Southern Lights: On Black Panther, Kaala, and Pa Ranjith’s Career

In which I try to figure out the irony of a filmmaker who wants to say very specific things and yet yields to the generic demands of a star vehicle
Southern Lights: On Black Panther, Kaala, and Pa Ranjith’s Career

​​I kept thinking about Black Panther as I watched the teaser for Kaala, the new Pa Ranjith movie starring Rajinikanth. If the former attempts to co-opt a black narrative into the arc of the superhero blockbuster, the latter seems a thematic extension of Kabali, an attempt to co-opt a Dalit narrative into the arc of the Super Star blockbuster. In other words, both films use a "commercial" language to address – or least, glance at – issues that mainstream filmmakers typically do not touch with a bargepole. Both films rest somewhere in the continuum between "it's high time someone did this" and "is this enough?" (When I speak of Kaala henceforth, it's not about this particular film, but about the Kabali tradition of filmmaking.)

And the "messages" in both films are compromised by the need to work across a broad cross-section of audiences. US viewers will bring to Black Panther some of the tensions about race that simmer in their backyards. But the viewer in Taiwan or India is just going to turn up for a fun film. Given the budget, the director has to make sure that Black Panther caters to both constituencies. Likewise, those attuned to Pa Ranjith's politics view his films as sugar-coated bitter pills. More general audiences (like me) may sigh that it's difficult to make a movie that's at once sharply political and a general entertainer that won't ruffle too many feathers. Anthony Lane, the New Yorker's very white film critic, had this to say in his review of Black Panther: "I wonder what weight of political responsibility can, or should, be laid upon anything that is accompanied by buttered popcorn."

I bring up Anthony Lane's whiteness for a reason. The writer/podcaster Carvell Wallace, who is black, reacted very differently. In a New York Times essay titled Why 'Black Panther' Is a Defining Moment for Black America, he quotes Jamie Broadnax, the founder of a pop-culture site named Black Girl Nerds. Broadnax observes, quite rightly, that the characters in Black Panther "are rulers of a kingdom, inventors and creators of advanced technology. We're not dealing with black pain, and black suffering, and black poverty," which are the topics usually addressed in acclaimed films about the black experience. Similarly, Pa Ranjith's Dalit characters aren't the victims we usually get. The most famous line in Kabali (see teaser below) had Rajinikanth proclaiming that he wasn't the subservient "Kabali character" from earlier Tamil cinema, but a Kabali for a new generation.

The question, though, is how many people registered this as a "Pa Ranjith statement" versus a "Super Star punch dialogue." Similarly, in the Kaala teaser, where a black-clad Rajinikanth says "Black is the colour of labour," sitting opposite a white-clad villain, does the mind not flash back to earlier white-clad Rajinikanth-film villains like Suman in Sivaji, or the numerous white-clad politician-villains from other films? How effective is Pa Ranjith's use of colour as a political signifier when practically all of Tamil cinema is a celebration of the "black" hero, when even a song (Karuppu dhaan enakku pidicha colour-u, from Vetrikkodi Kattu) celebrates this complexion in the hero.

Despite the many similarities, this is the fundamental difference between Black Panther and the Pa Ranjith movie. In the former, the blackness is explicit. In the latter, the Dalit-ness is implicit. Black Panther is not just populated with black actors – it's also a film where the white actors are the "minority," a sidekick here, a minor villain there. (The main "villain," so to speak, is black, and a "brother" in more senses than one. He's literally the hero's cousin.) But because of the prevalent caste tensions in Tamil Nadu, no filmmaker can afford to explicitly advertise the Dalit-ness of his film, a fact I learnt about after the release of Pa Ranjith's Madras. My review had received criticism for not addressing the Dalit subtext (I saw it being more about "class" than "caste"), and I asked a writer in my team to talk to the film's makers about this aspect. But they refused politely, explaining that if they admitted this was a "Dalit movie," it would hamper the film's prospects in some parts of the state.

Thus, where Black Panther is overt – "steeped very specifically and purposefully in its blackness," as Wallace wrote – the Pa Ranjith movie is covert. He embeds his screenplay and shot-taking with Easter eggs that could be read as Dalit signifiers, but which do not impact the larger narrative in any significant way. For instance, when we first set eyes on Kabali, he is in prison, reading My Father Baliah, by Y.B. Satyanarayana. If you wanted (and if you knew about this book in the first place), you could take this chronicle of the Telangana Dalit experience to allude to Kabali's own Dalit experience. Otherwise, you could simply argue that reading Marx doesn't automatically make one a Communist, and proceed to the next scene. You could see Kabali's suit and tie as a reflection of B.R. Ambedkar's sartorial tastes, or you could simply see… a suit and tie.

In my Conversations book, I asked Mani Ratnam about his use of Easter eggs in his songs. (Like Nayakan, Kaala is about a Tamil don in Mumbai's Dharavi area.) There's a kernel of philosophy embedded in the lyrics of Andhi mazhai megam, about the irrepressible spirit of the downtrodden ('Desam ennum solayin vergal naangale'/ We are the roots of the nation). In Raavan, we get 'Kelon ko khaate gaye, hum ko pehenke chilka chilka'/The guys in power eat the bananas and we get the peels. I wanted to know why Mani Ratnam was content to leave these bits in songs, during which many people tune out. He said, "If you want to underline this more, it should be a part of the narration, a part of the script, the way the screenplay unfolds, which means that the film will take a political stance upfront and not just in the layer below."

But Pa Ranjith seems much more explicit about his politics. What he's trying to do is unprecedented in the modern era – so is it enough that the politics lie "just in the layer below"? Every commercial Tamil film is a David/Goliath narrative, about the Big Guy trying to crush the Little Guy. This is a class construct. How does one go beyond and tell the larger audience – the masses – that there's an element of caste in this too? Carvell Wallace says his reaction to Black Panther rose from the fact that the film "is a vivid re-imagination of something black Americans have cherished for centuries – Africa as a dream of our wholeness, greatness and self-realization… We have for centuries sought to either find or create a promised land where we would be untroubled by the criminal horrors of our American existence…" Is this not something Pa Ranjith wants for Dalits?

My interest in Pa Ranjith's career is, thus, manifold. (1) Is it possible, in today's cynical climate, for a filmmaker to propagate ideology following the example of the Dravidian movement, which used cinema to spread the word to more trusting audiences? (2) The films that were vehicles for Dravidian ideology were passionate, rhetoric-filled dramas, not punch line-filled star vehicles. Will the latter carry the same impact? And (3), if a filmmaker wants to make a film as powerful as Sujatha Gidla's Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India, won't a streaming platform, with zero box-office pressure, make more sense? Because our cinematic climate isn't like the one in the US, where a star like Denzel Washington can still be seen in an incendiary film like Malcolm X, about the black activist. Even with a Mammootty, Jabbar Patel's Ambedkar was seen as an "art film."

Which brings us, again, to the Super Star factor. Malcolm X is about Malcolm X. Kabali and Kaala are about… Rajinikanth. Nine out of ten comments on the Kaala teaser are riffs on the Super Star's swag, and so forth. This is a Rajinikanth movie first, a Pa Ranjith movie only later – at least, that is how it will be perceived at large. (The cinematographer, in a recent interview, boasted that Rajini's "intro scene" in Kaala will be bigger than the one in Kabali.) It's a tricky situation. A star gives you the masses you want to take your "message" to, but this audience, mostly, is invested only in the star. At least, that was the case in Kabali. I read an affecting piece by a Malaysian Tamil that observed how close the film was to their experience, but to those of us in Tamil Nadu, the film was (mostly) just another gangster epic. The differences, again, mainly revolved around the star, the way he was finally looking his age, or the way he finally got a heroine with a mind of her own.

One part of me wonders if Pa Ranjith's philosophy is the same as Manikandan's. In an interview to Film Companion, the director of Kaaka Muttai and Aandavan Kattalai spoke about his "commercial decision" of following a middle path. "You shouldn't make the issue too strong. And you shouldn't have only entertainment, without any message… Finally, if someone is putting in their money, the film has to have a certain commercial viability. I am not an activist or documentary filmmaker or journalist. I am a filmmaker. So I have to think of the presentation. Someone who reads an article in a magazine is different from someone who shells out Rs. 500 to watch a movie. If you want to talk about issues strongly, there are many other mediums."

When I asked Manikandan if there was the danger in this approach that the audience might just "enjoy" the movie without getting the real meaning, he said, "That's nature. If someone does not have the sensibility to get the layers, then they won't get it… In Kaaka Muttai, many people did not see the globalisation layer. Most people do not get the politics behind it, or how we use pizza as a metaphor. That is the majority of the audience… The film should not affect those who cannot sense the issues or those who hold a different stand on those issues… Those who don't get it won't get it. And it's not necessary either. We cannot say they are the right audience only if they get it." But somehow, I get the feeling Pa Ranjith wants more – for himself, and from his audience. Maybe he's using Rajinikanth's appeal to get the clout to make the movies he really wants to make?

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