IntersectionalityCaste Kaala And Its Triumphant Subversions Of Caste And Gender Roles

Kaala And Its Triumphant Subversions Of Caste And Gender Roles

Kaala highlights the role of politics in the victimisation of Dalits and their struggles to attain their rights of selfhood and dignity.

Kaala packs a punch with its stark political realities that echo the director’s stance on the role of politics in the victimisation of marginalised sections of society. The movie is directed by Pa. Ranjith, whose treatment of the storyline, characters, and socio-political ideologies make Kaala the perfect parcel of compelling subversions catering to the rising consciousness of Dalit society.

The movie highlights the exploitation of the people belonging to Mumbai’s Dharavi slum by wicked politicians. It subverts stereotypical norms so persuasively that it makes the audience question the existing dominant ideologies. It sets forth subversive ideas right from the beginning through the subtle introduction of the ‘mass’ hero Rajinikanth by picturising him as fallible.

Kaala depicts the story of the character Karikaalan, a powerful Don living in the slums of Dharavi with the Tamil migrants. Things turn adverse when the politician Hari Dada plans to uproot the slum in the name of development. Karikaalan’s second son, Selvam, is supportive of his father in every way, but the youngest son, Lenin, is an activist who has a different set of ideologies with regard to social issues. He prefers to find solutions in a legal way.

Zareena, the ex-lover of Karikaalan, is an NGO activist who strives hard for the betterment of Dharavi and protests against injustice. Puyal, who is shown to be romantically involved with Lenin, is a social activist who also comes across as a social rebel. Women’s activism and Dalit assertiveness are the pivotal stances that take this movie to the pedestal.

Kaala begins with the astounding depiction of the active participation of women in a protest instead of the regular hyped introduction of the hero, which in itself lends to the idea that women are dynamic. Tamil cinema has been recently witnessing the paradigm shift in the portrayal of women from mere victims (typical old Tamil movies) to strong rebels. Women emancipation is an important idea that has been tactfully showcased in Kaala.

Women’s activism and Dalit assertiveness are the pivotal stances that take this movie to the pedestal.

Puyal comes across as a character who opposes social, cultural, and sexual subjugation. Puyal in the beginning of a protest scene says, “Indha akka iruvadhu varushama ingana dhan irukanga, velai seiya edamum ilana, enga povanga?(She has been working here for 20 years, where would she go if there is no place here?), questioning the authoritative Government that tries to snatch their land.

Also read: Violence Against Dalit Women: How Caste Intersects With Gender-based Violence

Her strength to fight with all her might despite being disrobed by the policemen during the climax shows her as a powerful woman who reclaims her selfhood amidst sexual abuse which is used to hamper her resilience. She breaks the traditional practice of keeping a woman under subjugation and servitude by bravely touching the rod instead of her clothes. This is perhaps similar to the famous characterisation of ‘Draupadi’ by the writer Mahasweta Devi. The name Puyal denotes ‘storm’, and the character is explicitly shown to possess bravery, guts and a resilient attitude.

The yet another important character Zareena comes across as an open-minded, courageous woman who upholds the sense of dignity and equality among all human beings irrespective of caste, class, and gender. In an instance, Zareena opposes Hari Dada’s dominant attitude by saying, “Kudunga, kudunga, kai kuduthu pazhagunga, adhu dhan equality. Kaal la vizha vekradhila equality(Give me a handshake, this is equality. Making others touch your feet is not equality). There are also a few women characters shown to be casually expressing their sexual needs.

Puyal, Zareena and a few other women in the movie emphasise the necessity to replace the feminine exemplary of fear, submission, ignorance and negligence with courage, resistance and awareness. Pa. Ranjith has used this movie as a platform to incorporate a different perspective on gender altogether.

Her strength to fight with all her might despite being disrobed by the policemen shows her as aw powerful woman who reclaims her selfhood.

Karikaalan takes up the fight against the evil politician Hari Dada and enlightens his community to resist domination and exploitation. Kaala comes across as a political film that implicitly assesses the current political scenario. The idea of land politics brought to light in this movie reminds us of the Government schemes that exploit and plunder the common man’s resources in the name of growth and development.

The politician Hari Dada tries meticulously to smuggle the land from the Dharavi people by affirming that the slum will be turned into ‘Digital Dharavi’ under the scheme called ‘Pure Mumbai’, which strongly resonates the rhetoric of Digital India. A striking comparison is also possible with the project of Salem eightway corridor in Tamil Nadu which witnessed the exploitation of resources and livelihood of common people in a similar way.

The socio-political awareness of the existing conditions and the desire to transform it is showcased through the lead character, Karikaalan. He motivates people to unite and understand the cause of the oppression and instils solidarity among the people. They protest against the government and political party by taking a stand that “Nama yarunu kaatura porattam idhu, nama kekradhu urimai, pichai ila(It is time to show our unification and that the land that we are claiming is our right, not alms). The idea of solidarity and unification is seen in Pa.Ranjith’s previous movies, Madras and Kabali. It replicates Tamil Nadu’s Jallikattu and Sterlite protests that emphasised our right to culture and livelihood.

The leftist stance of opposing privatisation finds resonance in the opposition shown by Karikaalan and his people against the villain, who tries to privatise the land using Government schemes as an eyewash. Those in power are portrayed as money-minded people, clearly explicating rightist ideology. Karikaalan strategically employs solidarity as he incites Dharavi people to strike, making the city of Mumbai stumble. Dharavi is hence shown as the pillar of Mumbai.

The idea of land politics reminds us of the Government schemes that exploit and plunder the common man’s resources in the name of growth and development.

Karikaalan, in a scene with his grandchildren, explains how the society treats the people who dare to voice out by saying, “Ungala aniyayama adichavana nyayam ketu thirupi adicha, rowdy nu muthirai kuthiduvaanga(If we protest against injustice, we will be termed as criminals). This reflects the contemporary labels of ‘anti-nationalism’ thrust on anyone who dares voice dissent against the government or its functionaries.

Lenin and Selvam come across as contradicting characters that employ different methods to get a problem solved. In an instance where the women of Dharavi complain about the lack of water resources, Lenin starts writing a petition to the municipality, while Selvam takes an illegal route. He breaks open the water pipe and supplies water. Through such portrayals not only does Pa. Ranjith give an insight to different styles of rebellion, but also throws light upon the lethargic attitude of the Government when their community is concerned.

Kaala’s deeply subversive ideas take the movie to a whole new arena that is unheard of, untill now. The movie is packed with symbols that have been employed to break the stereotypical norms. The villain questions the hero on his constant black attire, denoting it as a colour of shame, evil and, dirt. This stereotypical idea is subverted when the hero says, “Idhu uzhaipin niram(It is the colour of hardwork). The subversive idea of the colour black being symbolised in a positive light that represents the diligence of the working community (the people of Dharavi) is in contrast with the colour white, symbolising the evil ingenuity of white-clad politicians like Hari Dada. It provides the novel idea of the oppressor in white and the oppressed in black.

The colour coding also adds to the re-visioning of mythical characters Ram and Raavan. The villain in white expresses his desire to bring back ‘Rama rajiyam’ (Ram rule), a direct stab at the present ruling party of India. The hero comes prominently in black attire that can be related to the mythical character of Raavan. The recurring motif of the book Raavana Kaviyam (The Epic of Raavana) in the movie and the narration of Ramayanam in the climax strengthen this subversion.

Pa. Ranjith’s subtle use of motifs, symbols, colours, and dialogues foray into Ambedkarite and communist ideologies that pertain to the rights of selfhood, dignity, and freedom.

Kaala purposefully provides the audience an insight of reformation in the way of approaching oppression and leaves the audience with the choice to either submit to the suppression or rebel, thus transforming social structures that reinforce inequality.

Also read: How Did Bollywood Allow Subversion? Comparing Padmavat And Mirch Masala

Featured Source Image: jfW


  1. what a wonderful review, I am going to translate it into Sindhi Language and publish in our progressive magazine ‘Samajwad’

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