Pa Ranjith’s ‘Kaala’ and the Dalit-Left Revolution to Come

Kaala embodies the confusion and contradictions of the contemporary subaltern politics. It is conscious of the need for solidarity between the Dalit–Bahujan and the left, yet it cannot imagine what form it will take. 

Kaala[1] is arguably the most political film in recent times, dwelling upon land grab and dispossession. The film begins with the meta-narrative of how land is central to human civilisation, economy and social status, and how capitalism and Hindutva are attempting to displace and dispossess the poor. The film thereby brings the missing land question to Dalit politics.

The standard academic explanation for the absence of land question in Dalit politics is that the Dalits had been displaced from and dispossessed of land a long time ago through the ideology of caste, not by the primitive accumulation of capital, and because of that, they had become a class of service workers. They were no longer tillers or owners of land; land was not a means of production for them and they were landless agricultural labourers at best. This agrarian condition and the Dalit thinker–politicians’ advocacy for the destruction of rural life and escape from villages to modern cities, have made land a seeming non-issue in Dalit politics.

Consequently, there has been hardly any Dalit activism against the ongoing land grab in various parts of India even when most of the so-called project-affected people are from the Dalit and Adivasi communities. The people’s movements in India have mostly received support from or have been organised by the Left and the Gandhians. In this context, Kaala’s politics becomes interesting.

At the onset, the film makes it clear that the rule of law does not exist, it is not a fair game, and the inebriated state has lost its logic and sense of judgment: When Kaala is cleanly bowled out by a youngster, he appeals for a “no ball,” but the umpire declares it a “wide ball.” In the black and white world of Kaala, there is no middle ground and no mediation of politicians is sought, contrary to the political scientist Partha Chatterjee’s theory of political society and the poorer people’s place in Indian democracy. The film has little faith in electoral democracy and representational politics. The Dharavi residents get together to defeat the Hindutva candidate, but the elected candidate has no further role to play; he becomes a turncoat and is thoroughly thrashed by Kaala. Later, when the anti-land grab agitation intensifies, the slogan is radical: “No land, no house, no vote.” The film deliberates on democracy beyond elections—a post-political society—and how Dalit politics would respond to capitalism and Hindutva.

The film is sure-footed about how to fight Hindutva and pulls no punches. A clear political frontier is created between the Dalit–Bahujan and the Savarna–Brahmin, with a Dalit protagonist (Kaala) and a Brahmin antagonist (Hari Dada), It disrupts and displaces the normalised Hindu–Punjabi semiotics that has come to dominate Hindi cinema (I watched the Hindi version of the film) and assembles a Dalit semiotics in its place: the name of the place, busts of Buddha and Ambedkar, blue plastic chairs, books lying on the table, the framed prints hanging on the walls and the number plate of Kaala’s car.

It overturns the Ramayana, desacralises the Ravana Vadh narration, and sees the avatars of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, “Clean Mumbai” and “Pure Mumbai,” as a continuation of Brahminical puritanism and practice of untouchability. The fictional Navbharat Rashtrabadi Party becomes the real Shiv Sena: just after an hour into the film and a few moments before Kaala says, “Kya re? Setting kiya hain?”, we see Shiv Sena’s hoarding on the left of the screen.

Land and Labour

However, Kaala is ambivalent about how to fight capitalism and development. The film imbibes the people’s movements’ dilemma over development and modernity. There are two types of development: The dominant one is a desire for social mobility promised by capitalism and finding a place in the emerging structure of power, prestige and wealth, which also entails a voluntary displacement and migration, and the other, a demand for an improvement in the basic standard of life and strengthening of the community. Kaala reprimands his daughters-in-law, and by extension the Dalit middle class, for the first. Education has to be about enlightenment, not only for becoming a professional class. Dharavi’s community shares the second form of development: They want water, sanitation, electricity and a new division of the public (playground) and private spaces (for enjoying privacy).

The film (unconsciously) advocates the Gandhian practice of controlling one’s desire and remaining rooted, while capitalism keeps returning as an epidemic of desire and aesthetic experience. The last scene of the film has a banner, “Singaara Chennai, no longer a dream,” with the double meaning of the impossibility of a beautiful Chennai and a realisable dream. Nevertheless, director Pa Ranjith himself could not resist the technocratic gaze by continuously using drone shots of Dharavi, which converts the area into an abstract topography of the planners.

The land in question has two claimants: The immigrants and the nativist Maharashtrians. The film brilliantly uses animation to tell the history of Dharavi through the tragic love story of Kaala and Zarina. The underlying argument of this animated narrative is that the immigrants have worked on the land to make it inhabitable and therefore they have a legitimate right over the land. They have endured and survived numerous attacks and riots to hold on to the land.

This (John) Lockean normative argument that land is owned by those who have worked on it is pitted against the claim of cultural heritage and political inheritance of the Maharashtrians. The nativist Maharashtrians want to grab the land to dominate the immigrants and non-Hindus and to convert it into a commodity to be sold in the market, whereas for the Dharavi residents, it is a means of livelihood and identity. The land gets fused with the questions of labour, community and modernity. The film explores the connection between these and the foundation of Dalit identity: is it founded on land and labour?[2]

If one who works on improving the land has claim over it, then that labour, along with the elements of nature, also shapes the body, its musculature and complexion—which Kaala reminds Hari. Can labour be the foundation for constructing a political, cosmopolitan community, or will it continue to be an ethnic or a casteist one? The film is unsure how to answer this question and keeps circulating around it.

The film has a repressed desire for a revolution, which it cannot name or formulate, but expresses symbolically through Ambedkar, Buddha, Lenin and Marx. It does not trust the Indian left and mocks their political immaturity in the figure of Kaala’s son, Lenin. Yet neither Kaala can abuse Lenin, nor does Lenin desert him for good. In this suspended dialogue and collaboration, the film thinks that the body of a worker is a weapon and a means of capital accumulation and a mass strike by the workers is an effective political tool.

The film briefly explores the possibility of practising a modern form of politics. The workers organise a strike and the social media activism helps them to overcome the distrust of the country to create solidarity across the classes. The government gives in and decides to halt the eviction drive—the striking workers momentarily become victorious. But this modern form of politics soon collapses with Hari taking things into his own hands.

Organising People

In this oscillation between the modern and the non-modern, how does one organise people? The film settles for an ethno-feudal model of politics. The community that rallies behind Kaala is simultaneously subaltern and Tamil, comprising of Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and Hindus. When Zarina returns to Dharavi, she introduces herself as a Tamil Muslim. The film has an internal tension over the claims of multiple subaltern identities, and finally subsumes everything within the Tamil sub-nationalist identity, which persists till the closing credits when we see the “We Tamilians against NEET” poster.

The Buddhist and Muslim unity is continuously stressed upon, yet the Muslims have no agency and seek protection from Kaala, and by extension, from the Buddhists (perhaps an oversight given the Muslim–Buddhist conflict in the neighbouring Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka). The model of leadership is unabashedly and clichédly clannish–feudal. Kaala is the grand patriarch, who “allows” the women of his family and his son’s girlfriend to be assertive, while most of the other men and women are his foot soldiers. Hari Dada is also similarly modelled, but the women in his family are behind the pardah; only his granddaughter can speak up and that too in a foreign language.

Kaala embodies the confusion and contradictions of the contemporary subaltern politics. It is conscious of the need for solidarity between the Dalit–Bahujan and the left, yet it cannot imagine what form it will take. The film thinks that with the paralysis of electoral democracy and the collapse of the state, the future subaltern politics will be territorial and only a united subaltern will be able to resist dispossession of property, identity and history. Development and land acquisition cannot be allowed through the legalist consent of people but would require their permission—otherwise the planners, non-governmental organisations and builders will have to get out (“nikal” as Kaala tells Hari).

The film desires such a new modern, cosmopolitan solidarity, but relapses into a populist sub-nationalist politics. Yet it keeps the hope of a subaltern revolution alive. It proposes that the egalitarian and cosmopolitan Dalit–Left revolution to come (rainbow colour) has to sequentially move through organised resistance (black), building working class solidarity (red) and reimagining the Dalit–Bahujan identity (blue).

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