Director: Rohith VS
Cast: Tovino Thomas, Sumesh Moor, Lal
Rohith VS, who made blessedly-strange films like Adventures Of Omanakuttan and Iblis, returns with another that widens his place as something of an acquired taste. Set in the Kerala monsoons in the late 90’s, Kala follows the events that unfurl across two days in Shaji Nivas, a biggish bungalow at the centre of a large areca nut, pepper plantation. The first set of shots paint the picture of a cliched happy family with the father and his young son joking around outside the house with the mother busy cooking inside. Shaji (Tovino Thomas) is busy too because he’s bathing his black Cane Corso who they call Blackie. In all this mirth, their son, Appu, asks what seems like a naughty question. “Why don’t you ever give me a bath like you give Blackie or…amma?”
It’s an intelligent line that works three ways. It establishes Shaji’s contribution (or the lack of it) in raising the little boy. It also hints at the importance of this “foreign breed” in the household. And we then get a sense of the kinky sexual energy shared by Shaji and his wife Vidya (Divya Pillai) that seems to spill out of their bedroom and into the world outside. With repetitive use of quick cuts (reminiscent of the ‘hip hop montage’ in Requiem For A Dream) even for mundane everyday activities, we’re looking at the first five minutes of a Sathyan Anthikad movie, if it had been edited by Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall.
But the background music, by Dawn Vincent, seems to believe this is another kind of movie. Apparently there’s more to these sunny frames (by the amazing Akhil George). Routine life has seldom felt so, so ominous. When Blackie runs out of the gate and into the plantation, the urgency with which Shaji chases it isn’t proportional to an owner looking for his expensive dog. As Shaji runs through the field behind Blackie, we become spectators along with caterpillars, leeches, lizards and butterflies. Both the fair, six-packed Shaji and his big black dog feel unnatural in this extremely natural setting. It’s not just the dog but its owner appears foreign too in this landscape, giving us a feeling of dissonance.
Which is odd because Shaji is supposed to feel like the hero. With his Jesus-like beard and hair and Greek God-like body, Shaji even gets the typical hero introduction here. He’s also the family man or THE man of Shaji Nivas. When Appu starts crying, he says, “boys don’t cry,” as though he’s grooming Appu. We’re speaking about a time when the both of them are in awe of a new Malayalam film called ‘Jagannathan’ (Mohanlal’s name in Aaram Thampuran, directed by ‘Shaji’ Kailas). And when Appu needs to be entertained, Shaji plays him a cassette of Jackie Chan’s Armour Of God. It’s like violence is hereditary in this family.
Because that’s the sense we get when we meet Ravi (Lal), Shaji’s father. That’s when you understand why Appu asked Shaji who their house belongs to, his dad or his grandad. Shaji is a different person around Ravi, fearful and subservient. He even has to ask Ravi’s permission when he’s planning his day. Having lost a lot of his father’s money in bad investments, it’s like Ravi now has Shaji on a tight leash. And it’s only getting worse because he’s probably never opened up to his father (or himself) about what this has done to him. Because, “boys don’t cry”.
But this fear isn’t limited to Shaji alone in this house. There seems to be a sense of doubt and worry about the five farmhands who’ve come there to pluck areca nut. The music and the shaky camera movement gives us the sense that we too should worry for this family. As the family members go about their day, they feel they’re being watched. So when Appu sees the main worker Maanu (MGK Vishnu) through a window, he imagines a ghost is staring back at him. Even Vidya, after having taken a bath, feels the need to dry her clothes inside because she feels a perv is amongst them. As they use terms like paandi or attapadi pejoratively to refer to these workers, you sense that there’s only room for either fear or disgust for outsiders in Shaji Nivas.
But who really is the outsider here? During their tea break, Maanu explains to the workers how Ravi and his clan usurped the land they rule over today. Even Shaji’s stress comes from his need to protect their possessions, including the kilos of pepper they’ve stored in the warehouse. So you’re not really caught off-guard when one of these workers (Sumesh Moor) have a score to settle with Shaji. In Shaji’s egoistic need to impress his peers, he ended up killing Moor’s dog a while ago. Distraught and hurt at the murder of his companion, Moor now wants to kill Blackie to show Shaji what he’s been going through.
It is here that Kala transforms into one of the bloodiest ever battles in Malayalam cinema. From rocks, wooden spears, a cactus, blows, kicks and punches, nothing is off limits in this most visceral duel between the insider and the outsider. Moor hardly gets a line or two but there’s a buttload of angst and anger in his madness that’s a form of controlled chaos. Even Shaji develops into a fascinating anti-hero. His vulnerability is most evident when it looks like he’s just won the battle. After punishing Moor, Shaji negotiates a truce which includes an offer to ‘buy’ him a bigger, better dog of any breed. And when a worker falls off a tree, Shaji is more concerned about protecting his pepper rather than rushing him to the hospital. It is here that Moor realises that killing Balckie is not going to make Shaji feel the loss he felt. A blow to his ego is far more painful to him.
That’s when you sense the difference in the way Shaji and Moor look at their respective dogs. It’s like the dogs are a metaphor for their relationship with nature. For Shaji, the thoroughbred Blackie is status, self-respect, wealth and power that needs to be protected and held on to with both arms. If somewhere were to kill it, Shaji would perhaps be happy if they offered him an even more exotic dog because, it’s merely a thing for him. But it’s not so for Moor. His dog is his companion and his brother. He offers the dog the first sip of the arrack he brews, ever before he tastes it himself. It goes back thousands of years for him with the dog being man’s partner. So when an ‘outsider’ kills it, revenge is as primal as the feeling of hope.
The action choreography is brilliant and the episode-like repetitions of the many many battles is intentional because man versus nature is a never-ending war. Kala subverts every rule of the home invasion thriller by demanding that we ask ourselves, “whose home is being invaded by whom?”
In a meta sense, the film follows a fascinating narrative structure that asks us to questions our own perspective as we side with the family before we look ‘outside’. And when Moor ends up reclaiming his throne (it’s a toilet) in Shaji Nivas we learn that he could never kill Blackie (we get a brilliant eye shot of him looking at the dog). There were clues everywhere with the opening credits showing Moor’s story. It’s Moor’s name too that appears right on top even in the end credits. Apart from reclaiming his rightful place at the end of the battle, Moor’s is also a reclamation of who should be the Malayalam cinema protagonist.