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Kaala will always make the news because of Rajinikanth’s presence, but there is more to it than that. Here’s a look at its women, and how they question both caste and gender oppression.
This post contains a few spoilers.
More often than not, I find that discussions in the theatre lead to more introspection than than the movie itself. As I sat in the theatre waiting for them to play Kaala, I could hear people chatter.
The lady in front of me remarked, “Didn’t some minister say that if a woman called the rapist her brother, he would stop raping her. What rubbish is this. Why should I make ‘some random creep on the road’ my brother? Should I call every cab driver and delivery boy my brother to save myself?”
Lights off and the movie starts. An hour or so into Ranjith’s movie, we see an urban woman (who is getting a manicure done) casually remark, “60% of Dharavi people are criminals!”
The woman in front of me, with her anti-poor language casually asserted her right to gender equality while forgetting that she was oppressing someone else in the same sentence. This is not very different from the reality that Ranjith tries to portray in Kaala.
And this is why, Kaala is a very important movie. It sets the tone for intersectionality. It sets the tone for the urban feminist woman to explore what her role is in the shadow of caste and religion. It sets the tone for a privilege check.
While most scenes stayed with me longer and made me think, there was a few scenes that particularly stood out, especially in terms of examining feminism through the lens of caste and religion.
Ranjith shows us a bunch of men and women in Dharavi discussing about the facilities they would need and women boldly point out to the lack of space and how it affects their sex lives.
“Kaipudikardhe Kashtam, Idhula mutham, sutham!” (it is difficult even to hold hands, forget kissing) a woman says tongue in cheek, as the crowd erupts into laughter. Besides, in the scene mentioned above, a Muslim woman boldly voices out the need for space and sex. This is breaking more than one stereotype of the ‘poor oppressed Muslim woman’!
A few scenes later, we are taken to the house of Hari Dada where Hindu women with a certain ‘demureness’ that the other characters lack are shown in the frame.
Often, urban and upper caste/class woman believe that they are more liberated than the average rural or the urban poor woman – this sharp contrast from Ranjith is essentially a view into how the upper caste Hindu woman is put in the shoes of a goddess and kept protected or rather ‘arrested’ at home.
True to this, the woman at Hari Dada’s house do only three things throughout the movie – eat, pray and serve the men in the family!
In one scene, Kaala’s daughter-in-law, who has lost her husband is shown. She doesn’t look broken and neither is she reduced to sitting in a corner, mourning her husband’s death. We are shown that she is wearing a pottu/bindi just like how she did before her husband’s death and she is also seen urging her father-in-law to move on by saying, “Vaazharavangla yaaru paakaradhu?” (Who takes care of the ones who live?)
This goes downright against the usual portrayal of widows in movies and perhaps it is even a dig at organised religion that tells us to treat widows in a certain manner. This leaves us with introspective questions such as – how would a widow be treated in a household that vehemently practises an organised religion?
Hari Dada’s grandchild, a young girl, is seen walking around the house and engaging in talking with the grandfather once in a while. One look at how children are treated in the two households and a lot will be revealed.
When one of the sons wants to have a conversation with Kaala and another son forces the playing children to go back inside, Kaala immediately says, “Let children be children!” We see the sharp contrast to a little girl in Hari Dada’s house who is trained to serve water in a glass to the guests and seek their blessings. Would the girl be taught to keep the glass aside after Kaala drinks from it, I am left wondering. Selvi, Kaala’s wife, who we think does not seem to have much of a political opinion is quick to point out that Hari Dada does not even drink water at their house – she does not shy away from pointing out what has been a caste atrocity for years together.
The difference in upbringing doesn’t end there. Kaala asks his wife if she didn’t tell their children the tale of a brave woman from folklore. And we are shown how the children in Hari Dada’s family grow up listening to the tales of Rama.
Zarina, another important female character in the movie is not left alone – Hari Dada listens keenly as they utter her Muslim name and raises his eyebrows. He then goes on to discriminate against her when he realises that she is a single mother. He even hints at her ‘needing money’ – does he assume that every woman without a man in her life must be a prostitute?
The camera zooms in, to show Zarina, and then Hari Dada and then to the idol of Lord Rama. In just a few seconds, is this a Lord Rama worshipper, putting Zarina through a purity test?
All these women will stay etched in my memory for the years to come but Puyal as the activist woman who chooses to pick up a stick instead of her pants and beat up the men who stripped her will perhaps never leave my mind. Perhaps because this emotion of putting strength and fortitude ahead of everything else including the so-called woman’s ‘modesty’ is something that every woman irrespective of caste, creed or geography can relate to.
Through snippets of love, strength, humour and ideology, the women of Kaala stay on a little longer with you. But I am left with a few thoughts that linger. Was Hari Dada oppressing the women in his life or was he merely carrying forward the message that was given to him through generations?
And more importantly, can the Indian urban woman truly understand feminism without understanding the different lenses of caste and religion?
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Nandhitha Hariharan is a writer with a love for anything that is pretty or covered
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