When Pa Ranjith used ‘Superstar’ Rajinikanth to undercut the image of a hero

when pa ranjith used ‘superstar’ rajinikanth to undercut the image of a hero

When Pa Ranjith used ‘Superstar’ Rajinikanth to undercut the image of a hero

“Kya re? Setting-ah? Vengaiyan mavan othaila nikken. Dhillrundha mothama vaangalae (What is it guys? All set, is it? Vengaiyan’s son is here standing all alone. Bring it on, if you all have it in you),” proclaimed Rajinikanth in the teaser of Kaala five years ago that sent the whole of Tamil Nadu into a frenzy. The scene quickly became the much-anticipated part of the film as everyone wanted to know what would ensue after the heroic scream of Superstar Rajinikanth. And… it turned out to be a damp squib in the movie as the scene ended up in an anti-climax. As the rowdies close in, Kaala’s (Rajinikanth) elder son swoops in and what could have been an epic fight sequence settles down with no fizz. The whole set-up was an easy way to get the audience going. It is a no-brainer. Had it been directed by any other filmmaker, it would have become a perfect battlefield that would have left Rajinikanth fans in euphoria. On top of that, Pa Ranjith had Santhosh Narayanan’s raging “Katravai Patravai” at his disposal. Why then did Ranjith refuse to pull the trigger? Perhaps, the director is a pleasure-delayer because we get all that high later in the ‘Rain fight’, which ends up becoming the interval block. On top of it, it is Ranjith’s way of saying he is not going to play it for the gallery. It is his way of saying it is not about the Vengaiyan Mavan but the film.

When Kaala was released, a predominant narrative about the film was that it was neither Rajinikanth’s film nor Pa Ranjith’s. The heroism or the so-called ‘mass moments’ were nuanced for the fans who have seen their Thalaivar stop bullets with his gaze. On the other hand, the critics of the director claimed he has ‘compromised’ his values to accommodate the superstar. While both criticisms hold water to an extent, in retrospect, Kaala remains predominantly a vision of Ranjith more than a star vehicle. One has to only compare the film with the subsequent Rajinikanth ventures to understand how different Kaala is from the likes of Jailer or Annaatthe. The comparison is not to put down masala cinema, but to bring out the difference between them and Kaala.

The biggest achievement of Kaala is the way Pa Ranjith exploits Rajinikanth to peddle his ideology. One of the biggest criticisms against Indian cinema is that it purports a narrative where a hero/messiah/leader solves everything that’s wrong with the world. Filmmaker Shankar’s brand of cinema is an obvious example, but most of our masala films more or less sell the same idea that a saviour is an answer to all the conflict in the story and the world. Ranjith subverted the narrative not with any star but with ‘Superstar’ Rajinikanth.

The climax of Kaala is perhaps the boldest of Rajinikanth’s films. The ambiguous climax of Kaala might still leave a quintessential Rajinikanth fan wondering whether he is dead or alive. It is safe to assume Rajinikanth is indeed dead in the film. But the intention here is to sublimate a person into an ideology. Ranjith achieves it brilliantly and visually with the “Katravai Patravai” song, where Kaala becomes a ghost haunting Hari dada. Like the villain, one is not sure whether Kaala is alive in flesh and blood. Yet, one can be certain that he lives as an ideology in the colours–black, red, and blue–that fill the screen with each one representing an ideology that’s dear to the director. As a person, Kaala can be reduced to a gangster, but with this uncertainty, Ranjith turns him into an idea… and one cannot kill an idea.

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