Monday, November 05, 2018

Cartoon Rajini, flesh-and-blood Rajini: a history lesson in Kaala

[In my latest “cinematic moments” column for The Hindu, thoughts on an animation sequence in the vibrant film Kaala]

Around 30 minutes into Pa. Ranjith’s Kaala, the protagonist Karikaalan (Rajinikanth), who is in his sixties, re-encounters his long-ago girlfriend and fiancée Zareena (Huma Qureshi). Meaningful silences follow; Karikaalan’s wife, sons and other members of his large extended Dharavi family watch in wonder as their larger-than-life hero behaves like a flustered young lover.

And then comes a scene where snippets of expository conversation are intercut with animation and painted stills depicting events of four decades ago: the young Kaala coming to Dharavi with his father; his romance with Zareena; the tragic attack by a rival group on their wedding day, which leads to the lovers’ separation.

In the context of Indian cinema, this is an unusual flashback. There is something both poignant and stirring about seeing faithfully rendered cartoon images of 1970s-era Rajinikanth. But I was also reminded, weirdly, of background-establishing sequences from superhero or fantasy films. Like the great scene in Wonder Woman where vistas from classical paintings and sculptures are given a 3D effect, providing a bridge between the present day and a distant, Godly past. Or one of the finest sequences in the 2013 Man of Steel: as Kal-El, soon to become Superman, gets a history lesson from his father Jor-El, the story of their doomed planet Krypton is shown to
us through “liquid geometry” technology – shape-shifting arrangements of people and events expanding around the two men as they speak, so that history is experienced as virtual reality.

Or consider the wonderful opening-credits scene of Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times they are a Changin” – even those who feel the film doesn’t match Alan Moore’s great graphic novel usually admit that this sequence is a fine, economical summary of a long back-story that might not have been easily shown in a feature-length film.

Compared to all these scenes, it must be said, the Kaala animation sequence is very basic, like a version of an Amar Chitra Katha comic: it is intended to be rustic, humorous, old-world in its effect. Like the others, though, it conveys the sense of a deep history, placing the present-day story in context. Besides, as we know, Rajinikanth is another sort of superhero, no less than the Amazonian Diana or the Kryptonian Kal-El.

But if the Kaala scene performs a myth-building (or world-creating) function on one level, there is another level at which it deconstructs – or comments on – an enduring myth of our mainstream cinema: the legend of the Ageless Leading Man. It saves us from the tedious and embarrassing experience of watching a 66-year-old Rajinikanth play a 20-something version of himself in a live-action flashback, aided by makeup and Vaseline on the lens.

Anyone who knows Indian film history knows the countless instances of 50-plus or 60-plus male stars playing college students, wooing heroines less than half their age (or playing brother to actresses nearly 30 years younger, as Dev Anand did with Zeenat Aman in Hara Rama Hare Krishna). Remember that scene in The Dirty Picture, where a jowly superstar does a role that requires him to burst into his house with a “ma, main pass ho gaya!” and plonk his head into the lap of a white-sari-clad widow who is clearly – to any sane eye – younger than him? It may seem like exaggerated satire, but it was plain realism.

With Superstar Rajini himself, you don’t have to look much further than his pairing opposite Aishwarya Rai in Robot – or the flashback scene in the previous Ranjith-Rajinikanth film Kabaali, where the hero does play a much younger version of himself.

In Kaala, on the other hand, the animation device gives us a version of Rajinikanth as he was in the early days of his stardom – long sideburns, flared pants, youthfully rakish – without the sullying of that image. The sequence manages to be a drolly affectionate tribute to the earlier screen persona, and the mental picture of the flesh-and-blood Rajinikanth one comes away with when the film ends is the pleasing one of a white-bearded granddaddy playing his age, being sleek and stylish in his own senior-citizen way, even when he is getting clean-bowled by a child. 

Much has been written about how PA Ranjith’s sharply political sensibility found a way to employ the Rajinikanth persona – and to cater to the superstar’s fan-base – without letting that persona overwhelm the film; one of those rare occasions where a film with a powerful star-personality at its centre ALSO had an auteur-director keeping an eye on things (not too dissimilar with Mani Ratnam’s use of Rajinikanth and Mammotty in the 1991 Thalapathi). The animation sequence plays with the tropes of melodrama while preserving the film’s own very distinct tone. 

My only reservation about the sequence is that the real-life Huma Qureshi looks practically the same age as the cartoon version. Imagine if they had cast one of Rajini’s old-time heroines – maybe even Sridevi! – in the Zareena part. That would have allowed us to see the contemporary versions of two gracefully aging actors with a history of onscreen work together, while also showing us their artistically rendered younger versions reviving old memories and providing even more sappy, starry-eyed nostalgia.

[Earlier Hindu columns here]

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