The Story of India

How Pa Ranjith’s Kaala changes the way we imagine the city

The use of a superstar like Rajinikanth seems to be Ranjith’s way of staking claim to the mainstream. It is part of a project to build a new discourse for Indian cities from below: the story of the Dalit and the Adivasi in India is the story of India.
Elections 2024
24 June, 2018

Last summer, on a visit to my home city of Bengaluru, I stood waiting for a train at the newly renamed Dr BR Ambedkar Vidhana Soudha metro station. In the background, I could hear the gentle twangs of a veena in the style of Carnatic classical music. The contrast between the name of the station and the style of music, which has been the reserve of upper castes for centuries, was quite amusing to me. However, the music is so ubiquitous in the city that I doubt most long-term residents even notice it. To many outsiders, it is a defining marker of Bengaluru’s culture.

I wondered how many of these defining cultural markers reflect the true demography of Bengaluru. How did a cosmopolitan and diverse city of mostly meat-eating people come to largely be thought of as a city of idli, dosa, filter coffee and Carnatic music? The culture of indigenous settlers, working castes and those who live in auto-constructed spaces—which most residents, without the slightest sense of tragic irony, call “colonies”—is omitted from the mainstream. When one thinks of Bengaluru, one rarely thinks of the hip-hop, the football grounds or the beef stalls that are integral to the culture of its poorer citizens. As the city globalises, these are the cultural practices that would be allowed to vanish; what would survive are the idli, dosa, filter coffee and Carnatic music, considered more “worthy” of preservation.

Across India, the dominant story of any megacity is untouched by the stories of the marginalised communities that live there. You could be a Pardhi tribal living in and around the same street corner in Mumbai for the last three generations, but your story would always be of the “migrant in the city” or “the homeless in the city”; it would never be the story of the city. This is precisely what makes the Tamil film-director Pa Ranjith’s films path-breaking. When Ranjith tells the stories of Vyasarpadi or Dharavi—auto-constructed neighbourhoods laden with histories of oppressed castes—he is insisting they are the stories of Chennai and Mumbai. Drawing from legendary anti-caste thinkers, Ranjith is moving us towards a greater understanding of a new third-world urbanism.

Ranjith’s first film to buck the trend in urban portrayals was 2014’s Madras, a film about a rivalry between two political parties in Vyasarpadi. Although the working-caste neighbourhoods of north Chennai had appeared in films such as Gemini, Pudhupettai and Polladhavan, Madras produced a new imagination of the city. “[Madras] did a daring thing,” the reviewer Apoorva Sripathi noted, “saying that north Chennai was Madras, not the West Mambalam, Adyar or Egmore neighbourhoods of Mani Ratnam or Gautam Menon, kings of the Chennai padam.” Ranjith’s Vyasarpadi showed the lives of its IT professionals, young hip-hop lovers, football players and working women. The film does not apologise for or explain the neighbourhood in the city. Rather, it firmly and confidently argues that the city would be nothing without the neighbourhood, asserting its right to the city with the title of the film. In this, Ranjith’s ancestor seems to be the American writer James Baldwin, who wrote in his Notes of a Native Son: “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America.”

Kaala does for Mumbai what Madras did for Chennai. Ranjith gives us a quintessential Mumbai film, except through the eyes of a lower-caste Tamil basti in Dharavi fighting to keep its land, which is under the threat of seizure from a politician. Ranjith defies the Oscar-winning legacy of depicting the area as unsanitary and unsafe. Much like Madras, Kaala adopts a social-realist approach, taking us into the vibrant living space of a community. Elders join kids in playing gully cricket; celebrations, festivals and processions are held in small open spaces; freestyle dancers and rappers are shown performing. In showing us these relationships closely, Ranjith gives us a much better idea of the area than the distanced, disconnected ethnography and “fieldwork” produced by many journalists, artists and academics.

Kaala highlights the cultural vibrancy of self-constructed spaces such as Dharavi by showing performances of freestyle dancers and rappers; elders joining kids in playing gully cricket; and celebrations, festivals and processions being held in small open spaces. PUNIT PARANJPE/AFP/Getty Images

Kaala’s strength also lies in diagnosing the deeper malaise in our urban transition—where the marginalised constantly have to fight for infrastructure and basic amenities, with a fight for land being the central conflict. The film posits social-justice questions as central to urban sustainability. Blockades, friction and conflict are shown as the other side of the discourse on cleanliness, purity and development. Echoing the work of the urban sociologist Robert E Park, who spoke of how predominantly black neighbourhoods are battling inordinate impoverishment and poor infrastructure and services, the film places caste and space at the heart of its analysis.

The film also deals with how the marginalised are seen in the city: for instance, showing the deep violence in the way “Dharavi” as a word itself is used derogatorily or sneeringly. The struggle is not only economic, it is also for recovering dignity and pride in a marginalised identity. A large part of our urban violence—particularly evictions or destruction of homes—is because of the hatred in the gaze that allows decision makers and civil-society actors to brand people and communities as “ugly” or “unclean.” The scholar Asher Ghertner has written about the “rule by aesthetics,” where aesthetic considerations of what constitutes “modern” and “world-class” often determine decisions on what kinds of construction deserve space, even bypassing legal compliance. The film addresses the need to change the pejorative discourse around informal neighbourhoods as an important step in eventually making urban life sustainable. It tries to reformulate what in our cities is considered “beautiful,” shows the violence and exclusion involved in the concepts of “beautification” and “smart cities” and emphasises the need to appreciate other cultures and voices as integral to making cities what they are.

The main conflict in Kaala, thus, is one over space. The hero Karikalan, or Kaala, played by Rajinikanth, is a slumlord who protects his people and resolves disputes. Kaala derives his power not just from the community, but also from how the settlement has been constructed. Dharavi is shown to be built such that surveillance or police action is difficult. Kaala is the undisputed king of the neighbourhood because he can, literally, control who enters and leaves it. The inability to cause arbitrary physical intervention through the institutions of the state is what prompts the rhetoric of an area being “unmanageable.” In the film, a nexus of developmental NGOs and builders (provocatively named “Manu Realty”—after Manu, the mythical law-giver and codifier of caste and gender hierarchy) is then mobilised to try and convince residents to hand over their land with the promises of skyscrapers, swanky new homes and even a golf course. The project causes rifts between community members and later we are shown the grim realities of these much-touted in-situ rehabilitations. With this, the film shows the emergence of the vertical slum: a poorly ventilated and claustrophobic high-rise that does not allow the home to be used as workplace and cramps and impedes people’s lifestyles.

While the film is sceptical of gentrification, it recognises the political claim to basic amenities. The urban-studies scholar Pranav Sidhwani has written about the “stark inequality” that urban wards with high Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe populations face with regard to accessing in-house water and in-house toilets. In an evocative scene at a public meeting hosted by Manu Realty, Kaala asks why there should there even be a government if all informal settlements have to negotiate solely with private actors. As the journalist Jeremy Seabrook wrote, “It would be foolish to pass from one distortion—that the slums are places of crime, disease and despair—to the opposite: that they can be safely left to look after themselves.” Kaala, though opposed to intervention that is not community-monitored, is acutely aware of the necessity to make sure people receive water, electricity and adequate housing. The film builds a new vocabulary of urban resistance. The struggle of methods is played out between Kaala’s two sons—Selva, a political muscleman who believes in getting things done irrespective of how legal his means are; and Lenin, a social-activist who believes in intervention only through legal and democratic methods. From siphoning off piped water to orchestrating civil disobedience, the film catalogues the resistance of the urban poor in all its forms. It advocates no single method as the “correct” way of doing things, but tells us that a diversity of resistances is required to meet ever-evolving challenges, stressing the urgent need to improve lives and opportunities at the margins.

The utopia Ranjith sets in Dharavi seems in line with a tradition of anti-caste writing on Indian cities, in comparison to the villages. Many thinkers have spoken about the relative liberalism of the city in comparison to discrimination in the village. Though Ambedkar was aware of the way inequities played out in cities—he was evicted from a Parsi guesthouse in Mumbai and also discriminated against at the Bombay High Court and Sydenham College—he remained optimistic about the city as a solution, contrary to Gandhi’s romanticisation of Indian villages. The utopias imagined by other anti-caste icons such as Ravidas (Beghampura, or “City Without Sorrow”), Kabir (Premnagar, or “City of Love”) and Tukaram (Pandharpur—“City of Equality”) all evoke description of cities. It is also fair to assert that some communities have felt mobility in some respects thanks to opportunities provided by the city. However, one must remember that the preference for the city over the village is only relative, and caste must be thought of as the core of social, political and economic life across the urban-rural divide.

Some journalists have pointed out how Ranjith and Rajinikanth’s politics seem to be at odds, as the actor’s political entry is rumoured to have been backed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. Whether Rajinikanth’s politics undermines that of Kaala, or whether Kaala’s politics will inconvenience him, only time will tell. But the use of a superstar like Rajinikanth seems to be Ranjith’s way of staking claim to the mainstream. It is part of a project to build a new discourse for Indian cities from below: the story of the Dalit and the Adivasi in India is the story of India.