Contemporary Urban Politics: Reflections from ‘Mulshi Pattern’ and ‘Kaala’

Kaala (2018) directed by Pa Ranjith, and Mulshi Pattern (2018) directed by Pravin Tarde, both depict the changing nature of the political economy that revolves around the ownership of urban and suburban land. The conflict arising out of the overlapping shades of caste, class and land is at the root of both the films. While Kaala is the embodiment of contemporary subaltern politics as well as its aesthetics, Mulshi Pattern is an expression of the reactionary politics of criminalisation arising out of the collective insecurity perceived by dominant castes on losing landholdings and associated privileges. 

Kaala and Mulshi Pattern, both take place against the backdrop of urban cities like Mumbai and Pune respectively. The films revolve around the urban land politics and changing equations of political geographies. While the family of the protagonist of Kaala comes from Tamil Nadu to Dharavi, Mumbai, the migration takes place from Mulshi to Pune Tehsil (both in Pune district) in Mulshi Pattern. Beyond these primary similarities, the sociopolitical content, context and aesthetics of the films differ significantly.

‘Kya Re Settinga?’ The Pertinent Question to Brahminism and Neo-liberalism

Kaala Karikaalan (played by Rajnikanth) is the protagonist of the film, and is also the most powerful "don" of Dharavi. As the film begins, a battle starts over the land of Dharavi where "Manu Builders," under the patronage of a local right-wing leader Hari Abhyankar (Nana Patekar) plans to build a development project. The collective endeavour of rising against this project by the slum, constructed on the foundation of progressive values propagated by iconic leaders such as BR Ambedkar and Periyar, is a revolt against Brahminism and neo-liberalism. While noting the names of the characters of the film, one can easily locate the ideological moorings of the director. The builder is named "Manu," directly indicating a reference to Manusmriti while the name "Kaala Karikaalan" symbolises an aesthetic statement of Dravidian culture, as "Karikaala" is the name of a Tamil deity. On the one hand, the name Hari Abhyankar underlines the social location of the character, with "Hari" implying the Brahminical tradition, while on the other hand, one of Kaala’s rebellious sons is named Lenin, indicating the ideological roots of the protagonist, and so on. Kaala, then, does not only relate with the counter-rhetoric to aesthetics, but notions of class consciousness also. For instance, when Hari Abhyankar, the representative of the ruling Brahmin neo-liberal political establishment, asks Kaala “Kya re, kaisa naam hai tera, Kaala!” (How disgusting is your name, Kaala!) Kaala replies, “Kaala (black) is the colour of labour!” 

The film is also awash with images of Ambedkar, Buddha and Periyar, which have remained conspicuously absent in Indian cinema till now. Generally, the absence of Budhha or Ambedkar comes with an inferiority complex, as there is always a possibility of the director being labelled with their Dalit identity, closing doors to all prospective opportunities in the film industry. However, with Kaala, Pa Ranjith displays the courage to assert his Dalit identity and while doing so, not exclude communities other than the Dalits. Rather, he attempts to build a new inclusive identity based on the solidarity of the oppressed practised in Dharavi.

The dispute over the land becomes intense as Kaala organises the people from the slums and encourages them to remain firm for their rights. To pacify the popular discontent about the acquisition of land by the builder, the neo-liberal tactic of non-governmental organisation (NGO) intervention is used smartly. Here, Zarina (an NGO activist) paints a rosy picture for the slum residents with the builder’s rehabilitation plan. This picture, however, gets tainted with a simple question by a resident, who asks, “Why do we require a golf course when the local kids only play Kabbadi, football, and cricket?” Here, Kaala's intervention is pertinent. He demands that the local people should be asked what they require.

In short, “Kya re settinga?” is a timely question asked by the protagonist to the neo-liberal Brahminical traditions that systematically oppresses the people in the cities today. This is concurrent with Ambedkar's doctrine, which explicitly identifies Brahminism and capitalism as the two prime enemies of the marginalised sections.

A new grammar of aesthetics has been spelt throughout the cinema. Interestingly, Pa Ranjith uses the framework of the mainstream action film, but successfully manages to instil alternative revolutionary content into it. Rajinikanth is the “superstar” in most of his movies and hence, obviously, the film becomes the medium of the superstar, instead of the director. Here, however, the protagonist Kaala is not made into a full-blown superstar. This is seen in the opening scene of the movie where he gets clean bowled in a cricket match that he is playing with children from Dharavi. In another instance, young men from his neighbourhood tease him about his old age, and at the end of the film, the collective action against evil becomes more important than the protagonist. Kaala disappears in the crowd and Kaala becomes one. It would be more than appropriate to say, as pointed out in an article by Shailaja Menon and N Sukumar, that this is “a Pa Ranjith film in which Rajinikanth has acted” (N Sukumar and Shailaja Menon 2018).

Mulshi Pattern: Story of the Frustrated Rural Dominant Caste 

Mulshi Pattern, directed by Pravin Tarde, is an action thriller situated in and on the outskirts of the city of Pune. A Maratha family (its caste identity located repeatedly through use of the traditional title “Patil”) is forced out of their village in the Mulshi tehsil of Pune district when their land is sold to a builder and the resulting wealth runs out. The family is compelled to live in a tiny tin hut, in stark contradiction with their traditional Waada (mansion) in the village. The head of the family soon starts working as a daily wage labourer in the vegetable market of the city, and his frustrated son, Rahul, enters the criminal world. The drama that unfolds in Mulshi Pattern is a story of the result of this young man’s endeavours in the criminal world.

The director has repeatedly announced in various media appearances such as his press conference in Satara that this movie is a ‘story of his roots’ (Maharashtra News, 2018). He declares that he has lived this story with numerous other families who moved to cities from their villages in the 1990s. The criminal world portrayed in the movie is also customary to the director, as he is said to have “friendly relations” with some of the infamous criminals hailing from Mulshi tehsil. So much so that the movie landed in controversy when a song video from the movie was released, and it starred two actual criminals with several murders on their track record. After the movie released, another criminal “wanted” for murder was arrested while watching the movie in a cinema hall. 

The Indian cinema and, in particularly, the Marathi cinema is dealing very boldly with the issues of caste in the last couple of years. While caste was always present on the film screen in India throughout history, given its all-pervading presence in the Indian society, the portrayal of this reality is no more limited to the experiences of untouchability and intermarriages. The complex politics that caste plays in everyday urban and rural lives are depicted very clearly with the narration of life as usual. Life-as-usual is a life entrenched in caste, and cinema today has realised this with a sense of non-ambiguous straightforwardness. While most of these stories are geographically located in the rural parts of the country and most of the directors portraying caste socially locate themselves from below the caste hierarchy, and ideologically, in the Ambedkarite tradition, Mulshi Pattern is of significance because it defies all these locations. Rahul, the protagonist of the film, is an upper-caste man who has made the urban crime scene his home. Unlike with most other movies that explicitly deal with caste, the director of this movie does not ideologically locate himself in the Ambedkarite anti-caste movement, but on the contrary, is an upper caste himself and merely wishes to paint the picture of the agony of his caste. 

The characters of the movie appear to be inspired by various real-world criminals of Pune, and their main plight is for land. Parents of the young criminals in the movie lose their ancestral rural land to development projects and the sons appear to avenge this historical defeat by acquiring more and more land through criminal deals in the city. Rahul’s old father is a “Maharashtra Kesari” (an award-winning Kusti player) of the past and is respected and feared in the village in his times. The son often nostalgically recalls the times when his father used to wear a feta (turban, a symbol of power) and sit in the village square where he would make judgments for people and resolve their conflicts. People, in turn, paid him their regards. His wife, the "Patlin" of the village, was draped in rich sarees and expensive jewellery in this nostalgic picture. All this, however, is history the moment the film starts, and this history is recalled by the characters time and again throughout the film. The old father is now a daily wage labourer and his wife and daughter work as domestic labour to survive in the suburban slums of Pune. 

The film starts with an eagle gliding in the sky and a narration that accompanies the camera. The camera pans over various sites in the city, including the outskirts, and the narration follows an eagle-eye-view of the site, where the drama for the next two-and-a-half-hours unfolds. It is unclear as to whose voice it is that is narrating this introduction. This introduction paints a picture of a city expanding due to the development in 1991 and the narrator describes how several villages were eaten up by this expanding city. Exclaiming that the side effects of this cancerous growth of the city are being felt only now, the narration recalls MK Gandhi’s call for people to move to villages, and observes that people opposite behaviour to the historic call led to  this mishap.

This cancer of development in 1991 is the starting point of the movie. Given that most land-holding farmers in Maharashtra are Marathas, acquisition of rural land for real estate and industrial development is linearly equated with the fall of Maratha pride in the movie. The protagonist’s family sells their ancestral land to Shinde builders, interestingly a real estate builder from the same caste. The land fetches the family a great sum of money, but the cash runs out soon as it is spent generously on various luxuries in a short period of time. Imagery used to depict this short-lived wealth is an expensive car in the family’s courtyard. The car is bought with the new cash, but since the family is unable to pay for the car’s expenses, it acquires dust and grass grows over it. The "Patlin" finally uses the car to dry her cow-dung cakes on it. As all the money runs out, the Patil has to work as a watchman for the builder to whom he sold his land, and eventually with rising debt and shame, the family moves to the city.

The film unfolds a chase sequence, which takes place through the length of the film. Rahul is being chased by a gang of armed criminals, and the story of the protagonist is narrated through a series of flashbacks during this chase. The plight of the younger generation of the upper or dominant caste is symbolically portrayed in this near-death chase. Rahul runs for his life, with little prospects at staying alive, and  growing hysterical, he eventually starts hallucinating by the end. 

Mulshi Pattern is the story of the fall from grace for the rural Maratha and their plight in the city. The caste, the resultant status pride and thirst for power that has historically been instilled in the community through a systemic caste hierarchy, is the ultimate killer for the youngsters of the community. The director although points at the caste pride and the fall-from-grace separately, he stops at paying a compassionate tribute to the dying spirit. Tarde identifies the ultimate enemy as exclusive development and blames the system for the uncertain future for the community.

Question of Urban Land and ‘Development’

Both Kaala and Mulshi Pattern revolve, to a great extent, on the issue of urban land and development. While Kaala is the fight of the slum dwellers for their land, young criminals of Mulshi Pattern either forcefully acquire farmers’ land for various builders or for themselves to build their empires with this land-based property. The slum dwellers in Kaala fight collectively against the builder for their land, while the builder’s men, with whom we see most action sequences in Kaala, are parallel to the criminals of Mulshi Pattern. The fight for land for the Dharavi residents is their fight for survival while the land is the means to the power matrix for the young men in Mulshi Pattern.

The vocabulary of development used in both the movies has its roots in the global redefinition of economies of the world post-1980s. The World Bank classified economies in terms of their national wealth, and India became a third world, developing economy. By the time India embraced the LPG policy (Liberalisation, Privatisation and Globalisation), the term development was already popularly equated with economic growth and prosperity. Development projects were usually understood as big dams, highways, industrial estates and large-scale residential and non-residential real estate projects. It is this development that both Dharavi residents and Mulshi criminals are dealing with.

Most of the Dharavi residents portrayed in the film are living in the slum for at least two generations. As the legend of Kaala goes, his father Vengai is the first in his family to move from Tamil Nadu to Mumbai and subsequently to Dharavi. One can estimate this migration to have taken place somewhere in the late 1970s to the early 1980s. This is the period of the emergence of Shiv Sena in Mumbai, and the riot references in Kaala may be a depiction of the aggression of the party. In its early years, Shiv Sena based its entire campaign against the South Indian people migrating to Mumbai for employment. Kaala and his family must have been the primary potential victims to the party’s aggression, given the period of their migration. The struggle between Kaala and Hari Abhyankar, then, can be estimated to be around four decades long. In the early years of this struggle, Hari defeated Kaala by unleashing violence on Dharavi, killing his father, and forcing Kaala to flee. During the course of the time, Kaala acquires significant hold on Dharavi and is the popular leader and representative of the slum. The present time portrayed in the film is owned by Kaala. 

The time frame of migration in Mulshi Pattern is different from Kaala’s. It is more recent; to be specific, it is post-LPG. This migration is of a historical land-holding dominant-caste family, which had seen prosperous days back in the village. The development of the 1990s pressed the economy of the village to collapse which used to revolve around the land owned by the dominant castes. Some from the dominant castes made the most of this collapse, and adapted to the changing economy, while most others were still entrenched in the traditional ways of life. Those who could adapt invested in the state’s party politics and managed to establish a ruling class. Those who did not venture in state-level politics attempted at maintaining a hold over the village economy through feudal modes of control. They owned some land, cultivated it and enjoyed their status as Patils of the village in the land-based economy. As the economy shifted its bases, the land was put on sale and the Marathas were the first to claim their share. They sold the land and accepted amounts of cash they had not seen before. However, they were not accustomed to the ways of the new economy and did not seem to know investments and saving. To suit their Patil glory, they conspicuously consume everything they could, as fast as they could. Soon enough, the money ran out, and the Patils unaware of the new economy and unaccustomed to learning to adapt failed drastically. 

The criminals of Mulshi are those children from these families who have seen the glorious days of the Marathas in their childhood, whose present is marked by a cycle of abundance and scarcity, and future with uncertainty. They look back at the bygone village with nostalgia and cannot cope with the fact that those days are history. The movie ends with Rahul’s father slapping himself; a black screen appears with a voice saying that this slap is for all those farmers who sold their land. It appears as if the director would want to go back in time to stop those fathers from selling their land.

Conclusion

Kaala looks back to his village only once in the whole movie to recall a local folk tale, while Mulshi Pattern almost lives with the burden of nostalgia. The emancipatory path shown in Kaala is a creative imagination with deep-rooted mythological underpinnings, while Mulshi Pattern shows the negation of life with reactionary criminal politics ending in a tragic circular track. Though both trajectories of these films take different angle, it must be noted that its origin is the same that of a post-globalised setting along caste lines, revolving over urban land. 

In Mulshi Pattern, the first piece of land that Rahul helps a don acquire is referred to as one from the Maharvatan (land belonging to the Mahars, a Dalit community). The don reminds him that he must be careful with this land otherwise he will be charged with atrocity. The Marathas have been historically committing caste crimes by exploiting and threatening the Dalits. The warning by the Maratha don to Rahul is about the PoA (Prevention of Atrocity Act), charging upper castes for their caste crimes. On the one hand, in a scene in the police station, few Brahmin journalists are mocked for their lack of know-how of the real world, their safe and naïve ways are looked down upon by the Marathas. On the other hand, the growing threat to the Maratha power is by the Dalits, armed with the PoA. Interestingly, the blatant rift between the Marathas and Dalits revolves precisely around these issues, as was evident in the recent outbreak of the Maratha Kranti Morchas. The Maratha frustration is multilayered. It mocks the Brahmins, but admits the community’s control over power arising from the caste privilege and, at the same time, fears the newly emerging Dalit power and unleashes endless anger and frustration over this emergence, despite its "lowly" caste status. Mulshi Pattern has not been successful in locating this frustration in the changing power dynamics of the caste system, but blames, ultimately, the ambiguous "system" along with the sociopolitically loaded "development."

Kaala, on the other hand, offers alternate mythology in which the dominant Hindu notions of "pure" and "impure," "black" and "white," "gods" and "demons" are subverted. Kaala calls himself the Ravana, and the final battle between Kaala and Hari’s gang is fought while the tale of Ram is narrated by a priest in Hari’s house. The Ravana here does not die, but re-emerges and becomes one with his community to ultimately overpower Hari. Here, the Bahujan discourse challenging the dominant Brahminical Hindutva discourse is evident in the narration of subversion. The women and children of Kaala’s gang are equally a part of the struggle as the men are. Pa Ranjith is attempting a new egalitarian anti-caste discourse where women, men and children of the oppressed castes, Muslims and all others who live in Dharavi (he mainly uses the term "urban poor" to identify these people, almost suggesting that they may be the same) wage a collective battle for their survival. Along the way, they challenge gender stereotypes and religious barriers, the caste-based notions of purity, hygiene, darkness, etc. Unlike Mulshi Pattern, Kaala is not directly based on a true story although most of the characters and historical frameworks are influenced by the real world. Pa Ranjith offers a normative framework of struggle, almost creating a modern epic mythology.

The cultural manifestations of the changed power matrix through these films underline the deep impact on the urban sociopolitical psyche and dynamic interactions of different communities with the flux of financial, social power flux.

 

 

 

 

 

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