A rowdy with a legendary reputation, the film’s eponymous slum gangster Karikaalan or Kaala is about as invincible as the actor grinning from behind the white stubble. He can raise a stick from the ground by stamping it, berate his opponents into submission with his one-liners and is willing to part with an arm and another to defend the common man’s right. In fact, a deep focus for macro good is a character trait synonymous with many of Rajini’s celebrated onscreen avatars and director Pa. Ranjith takes every effort to draft the slum gangster with a distinct heart of gold.
Inevitably, every second scene is a seemingly random-yet-deliberate attempt at delivering this image — of a man who couldn’t be more attached to the soil and yet, is devoid of basic human vices. When a drunk reveller at Kaala’s birthday affectionately offers to hand-feed him a lump of rice, the man in the black lungi suggests, “Thoda curry bhi daal na.” The drunk dutifully dunks the rice ball into gravy and deposits it into the gangster’s mouth. In another scene, when Kaala’s most fierce adversary visits him with a threatening message, we see him seated on a chair affectionately patting a stray. The high-intensity exchange of verbal blows in this scene may offer various impressions, but the one we’re inevitably left with, is that Kaala is also an animal lover.
This one opens to Dharavi, the once-largest slum in Asia, whose residents worship a man in a black kurta-lungi, unsurprisingly called Kaala (Rajinikanth). The local stronghold enjoys much reverence for his stance on public welfare and for protecting the interest of the common man. When local politician Harinath Desai or Haridada (Nana Patekar) attempts razing the slum for redevelopment, it’s only obvious how Kaala responds. But in crossing swords with the vicious and manipulative politician, Kaala also puts his family in a vulnerable position. Will Kaala manage to twist his lungi in time to save his basti? Will Haridada manage to ‘beautify’ the slum he finds an eyesore in the city’s landscape? For Rajini fans and those who enjoy masala flicks, it really doesn’t matter.
At 67, Rajinikanth continues to command the privilege enjoyed by most male superstars till the mid-1990s — having parts written for them accommodating their magnanimous image. While Rajini is in commendable form and infuses his Kaala with various shades, the character largely restricts the actor to his comfort zone. For manic fans however, he’d rather remain the surreal superhuman who can’t be tamed by his adversaries than be reduced to reality. Many will argue that Kaala sees him in a more believable light — he’s playing his age, isn’t paired opposite a leading lady of nationwide fame and even essays a character who seems a tad mortal.
That said, Kaala also walks through flames, jabs his assailants with an umbrella and even survives a brutal car crash. So, ‘reality’ in South Indian films continues to be inspired by fiction. The other powerhouse of talent, Nana Patekar conjures his menacing avatar with the restraint of a veteran. A memorable exchange in the film has him suddenly shift his tone in a heated argument from the offensive to the reasonable — “Kyun karta hain tu aisa?” he quizzes the gangster on his motives. This ability to swiftly turn the mood with an abrupt modulation is a true testament of Patekar’s potential.
While female characters in such films are usually reduced to props tasked with either playing ‘happy homemakers’ or damsels demanding protection, the actresses here have sufficient scope to showcase their talent. Eshwari Rao as Kaala’s doting wife Selvi stands out with her natural comic timing each time she occupies the frame. While Huma Qureshi may be miscast as Kaala’s old flame, she perseveres to convey the maturity that comes with the number of grey strands her Zarina rocks. But it’s Anjali Patil who delivers her fierce slum activist Toofani with the enthusiasm of a newcomer and makes the most of her limited part.
With a runtime bordering on three hours, Kaala is surely 30 minutes-too-long. But for Thalaiva fans, the sight of their idol stepping out of an SUV in slow-mo — armed with an umbrella — approaching his enemy with a faint smile, is an immeasurable treat.