Director: Rohith VS
Cast: Tovino Thomas, Sumesh Moor, Lal
Kala is set in the late 1990s but it’s actually very timeless, almost as timeless as nature which is a big part of the film’s texture. We see overhead shots of rugged terrain, a shot of a man’s face seen through leaves, bodies reflected in water. When two men fight the focus is on two butterflies in the foreground. Also, Kala is a very carefully designed film filled with echoes and mirror images. Early on, a kid aims a toy gun at a plane in the sky. Much later, we see from a plane, almost, two men fighting on the ground and they look like kids.
The story is about two men: Shaji (Tovino Thomas) and a worker on his estate (Sumesh Moor). Everything in the film happens in twos: two men in bandaged legs, two kinds of water being used to cleanse things. There are also two sets of people: those who eat at the breakfast table of the house and their workers who eat outside. There are two instances of scenes with missing roof tiles, two instances of men with black dogs — and two instances of men who are reduced to animals. The first time we see Shaji, he’s shaking his head in slow motion like a dog shaking off water. Sumesh Moor’s character is often made to look like a beast.
The film opens with a quote by Oscar Wilde: Selfishness is not living your life as you wish to live it, but wanting others to live their lives as you wish them to. Basically, unselfishness is letting others just be. Conflict erupts in the film because Shaji is not unselfish.
The characters of the two men are defined by their dogs. Shaji owns a foreign breed that he treats like a Rolls Royce car. Sumesh Moor’s character has a black mongrel that he treats like a brother. In this story of privileged vs. the oppressed, one of the nice touches is that the privileged man is also being oppressed, in a sense, by his demeaning father.
It takes almost forty five minutes for the film to get going. We see the normal life of Shaji’s family. We see the workers of his plantation. Everything seems normal and you wonder why we spend so much time on the civilized details of this man’s life. But you see that when the layers of civilization are peeled away gradually, man is actually an animal. Our primal emotions are just under the surface. Once we get to this point in the film. Kala is one spectacular action scene after another where two characters are engaged in a battle of survival and unleash their inner animals.
There’s a lot to unpack in the film. Shaji’s wife, Vidya (Divya Pillai) keeps saying that she needs to leave the house to get a sense of normalcy, which seems odd. Slowly, we see what’s missing in the house where even casual exchanges between Shaji and his father, Ravi (Lal) are packed with underhanded insults.
Kala is about how privileged people have driven others out of their lands. In a scene where Shaji’s workers are loading pepper, one of them has an accident and Shaji responds by asking if they could finish the loading before he’s taken to the hospital. Usually you see him as a cruel and insensitive man, but what if it’s also the reaction of a man who has failed so much that he cannot afford to fail again?
When Shaji and Sumesh Moor’s characters fight, their blood falls on each other. Vidya tells Shaji that it smells different. How can blood smell different? Is that really what privilege is? Can they sniff out ‘upper class blood’ from ‘lower class blood’?
Kala is beautifully made. This is a very stylized film and the sound design by Dawn Vincent compliments that beautifully. Action choreography is another major highlight as well as Akhil George’s cinematography which alternates between stillness and action.
Though it didn’t kill the film for me, I felt the nature aspect was hammered home a bit too much. It’s constantly thrust at you that we live with all these creatures. The closing portions are a bit too stylized, like a music video. I preferred the rawness of the earlier action sequences because it was literally like two animals fighting each other in the forest. Kala is a superb combination of a home invasion thriller, a survival movie and a drama about class and caste.