Mani Ratnam's Nayakan might seem too self-centred, even a bit aloof, in the light of Pa Ranjith's Kaala. Nayakan was about, solely about, Velu Naicker. The urban poor of Mani Ratnam's slum the Brando-esque don lorded over were just incidental, secondary; there, to simply give him context. Kaala is also about an individual, about Karikaalan, but by some strange filmmaking wizardry, a technique visible perhaps only to the inner eye, Ranjith has managed to expand the individual to encompass an entire mass of people.
Rajinikanth was not the only Kaala, every face that went about their sub-human lives in the dreadful maze called Dharavi seemed a Kaala. The young Dalit filmmaker did not have to fit a Rajinikanth mask on thousands of extra artistes to press home the point. It was conveyed long before the filmmaker needlessly resorted to the 'mask trick' towards the latter half. It was not a superstar's lone fight, Ranjith made it seem that the urban poor of Dharavi rose as one voice and body, as one big unstoppable mass, in this revolution. In this sense, Kaala is the 'massiest' Superstar film ever.
A closer look might reveal certain methods Ranjith has employed to disabuse the superstar genre of its feudal psyche. One, he has done away with perhaps the most derogatory, most inhuman, creation of a Superstar film: The Sidekick. In Kabali, Ranjith did slash, though weakly, at the creation; he gave his hero the common name of a sidekick in Tamil films (Kabali) but ironically ended up giving Kabali some sidekicks.
But this time he made sure. His Kaala towered over no one. It might seem impossible with the 'Superstar' but Rajini's Kaala has an unforced humility so disarming that one would be tempted to forget even the real man's, the politician Rajini's, missteps at Tuticorin. Neither Kaala's friends nor even his children are in awe of him; they talk back at him like any friend or son would.
His equation with his wife, played with such boisterous feminine grace that is at once disarming and unsettling by the Tamil-Telugu actor Eashwari Rao, is perhaps the most endearing. In his earlier films, say a Padayappa, there is an element of condescension in the way Rajini's accedes to his wife's wishes; he would make it seem that his henpecked-ness is only an act, that make no mistake 'I'm still the boss'. Not here. Here, he looks besotted; the way he sits back in his vehicle with a contented smile as his wife casually places her hand (as only loving wives could) on his thighs should rate high up there as one of the most romantic moments in cinema.
And the Superstar, for a change, looks vulnerable. In fact, if filmmakers have not yet noticed, it has added considerably to both his charm and magnetism. Again, it is not in a very obvious way that Ranjith makes Rajini human. Some fine touches - like Kaala and his wife sleeping with one of their grandchildren in the middle, or a greying Kaala with skin sagging on his neck asking his former love with genuine wonder as to why she has not aged like him - might have done the trick.
Rajini does not perform his old tricks either. He does not throw his unruly hair back with a toss of his head or put on a glass with some crazy finger manoeuvres. Still the man has a calm assurance. In earlier films, not a hair of Rajini will be troubled. But in Kaala, even though nothing major is done to him, we know that he can be slapped or hit or shot at like any normal human. Here, he is just brave, like any wounded beast. There are, of course, whistle-worthy moments, many of them, like say the low-angle shots where Kaala in his dark lungi and jubba walks like a dark angry god as thick dark-grey couds loom overhead like it is the end of the world.
But Rajinikanth, in this film, is only a ruse. He is just the tool employed by Ranjith to smother viewers with what he wants. He massacres upper-caste ruthlessness, reflected so shockingly on Nana Patekar's indifferent face, sullies their idea of purity with the grime and sweat and beauty of black and, what's more, slays their pompous Gods.