- LAND IS LIFE: Rajinikanth's newest film plays at the Cinemark Theater on Colonel Glenn in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi with English subtitles.
As King Louis XIV allegedly quipped, "L'etat, c'est moi." The state — it is me. And despite coming from the mouth of a foreign monarch, we can often find this sentiment reflected in our American approach to the world, especially in the realm of popular culture. The world — it is us. We make the movies that the rest of the world watches. We raise up the idols the rest of the world worships.
But the power of Hollywood pales in comparison to that of Indian cinema. Take, for example, the actor Rajinikanth, the superstar of Tamil-language cinema. His 2016 movie, "Kabali," opened on 12,000 screens (compared to 4,474 screens for the latest "Avengers" movie), and the day it premiered amounted to a national holiday across India, with businesses and government offices closing. Rajinikanth's latest movie, "Kaala," written and directed by Pa Ranjith, has been greeted with similar enthusiasm. Even here in Little Rock, the Cinemark theater on Colonel Glenn, which regularly shows Indian movies, screened the film on its opening weekend in the original Tamil as well as dubbed in Telugu and Hindi (all with English subtitles) to meet demand.
Rajinikanth plays Karikaalan (more commonly known as Kaala), the de facto leader and protector of Dharavi, a slum populated largely by Tamil workers in Mumbai. Government minister Haridev "Hari Dhadha" Abhayankar (Nana Patekar) plans to push through a slum clearance program called Pure Mumbai, replacing sheet metal homes in Dharavi with luxury towers (built by his own construction company, of course). He manages to enlist some local support with the empty promise of new housing for the poor, even bringing over to his side Zareena (Huma Qureshi), an internationally renowned antipoverty activist (and Kaala's former lover) recently returned to Dharavi. But when Kaala thwarts these initial construction plans, Hari Dhadha declares war, and soon the downtrodden of Dharavi are defending their plot of land against corrupt cops, mercenaries and the corporations that control them all.
"Kaala" is not a subtle movie — after all, our title character named one of his sons Lenin. But it is surprisingly sophisticated for a three-hour film in which our hero, in one scene, dramatically kills a dozen thugs with an umbrella in the pouring rain. For one, its women are as well-rounded as the men, forcefully speaking their minds and taking up arms in their own defense. Too, the movie illustrates how, as Arundhati Roy has written, "the corporate or foundation-endowed NGOs are global finance's way of buying into resistance movements, literally as shareholders buy shares in companies" — how well-meaning activists often ally themselves with the enemies of a native proletariat. And more importantly, "Kaala" highlights India's color line and the struggle of the poor in modern India: As one Dharavi woman says regarding the lack of plumbing in the neighborhood, "Seventy years of independence without a place to shit!"
Perhaps most interestingly, "Kaala" effectively subverts one of Hinduism's foundational myths when it equates its title character with the demon-king Ravana. Kaala always wears revolutionary black and leads those who dwell in slums and filth in their struggle for dignity, while Hari Dhadha, the white-clad progenitor of "Pure Mumbai," thinks himself like the hero Ram, who slew Ravana in the Hindu epic "Ramayana." Certainly, in the West, revolutionaries have occasionally embraced the figure of Lucifer as the first rebel, but popular Indian cinema has typically employed its symbolic repertoire a little more faithfully, so this reversal is thrilling.
"To you, land is power," says Kaala to Hari Dhadha, "but to us, it is life." Life will always resist its own extermination, and the movie "Kaala" is an epic of that resistance. Dharavi's youth sing hip-hop anthems of independence, while its women pick up bamboo poles to beat down rapist cops. But on another level, just the existence of this movie is its own act of resistance, a Copernican reminder that we don't inhabit the center of the universe. Gangster politicians — the state is not you. Comfortable Americans — the world is not you. There is a wider world out there, and some of it is fighting back.