Even before Kaala’s release, I was pretty intrigued by the nickname Karikalan had been given. He was referred to as the ‘Otha Thala Ravanan’ (Single headed Ravan). The reference had gotten me quite excited, primarily because it is Superstar Rajinikanth who is playing Ravanan. Mythological re-interpretations are not new to Kollywood. Mani Ratnam has given us his version of Ramayana (Ravanan) and Mahabharata (Thalapathy, it had Rajinikanth as well). Even the story of a vigilante gangster in the slums of Dharavi isn’t new — we have Nayagan, a classic that will be cherished by generations, from Mani Ratnam again. But what Pa.Ranjith has done is mashed the two together, giving us a revolution dressed in black and blue clothes.
Both history and mythology have a common factor — the stories predominantly get narrated by the people on the victory stand. In re-interpreting it from the other side, a lot of prejudices get challenged. Similar to Anand Neelakantan’s Asura or Mani Ratnam’s Raavanan, the protagonist here is an ‘Asura’. While several narratives stop at planting a seed of confusion in the audiences’ mind about their allegiance, Ranjith takes a step forward and makes the ‘Asura’ the unparalleled hero. He retains the ‘conventional’ qualities of an Asura — naughtiness, dark-skin and of course, violence. He gives a reason for the protest and the violence so that our loyalties never face questions.
Ranjith plays with the mythology in several more obvious ways — Nana Patekar’s character is named Hari. In more than one instance, Rajini is referred to as the ‘Asura kula Thalaivan (The leader of Asuras)’. Hari Dada wants to rename Dharavi as Dandakaranya, the forest Rama spent his exile. Hari’s real-estate company is named Manu. He quotes Mahabharata and calls himself Rama and also says, “Valmiki has written it already. Rama has to kill Ravana, isn’t it?” This ‘lord’ is omnipresent (his face is everywhere through the hoardings in Dharavi) and is born to rule. In another subversion, Kaala gets to have four sons and sends one of them (Lenin) for a Vanavasam (forest exile).
The most obvious juxtaposition should be the final few sequences in the film where a voice over of the Ramayana is juxtaposed with the violence that happens in Dharavi. And in this sequence, Kaala gets an Agnipariksha moment. In Valmiki’s Ramayan, Sita walks through the fire to prove her ‘purity’ to Rama but here, Kaala goes through the test for something else. He walks through the flames to show his conviction in his ideology — that he isn’t the face of the revolution; several more faces would crop up if Kaala isn’t there. The idea is planted in our minds a while before this moment occurs. Kaala has a support system throughout the film. But when he gets a voluntary human-shield in the face of violence to protect him, it is natural you begin to question it. The climax shows the poignant triumph of ideology, even more so because the face killed on-screen belongs to Rajinikanth. But Kaala doesn’t really die, does he? He exists in the black powder that a kid throws on Hari dada, in every face that swarms around him as a barrier. Just like mythology does, Kaala lives in the minds of the survivors, telling his story to an audience who revere him.