The Superstar’s latest film’s teaser is all about the colour black and its resonance in Tamil politics is historic
In 1944, EV Ramasamy Naicker, who came to be better known as ‘Periyar’ (the Elder), was in the midst of mental churn. He had already dropped his caste surname of ‘Naicker’ in 1929 and had become an avowed atheist, claiming that religion was the root of all evil.
It was a time when Tamil Nadu was getting steeped into his Dravidian movement – Self Respect (Suyamariyadhai) and Social Justice (Samadharmam) were the themes. And Periyar needed symbols to reach out and connect with the illiterate and poor masses.
“A Chettiar wedding near Karaikudi took place, which Periyar attended, along with his friend and poet Pattukottai Alagirisamy,” narrated K Shanmugam, district secretary of the Erode wing of Dravidar Kazhagam or DK, the rationalist organisation founded by Periyar. “The Nadaswaram player in the group of musicians at the wedding was sweating profusely and constantly took out his towel (thundu) tucked at his waist to wipe the sweat on his forehead. After a few hours, he was tired of pulling it out from his waist and wore it on his shoulder instead. This angered the attendees and the families of the bride and groom, because wearing a towel on the shoulder was a prerogative of the dominant caste community. Periyar and Alagirisamy urged him to keep the towel on his shoulder and protested. The next day, Periyar along with his friends, attended the wedding wearing black shirts and towels on their own shoulders,” he said.
The colour black, in Periyar’s case, was a symbol of protest or defiance. Much like the red used by Communists. All Periyar wanted, says Shanmugam, was to drive home the fact that victory and class was not defined by a colour. “That black too, can stand for victory and good luck,” he said.
Since that wedding of 1944, DK men were referred to as ‘karuppu sattai’ or black-shirted men.
Five years later, CN Annadurai, one of the brightest and most popular leaders in the Dravidar Kazhagam would break away from his ideological mentor Periyar and form a party that would contest in electoral politics. He named this party the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). On a rainy night in 1949, his loyalists gathered at Chennai’s Royapuram Robinson park where the party flag, name and its agenda was announced. This party’s flag had red and black as its colours.
“In 1949, just after Anna launched the party, he issued a statement that was reported widely in the media,” said TKS Elangovan, DMK spokesperson and Rajya Sabha MP. “About the colours of the party flag – red and black – he explained that black denotes the suffering of the poor, the downtrodden people. Red denotes the sacrifice that the party has to make to eliminate that black.”
Rajini and Black
Superstar Rajinikanth’s next film Kaala is inching towards release. And the teaser that was launched online just after midnight on March 02, was loaded with the colour black.
“Kaala-nna karuppu… karuppu uzhaippin vannam,” says Rajini, dressed in black to the villain played by Nana Patekar. Kaala means black… black is the colour of toil. The teaser shows men smeared with black colour surrounding Rajini as he walks in the slums of Dharavi in Mumbai.
Pa Ranjith’s Kaala teaser with Rajinikanth in the lead
Kaala is Rajinikanth’s name in the film, short for Karikaalan, the God of death. Karikala Chozhan is also the most famous of the Chozha kings who ruled south India in the Sangam era. The dialogues play with the Hindi meaning of the word Kaala – the colour black.
The superstar, throughout his film career, has never shied away from his complexion. Where his arch onscreen rival Kamal Haasan was fair skinned, Rajini, in most of his films, made it a point to deliver a dialogue referring to the fact that he was, himself, dark skinned.
Dark and black are a recurring theme in Rajinikanth’s movies. For instance in his blockbuster hit Muthu (1995), a song in which he wooes his heroine Meena, has the lines – “Sigappaana aangal ingu sila kodi undu, karuppaana ennai paarthu kan veippadheno.” When there are crores of fair skinned men around, I wonder why you are attracted to a ‘black’ man like me.
Rajinikanth and Meena in Muthu (1995)
In 2000, a film Vetri Kodi Kattu was released which did not even star Rajinikanth. But a superhit song from the film referred to him – the song is called “Karuppu thaan enakku pudicha colour-u”. Black is the colour I like.
In this song, the heroine Malavika sings – “Namma ooru superstar-u… Rajinikanth-um karuppu thaan.” The superstar of our land… Rajinikanth is also black.
Superhit song on Rajini’s complexion in Vetri Kodi Kattu (2000)
In Shankar’s film Sivaji (2007), Rajinikanth takes on a corrupt education baron. In this film, his complexion is a comic aside, his sidekick actor Vivek, continually prodding him on his looks. In the film, Rajini’s mother says that she breastfed Rajini (Sivaji) until he was five years old. “Paartha paal kudichu valarnthavan madhiri theriyalaye, decoction kudichu valarnthavan madhiri dhaaney theriyaraan,” comments Vivek. He does not look like someone who drank milk, he looks like he was fed decoction as he grew up.
To which Rajinikanth asks his mother – “Why did you give birth to such a dark son ma?” And she replies – “Because if you were born fair you would have got dirty.” “Sweet mummy,” says Rajini.
In the intense Kabali (2016), a romance drama which is also politically loaded with references to caste and revolution, Marathi actor Radhika Apte makes a reference to Rajini’s complexion. “Un karuppu colour-a appadiye eduthu, en udambu full-a poosikanum… avlo pudichirukkudhu unna,” she says. I want to take your black colour and smear it all over my body… that is how much I like you.
Pa Ranjith’s Kabali (2016) where Radhika Apte refers to Rajini’s skin colour
In Tamil Nadu, black is not merely a colour. It is political. Rajinikanth and director Pa Ranjith have loaded their film with references to Dravidianism, Dalit politics, rebellion and revolution.
Kaala – a political film – comes just ahead of the Superstar’s much anticipated entry into electoral politics.