Vol. XLII No. 24 June 17, 2018

Kaala Times and Politics

R Arun Kumar

IT is unusual for this paper to discuss a movie. But Kaala is an unusual movie. Of course all movies end with the hero defeating the villain or the ‘victory of the good over evil’. In that sense, Kaala is also a usual movie. It is the timing, the issues that are discussed and the political symbolism that layer the movie, which makes it unusual. Discussing the technical details, the treatment of the plot or the performances of the actors, is not the intent here. The intent is to dwell on the politics of the issues and the symbolism employed in the movie.

The movie starts with the voice-over of the importance of land as a means of production. The ownership of land is of two types – one, a small piece as homestead or for sustenance cultivation and two, owning large tracts to extract surplus, to execute hegemony and as a symbol of power. There always lies a contradiction between these two features, with the poor who represent the first type trying to protect their ownership for their survival and the rich, representing the second type trying to appropriate as much land as possible to further augment their profits. It is this contradiction that plays as a central theme in the film, situated in Dharavi, Mumbai.

It is not for the first time that films were made on Dharavi or in Dharavi. And they were made in many languages, English, Hindi, Tamil, etc, etc. They had dealt with the aspirations of the people, their dreams, poverty and the gangs. Kaala touches on all these, but most importantly it deals with the people living there, their relationship with the land and how the rich intend to appropriate their land in the name of cleanliness and beautification of the city.

Cleanliness and purity are two most important things that Kaala deals with subtly, but emphatically interwoven with the central theme of land. Cleanliness here is not only the physical aspect of it, associated with slums, but also the ideological aspect, associated with caste. It tries to expose the insanity of ‘upper-caste’ concept of impurity associated with the occupations and lives of dalits. To understand this, we need to look at slums in urban India and the government’s plans to evict slum-dwellers.

Urban areas, especially cities have acquired enormous importance in the economic and political life of the country as urbanisation is considered to be the main engine of growth. They are home for the working classes and the burgeoning middle classes and generate 63 per cent of the country’s GDP.

A distinct pattern of segregation can be found in many of the urban areas – the posh areas and the newly developing ‘gated’ communities with uninterrupted access to the best of services (where the elite live); areas where most of the middle-classes live, constantly struggling to access various kinds of services; and slums, where the majority of the poor live, lacking many of the basic amenities.

According to the Slum Census 2011, there is a 37.14 percent growth in the slums in the past ten years, with almost two-thirds of the cities having slums. Majority of the slum-dwellers belong to the working class. They confront problems of housing, demolitions, eviction, lack of drinking water, sanitation, public distribution system, toilets, health care services, schools, pensions, police harassment, goondagiri, lack of access to institutional credit facilities, corruption, alcoholism, etc. There is a shortage of 96 percent houses for the economically weaker sections and low income groups. Nearly 36 percent of households in the slums do not have basic facilities like electricity, tap water and sanitation within their premises.

There is also an undercurrent social division prevalent in cities. Muslims live in close quarters and in distinctly separate localities. Similarly, dalits too are confined to only certain parts of the urban centres. Discrimination and deprivation categorise these communities and majority of them reside in slums. So the question of ‘cleanliness and purity’ (or the lack of it) associated with slums is also a social concept distinctly associated with caste and religion. Eviction of slums in the name of cleanliness is thus not only to free the land occupied by the poor for development of real estate and beautification purposes alone. It is also to relocate the dalits and Muslims to the outskirts – the city’s core belongs to the ‘elite’, rich and ‘upper-caste’, while the periphery belongs to the poor, dalits and Muslims or the ‘others’ in the society. Kaala addresses these issues. For the antagonist in Kaala, the concept of ‘Clean and Pure Mumbai’ and redevelopment of slums, represents both these concepts. He derives power from his rich, upper-caste, religious identity and states that he is ‘born to rule’. It is a clear reflection of our times. “Making Mumbai slum-free was part of the comprehensive plan and it supplements the ambitious Centre-state project….” These are not the words of the antagonist in the film but that of Maharashtra’s chief minister Devendra Fadnavis. The ambitious centre-state project that Fadnavis is talking about is the Smart City project.

The Smart City project is a convergence of various government schemes, including the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan and housing for all. Its guidelines state its purpose as to, “transform existing areas (retrofit and redevelop), including slums, into better planned ones, thereby improving liveability of the whole City”. And “Redevelopment will effect a replacement of the existing built-up environment and enable co-creation of a new layout with enhanced infrastructure using mixed land use and increased density”. Zubin Cooper, CEO, of a multinational realty consultancy firm explicitly puts forth that ‘to ensure a smooth redevelopment’, what is needed is, a ‘clear political direction’. The antagonist who wields considerable muscle and political power, along with his realtor front-men, precisely intends to do this in Dharavi.

For the past many years, specifically for the past 14 years, there is a very strong effort from the government to ‘redevelop’ Dharavi and other similar slums in Mumbai. The Smart City project document approvingly quotes of Saifee Burhani Upliftment Project in Mumbai (also called the Bhendi Bazaar Project). The prime lacuna in all these projects is that the locals are not involved in the consultations, nor are they listened to learn about what their needs are and how they intend to use the land on which they are residing. With increased informalisation of work due to the implementation of neo-liberal policies, most of the slums have also become spaces for home-based work and play an important role in the production chains of various companies. Any redevelopment plan has to take cognisance of this reality and design spaces accordingly. But this is deliberately neglected in order to grab land and sell it for commercial purposes. In one plan submitted for Dharavi redevelopment, the government agreed with the realtor that the firm will use 30,000 square metres of land for the slum-dwellers, and 40,000 square metres for commercial sales. Even in the Bhendi Bazaar project approvingly quoted by many, news reports indicate that ‘the plans submitted to BMC reveal that in the very first cluster, several flats are being built for sale’. They quote vendors like Rattan, a hawker retailing bags and textiles, who fears that ‘post the makeover, the Bazaar may become a no-entry zone with limited access to vendors like him’. Kaala successfully flags these issues, exposes the nexus between realtors and politicians and unmasks the reality beneath their veneer of ‘cleanliness and purity’.

The symbolism in Kaala is hard to miss. The antagonist who vouches by ‘purity’ is always in speck-less white and a saffron scarf. The protagonist is not only proud of his name ‘Kaala’, black, but is mostly in black attire or at times in blue, proudly flaunting his dalit identity. Subtly, the jeep of the protagonist, has the number ‘1956’, the year in which Ambedkar converted to Buddhism. Kaala celebrates alternate culture of the downtrodden – the use of hip-hop, language and festivals. Even the book prominently displayed on the table of the protagonist is ‘Asura’, written by Anand Nilakantan.

Two of the hero’s sons are named Siva and Lenin. While the former is more into flexing his muscle to solve problems, the later is into mobilising people and organising protests. While Siva dies defending his father, Lenin survives. The hero, lamenting that he cannot scold his son Lenin, as the name is of a great revolutionary, gives a very interesting advice: ‘you cannot transform the society or people only by reading two/three books; you need to understand people by being amongst them and working from the grass-root level’.

Various scenes speak aloud about the rights and power of women. The scenes of protest and in particular the scene where a women lead goes for a lathi, rather than her trousers, when the police try to shame her by disrobing, speaks volumes. And the hero asks all the men to not only help, but take an active role in cooking; a strong single mother, who stands up against the protagonist; and an unlike Rajnikanth, who listens to his wife, who herself is a strong woman.

Another striking feature in the film is the climax. When the antagonist tries to break the unity of the slum-dwellers by cutting off all the essential services and trying to incite communal riots, the hero counters it by appealing to the working class identity that subsumes their all other identities. He reminds them of the weapon in their hands, their labour power, and calls them to strike work. The colours black, red and blue are used symbolically to depict the need for the unity of all the downtrodden classes and sections in the society.

Pa Ranjith, the director, definitely has his stamp all over this film and shows us how effectively culture can be used to counter the ruling class, ‘upper-caste’ hegemony and defeat communal forces.