After watching the two Drishyam films, Joji, Aarkkariyam and now Kala, I’ve come to the conclusion that large, isolated houses surrounded by lush greenery in Malayalam cinema are the equivalent of basements in Hollywood movies. Nothing good ever happens there. But what happens in Kala is so bloody and brutal that by the end, you are as battered as you are dazzled. This is virtuoso filmmaking.
Kala begins with an Oscar Wilde quote about the nature of selfishness and the words: long, long ago. Director Rohith V.S. suggests that the story we are about to see is at once, modern and ancient – that class conflict, callousness, greed, violence, aggression, repression have been playing out since the beginning of time. The primal, animalistic nature of men sits just beneath the veneer of civilization imposed by society. Poke a little and a man, who is a loving father and husband, turns into a creature so savage that he is barely recognizable. A song, which plays during the animated opening credits, speaks of the wild. This wildness is both outside and inside.
From the beginning, Rohith, Dawn Vincent – the director of music and sound design – and editor Chaman Chakko, expertly construct an atmosphere of dread. Scenes of ordinary domesticity – a man bathing his dog, a little boy playing with a toy gun, a mother warming milk for her son – become inexplicably unsettling. Shaji is played by Tovino Thomas, one of Malayalam cinema’s most charismatic leading men. He is introduced shirtless, in slow motion. We are meant to take in his imposing physicality. But this isn’t the masala hero entry shot. His brute strength is a key factor in the story.
Shaji seems confident of his place in the world and his masculinity. Early in the film, he tells his son that boys don’t cry and that if he wants something, he should take it forcibly. Shaji has a passionate relationship with his wife Vidhya. But we also see the fault lines – his ego, his failure in business, his fractured bond with his father whose house he lives in. In a later scene, his father suggests that Shaji grew up with affluence so he never developed the work ethic of the earlier generations. His father is casually cruel and dismissive. Their exchanges simmer with resentment and unspoken wounds.
And then suddenly but seamlessly, Kala segues from a dysfunctional family dynamic to a home invasion story. What happens next rips apart Shaji’s patina of entitlement, his certitude, his power and his family. It’s impossible to imagine that Vidhya and their son recover from what they witness. The brilliance is that even as Rohith makes the violence relentless, he prods us to consider where our sympathies lie. You might instinctively root for Shaji but as the narrative unfolds, you become more horrified by his behavior and what is unraveling.
The action, by Basidh Al Gazzali and Irfan Ameer, and the stunts by Phoenix Prabhu are brilliantly choreographed. They don’t allow us to look away from the consequences of violence. And Vincent’s sound design enhances every rip in the flesh and break in the bone. By the end, the green in the frame is stained with red.
Sumesh Moor, who plays the interloper Moor, has a terrifying feral presence. His eyes glow with madness and the anger of a man who has nothing to lose. And yet he retains the humanity in Moor – we never lose sight of why he is doing what he is doing. And what can I say about Tovino? Here is a star putting his muscle as co-producer and actor into a project that strips him bare – literally and metaphorically. There are scenes in which Shaji is utterly humiliated and broken. The vanity of that shirtless scene at the beginning is wholly subsumed by the horror that Shaji undergoes. By the end, he is left with very little. It’s a demanding role, emotionally and physically, and Tovino is excellent.
After Paatal Lok and Pariyerum Perumal, Kala is another story in which dogs play a key role. The opening titles include a canine expert – Chris Wolf. Both Shaji and Moor own black dogs. Shaji’s is an expensive, foreign breed while Moor’s is a mongrel. Their relationship with their respective pets also speaks about who they are as men. Shaji keeps his dog in a large cage. For Moor, his dog is family.
In Kala, Rohith and DOP Akhil George combine raw and naturalistic textures with extreme stylization. The film is also a masterclass on how to use cigarette smoke cinematically – this includes a superbly sexy smoke kiss.
Rohith puts us through the wringer, gives us a peek into the darkness within and leaves us with much to ponder.
You can see Kala on Amazon Prime Video.