The hardcore fans of Superstar Rajinikanth breathed a sigh of relief following the first reactions of critics who opined that Kaala was better than Kabali, which was director Pa Ranjith’s maiden outing with Thalaivar. It was such a relief, indeed.
In 2016, Kabali released to high expectations, but it disappointed fans and critics. The film set the box office on fire but hurt the confidence of movie buffs in Rajinikanth-Ranjith collaboration. The impact was to an extent where the film trade pundits credited the muted buzz around Kaala to what they called as ‘Kabali hangover.’
It was safe to assume that fans were treading with caution anticipating the possibility of Kaala falling short of their expectations. Kabali was neither a Pa Ranjith film or a Rajinikanth film. Ranjith’s constant struggle to choose between his urge to follow his unique style and voice (which was the main reason for him to land a Rajinikanth film in the first place) and to cater to the Superstar image of his lead actor resulted in an unconvincing and non-satisfactory film.
Kabali made Rajinikanth and Ranjith look like an odd couple, who seem to share deep love and admiration for each other’s talents, but they really cannot agree on anything. Their reunion was also not much desired by fans or critics. It was very clear after Kaala, as many were glad this was likely the end of Rajinikanth-Rajinith collaboration in terms of films. But hey, you never know.
Learning from his previous film, Ranjith has made several different choices and changes to his narrative techniques to do justice to Rajinikanth’s larger-than-life image and the commercial aspects that come with it. The director-writer has kept the script focused on his message and ideologues that he wanted to amplify through the Superstar while keeping his own artistic requirements as a storyteller in check.
Use of animation to narrate the flashbacks of Kaala was a smart move, relative to having Rajinikanth play half his age in Kabali. Ranjith choosing not to dwell too much into Kaala’s emotions, maybe because it didn’t click the last time with the masses in Kabali. He was so cold in following this approach, he didn’t even let the death of the most loved character Selvi (Eswari Rao) to sink in. In fact, the director has not alloted not more than 30 seconds to mourn any kind of loss in the film. Consider, for example, Kaala has more personal reasons to seek vengeance against Hari Dada (Nana Patekar) than just the obvious conflict that the latter has been trying to encroach upon the land, which is the only identity of his people. Hari had murdered Kaala’s father and even drove the love of his life Zareena (Huma Qureshi) away from him for good. Instead of giving us a close view of Kaala’s emotional wounds, Ranjith just chooses to make passing references to them in a brief animated series. Again, had he wanted to shoot the flashbacks in live action, it would have required Rajinikanth playing the young Kaala, which the director clearly wanted to avoid. Ranjith’s touch-and-run approach to Kaala’s personal losses may keep us from feeling his pain, but it has helped to steer clear of potential dull moments in the narration. I think we can all agree that the flashback part in Kabali was a bit heavy on the script and it eventually weighed down the narration.
With Kaala, Ranjith knew exactly what he wanted and what the fans expect of him while he’s wielding the megaphone for a Rajinikanth film. His new film was about Kaala’s war with the land sharks to protect Dharavi. In the times of war, a single death is not a tragedy but a mere statistic. When I reflect back on the film, it feels like Ranjith wanted to strip Kaala of all his personal baggage, including his family members so that he can attain a greater propose. In an intense moment in the climax, Kaala’s determination emboldens and he walks into a burning building and emerges on the other side untouched by the raging fire. It was as if it was his rebirth and he has been transformed into something that of a legend. He is not just the face of a movement anymore. He becomes the movement himself. He becomes a story of sacrifice and valour that will be used to inspire generations of people to keep fighting for their rights.
While Kabali was a story about a defeated man’s shot at redemption, Kaala was Rajinith’s opportunity to give the audience their money’s worth of Rajinikanth-ism and packing his commentary on various social issues in each scene and every movement of his characters. Ranjith was more keen on propagating his belief, which is it takes the sacrifice of more than one head to usher in a revolution.