Kaala, and the Tamil Identity that’s Made Up
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Cinema = Politics
Kaala’s teaser was released on 1 March. It went viral, as all Rajini things usually do. But this is also the most politically aware teaser of a Rajinikanth film. Everything, from the lyrics of the background score as the ‘Thalaiva’ bashes up goons in slo-mo, to the colours in the frames, to the banners in the background; much can be read into and inferred.
It is impossible to isolate Rajinikanth’s films from his political persona, because unlike last year, he is unequivocally a politician, set to launch his party on 14 April, Tamil New Year’s Day.
So yeah, when it comes to Rajinikanth, from now on, cinema = politics. Even if it’s a mega-budget, fully masala, 2.0 (directed by Shankar, set to release after Kaala).
A Photograph and The Book
Two things jump out of the scene here, other than that iconic Rajini smile.
One, a photo of Karl Marx on the wall, to the right of Rajini. This is purposeful, because it is the director, Pa Ranjith’s firm conviction, that only someone who has imbibed the belief systems of Karl Marx and Ambedkar combined, can bring emancipation to the oppressed castes in India.
And then there’s the book, placed on the table, next to the superstar. Ravana Kaaviyam (The Epic of Ravana), was written by Kuzhandai Pulavar in the early 40s. It is an epic poem with 3,100 songs on Ravana, the mythical ruler of Lanka. The work was inspired by an earlier ‘re-interpretation’ of the Ramayana by EV Ramasamy (Periyar), a self-proclaimed hater of Sanskrit, Ramayana and Hinduism.
The second part of Ravana Kaviyam, after a description of Ravana’s ancestors and familial life, goes something like this:
Aryan-Dravidian Rift: Source of Dravidianism
This premise of Ravana Kaviyam is the underlying ideology of Dravidianism, espoused by Periyar.
It began with Robert Caldwell’s book (A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South Indian Family of Languages, 1856). In the book, he uses, for the first time ever, the term ‘Dravidian’, to group ethnicity on the basis of similarity of languages. Linguistics eschews the grouping of similar languages into ethnicity. He also uses the word ‘Aryan’ (again, for the first time) to mean a ‘foreign’ ethnicity, and ‘Brahminical’ to mean the Hinduism of higher castes.
Then came Max Muller’s Aryan Invasion Theory, in which the fair-skinned, horse-riding ‘Aryan’ race from central Asia entered India around 1,500 BC, routed the locals and imposed the Vedas and the Vedic Gods. This pure speculation gained ground in the 1850s.
E V Ramaswamy (aka) Periyar, the father of Dravidianism, bought into the Aryan invasion theory, as well as Caldwell’s interpretation of Hinduism and ‘Dravidian’ race.
All of Tamil Nadu’s politics, from the early ‘40s, until today, stem in some form or the other, from Periyar’s rhetoric. Tamil Nadu’s first Chief Minister, Annadurai, was Periyar’s protege. Karunanidhi and M G Ramachandran, Tamil Nadu’s second and third CMs respectively, were Annadurai’s proteges. The political parties DMK, AIADMK, DMDK, MDMK, all stem from the original Dravida Kazhagam (DK), an apolitical party started by E V Ramaswamy (aka) Periyar.
Let’s bookmark Ravana Kaviyam for now, and move on.
Colour Me Black and Blue
Before we get to Kaala’s black, observe the background. The saffron in the Indian flag has been replaced with blue. Blue is Ambedkar’s colour. It has been so, for decades now. Even in postage stamps and charts that children buy, of ‘Indian Leaders’, or in school textbooks, Baba Saheb is dressed in a blue jacket.
Most of the political groups and factions who represent Dalit rights and grievances sport a blue stripe in their flags. In fact, the scenes of celebration in the trailer are probably because a candidate from the ‘Democratic Party of the Marginalised’ (Othukappattor Kudiyarasu Katchi) has won the elections. The party name features in the background, right behind Rajini.
Also, in the teaser, the colour saffron appears only on the hoardings of Nana Patekar, the villain-politician who just wants to “make the country clean... and pure”.
At a gathering of Tamil Muslims, Pa Ranjith spoke about how the media and the film industry has been creating an anti-Dalit narrative for decades now, simply through visuals, without even dialogue. He believes this is a pivotal time to change this visual rhetoric.
The word, the name itself, means black.
Kamarajar, also known as ‘The King Maker’, was one of the greatest leaders the Congress ever had. Thanks to his ability to ring in large-scale development in Tamil Nadu, and his political acumen in brokering power deals peacefully, he was known as ‘Kaala Gandhi’ (black Gandhi), in Delhi’s circles of influence.
Kaala’s black-on-black look inversely mirrors the attire of the famous Mumbai don of Tamil origin, Haji Mastan. Wunderbar films, the producers of Kaala (and the company that is owned by Rajini’s son-in-law, Dhanush) denied rumors that the film is based on Haji Mastan, after the don’s adopted son sent them a notice, seeking clarification. But the parallel is still unmissable. Haji Mastan wore white, through and through, including his shoes.
It is also possible that the scene where Kaala sits among a family of Muslims isn’t just a random insert. It was EV Ramaswamy (aka) Periyar’s firm belief that Islam is closest to the true religion of the Dravidians – in that it spoke of a formless God, was without distinctions of caste, and accorded equal status to men and women. He also encouraged Dalits of his time to convert to either Islam or Christianity.
And then there is the belief that black is the Dravidian colour, and white/fair skin denotes Aryan descent.
Rajinikanth has been alluding to his dark skin as a passport to belonging to Tamil Nadu, since the 80s. In movies like Kali, and more recently, with Sivaji, the superstar either jokes about his dark skin, or extols it, as the trait of a ‘true’ Dravidian.
The rhetoric here, that is echoed not just in the movie, but by all of the political parties, is that a true Tamilian is one who is dark-skinned, speaks only Tamil (as in, NO Hindi), and has a distinct cultural identity, separate from the rest of the country.
Political Cast, Political Crew, Political Film
Director Pa Ranjith has made four movies so far. All of them belie a political narrative that drives the plot. But with Kaala, unlike in Kabali, or Madras or Attakathi, he is the most brazen thus far, in expressing his political leanings, and prejudices. This might also make Kaala his most authentic film thus far. Unrelated, but fun fact; Kaala is also the first movie in which Rajini drops his unique Kannada/Marathi accent in his Tamil, and speaks in (almost) chaste Tirunelveli (South TN) slang.
Rajinikanth is now a politician. Up until last year, his statements on his political stand have been vague at best. This year though, he believes he can bring back MGR’s golden rule, and fill the void that Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi will leave behind. His movies, henceforth, are sure to reflect his propaganda.
What would be interesting to see though, is the implementation of ‘Spiritual Politics’. There is no place for God in Dravidian thought, let alone politics.
As for the whole ‘True Tamizhan’ spiel, if the state can accept a Kannadiga (Periyar), Telugu (Karunanidhi), Malayali (MG Ramachandran) and a Maharashtrian (Rajinikanth) as leaders, it only shows how confused the Tamils themselves are of their identity.
But then, so is the rest of the country.
The teaser ends with Ambedkar’s words in song; Educate! Agitate!
That, I guess, is the take home.