin colour.

ByRavikiran Shinde
How Kaala upended the caste and colour paradigm
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How many times have we seen a follower of Ambedkar and Buddha taking on a powerful Brahmin on the big screen? Probably never. One of the places where the “sanctity” of the caste system is still preserved is Indian cinema. The “rule” of ascending order of reverence and descending order of contempt for graded varna system is followed very religiously. The Hero is usually from an “upper caste” community whereas the Villain is dark-skinned and from a “lower caste”. This practice was confirmed by recent study of Indian films.

Director Pa Ranjith shatters that typecast in his latest movie Kaala (“Black”). Here Kaala (an untouchable) takes on a powerful bad guy Haridas Abhyankar (a Brahmin) to protect his land rights. An Untouchable unifier versus a Brahmin destroyer: a story perhaps never told.

Haridas wants to capture the Dharavi plot lying in the heart of Mumbai in the guise of redevelopment using an apt company name: Manu. Kaala opposes it even at the cost of his family.

The difference between Kaala and Haridas couldn’t be clearer. Haridas worships Rama while Kaala follows Buddha. Haridas loves his weapons while Kaala reads Dr Ambedkar’s books. Haridas wants to destroy the houses of the SC/ST communities while Kaala is never tired of telling his people to educate their kids and fight oppression. More prominently, Haridas loves white and whiteness, and is disgusted by Kaala’s name, complexion and caste. So much so, he refuses to drink water at his house. Kaala, on the other hand, dares Haridas and his mighty gods to take away his rights and lands.

The crescendo of the Haridas and Kaala face-off—two extreme sides of the caste pyramid—sums up what the movie Kaala epitomises. By destroying all the norms of the film industry and adding a realistic social equation, Pa. Ranjith has held up a huge mirror to the entire film industry.

Yes, Kaala is essentially a story of slum-dwellers uniting and revolting against a bad politician. But it’s not just that. Angaar (1992) and Dayavan (1988) have shown this plot before. In fact in Angaar, Nana Patekar played a similar character who has an eye on slum land.

But Pa. Ranjith has woven together the intricacies of caste, culture and skin colour using backdrops, colours and character names to make an impact. Earlier depictions of Dharavi in movies never highlighted the social background of the slum-dwellers, only that is is the second largest slum in Asia and mainly houses “low caste” migrants from other states and Buddhists, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Muslims. Kaala makes it a point to showcase this through visuals of Buddha Vihara and statues of Periyar, Mahatma Phule and Dr Ambedkar flashing in the background—leaders who had led a revolt against the Brahminical caste system. Periyar in his book Sacchi Ramayan had questioned the portrayal of dark-skinned people, including Ravana in the Ramayana. When Haridas compares Kaala with Ravana, you see the reason why.

Dark-skinned actresses get their screen time

In a predominantly black country, the obsession with fairness is something the big screen has not escaped. Black as a colour has been stigmatised by the film industry, advertising agencies, and the matrimonial industry. While films often carry innuendo to compare black with bad, in Kaala, black is the colour of the masses.

Dark-skinned actresses have found less space even in the South Indian film industry, where you’ll find fair-skinned imports from the North like Kajal Aggarwal, Tamannaah, and Rakul Preet Singh. But in Kaala, two of the three leading actresses—Eshwari Rao (Kaala’s wife) and Anjali Patil (Puyal)—are also dark. Ranjith gives them enough screen time, and they both deliver wonderfully. Add Huma Qureshi (as Zareena, a single Muslim mother) and you have full female powerhouse like never seen before in a male superstar movie.

The movie is extremely contemporary and touches on many recent political events, including the current government equating resistance with anti-Nationalism, and politicians engineering Hindu-Muslim riots to divide people.

During the protest scenes, Ranjith used actual television visuals of Ambedkarites protest against Bhima Koregaon violence with blue and Panchshil Buddhist flags. In January, the media had highlighted “anti-social” elements of the protests rather than the indiscriminate arrest of SC/ST teenagers by the police. By showing the other side of the story, the director has shown a mirror to the mainstream media too.

Novel ways of protest

Kaala shows the evolution in ways of protests by slum-dwellers. Gone are the days of fast. In Kaala, workers use innovation to send their messages, apart from just strikes. Here the Ambedkarites not just use Powada (a ballad song narrating history) but also English rap songs and b-boying to spread awareness. They also use Facebook and Twitter to spread their message and galvanise public opinion in their favour. The film shows hope too; common people across all castes side with them, rather than the dirty politicians.

Ranjith brings Dr Ambedkar back in the mainstream. Hitherto, his portrait was limited to police stations and courtrooms in films, but now it’s resonating in dialogues and houses of lead actors in Indian films like Fandry (2013), Kabaali (2016), and Newton (2017), but to very small extent. Kaala goes a notch higher.

The social revolution that Pa. Ranjith brought in with Kaala could very well be a harbinger of revolution in the Indian film Industry, and has the potential to change cinema’s social construct forever. Through Kaala, he’s definitely turned the caste and colour paradigm of Indian cinema on its head. This one is must watch on the big screen.

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