I already put up the No Spoilers review. You can read that if you want to avoid spoilers, this is the place to come if you have already seen the movie and couldn’t follow the plot, or want to talk about it, or just want to read what I thought. This is also the place to come if you read the no spoilers review and don’t think you will ever want to watch this movie but still want to know what happened. It’s not the greatest film, so that is a decent possibility and I won’t judge you if that is your decision.
Whole plot in two sections, personal and political, starting with Personal Plot:
Rajinikanth and his father were some of the first settlers at Dharavi. During the emergency, Rajinikanth took shelter from the bulldozers in a home and met Huma Qureshi, the beautiful young (Muslim) daughter. They were in love and planning to be married, but at their engagement, Nana Patekar arranged a communal riot and killed Rajinikanth’s father in order to take control. Huma’s family took her away, she ended up going to school in America and becoming an award winning globe trotting dogooder. Rajinikanth hid out at a village and met and married a Tamil village girl Easwari Rao, then came back to Dharavi and kicked Nana out and took back control. Decades later, Rajinikanth has a large family (4 sons, 3 daughters-in-law, and a pack of grandkids),a nd rules the area with violence, refusing to let in any outsider. His youngest son Manikandan wants a different way, and is looking at legal political ways to improve their lives. His group invites in Huma Qureshi as an outside consultant and she and Rajinikanth meet again. There is immediate chemistry between them, clearly Rajinikanth has never forgotten her and vice versa, she even has a young daughter named for him. Easwari is nervous and upset, Rajinikanth goes to meet Huma for a farewell dinner and tells her that he can’t let Easwari down, this has to be the end of it. But they keep exchanging glances, even when he is going against her in her plans for Dharavi. The triangle reaches an awkward resolution when Easwari is killed along with one of Rajinikanth’s sons in an assassination attempt. This also solves the other problem in Rajinikanth’s personal life, that his older sons and their wives want to move out of Dharavi and into a better area of the city. After the tragedy, the family is fully united behind Rajinikanth. In the end, Rajinikanth sacrifices himself to save his family, rushing into fire to save them and then being killed in a fight/explosion (after one last lingering glance at Huma who is still just hanging around). But the family stays together even after death, they unite to stand up to Nana Patekar when he tries to come back into Dharavi.
Rajinikanth is the acknowledged leader of Dharavi. His goal is to keep outsiders out and make sure the locals have what they need by any means necessary, including (for instance) illegal tapping of water pipes. His son Manikandan disagrees with his methods, thinks they should focus on legal improvements and peaceful protests. The city government, headed by Nana Patekar who Rajinikanth does not trust because of their history together, offers a tender for development in Dharavi. Manikandan arranges for Huma Qureshi, an international activist for slum reform, to come and help them put together a bid. Rajinikanth rejects their plan when it is presented to the people, argues with Huma and Manikandan over it because it is clearly a Trojan horse set up to bring in wealthy developers and expensive buildings and take away their land. Rajinikanth’s belief is that this land is theirs and it is better to stay there and improve it for themselves than risk anyone else coming in, or to ever trust promises from the politicians. He manages to kill the popularity of the rebuilding plan among the people, but one of his followers is killed in retaliation. Huma and Manikandan are still pushing for the plan to go through until Rajinikanth is arrested and held all night, released the next day only for his car to be hit by a truck and shot, leaving him alive but killing Easwari and Dileepam. Now the family and community is united against Nana, but Rajinikanth is weakened by grief. He finally comes up with a plan, to declare a strike, let the city try to survive without the residents of Dharavi. The strike gains popularity slowly as time goes on until, finally, Nana is forced to withdraw the improvement plan. But he still has a trick, he says he only needs one night to change everything, he tries to cause communal unrest until Rajinikanth sees through that pointing out that only outside agitators are fighting. And so instead, the police arrange a shooting to give them an excuse to come into the area, they burn and beat and destroy, Rajini’s people try to protect him but he insists on fighting, finally dying in an explosion that also kills the last of the outside fighters. A news reporter gives out footage showing police misconduct and the police officer is punished but Nana escapes any blame. Until he comes to Dharavi to set the first stone for the first house, and the people attack, throwing dust in his face. In the cloud of dust, he has a vision of Rajinikanth that appears and disappears, taunting him as he runs through the slums, ending with his death reported on the news.
I started a whole review and then kind of got into a dead end, and decided to start over again, and this time I realized what was giving me a problem. It’s Huma. Her character just doesn’t fit, and yet at the same time it is one of the most important and original components. She is playing the “well meaning white woman”, that universal character in urban reform who is much more likely to cause damage than help. She has no place in this movie because she has no place in this situation.
(I know she isn’t actually caucasian, but at the same time I am sure it isn’t a coincidence that her character is several shades lighter than all the others. This film is aggressive about the light and dark imagery and discussions, Huma’s skin color is part of what puts her outside of the Dharavi world)
That is NOT to say that anyone should just give up, stay out of it, not try to help. But if you are helping a community, you need to be with that community, not the outsiders they are fighting against. Too often that is the position of the well intended outsider, they think they can act as a translator, help the oppressed understand what those above them are trying to do for them, bring the true groups together, help them “trust” each other. But that is because they aren’t listening, they think it is still a matter of misunderstandings and distrust, not that the people they are trying to help are in the right and the community they come from is in the wrong. There is still a basic bias towards your own kind which can only be overcome by humility and patience and learning to listen to and understand others.
And Huma’s character is a perfect representative of how this can go wrong. She grew up in Dharavi, she thinks they are “her” people. And she has been out in the wider world and seen things and done things, she thinks she knows what is best for “her” people. And so in her very first meeting, she demonstrates a subtle failure to listen.
She asks the people to tell her what they want from the “new” Dharavi, and as soon as someone says “no more lines at the public bathrooms”, she leaps to the idea of a bathroom in every home. And laughs off the concern mentioned that public bathroom lines were a way to flirt, make connections, get to know people, and so on. So, she failed twice. First in assuming that people wanted a bathroom in their own home, rather than asking them what solution they want for the lines, more public bathrooms, bathrooms within buildings, a whole host of other options. And second in ignoring the follow up concern with this plan, which also deserved attention. There was a need for public spaces, for spaces for the community to meet in a casual unofficial way. That needed to be heard and addressed.
The biggest red flag was when a little boy suggested a different name so that his friends wouldn’t make fun of him for living in Dharavi. The correct response would have been to ask him why he should be ashamed, make him think about if there really was anything wrong about where they lived, anything about himself that made him less than his friends. But instead, she accepted the premise and let it go. She may say she is “one of them”, but in reality she sees them just as the outsiders do, Dharavi and their background is something to be ashamed of, to hide, to clean up and destroy so that you can become like the “better” people.
And then there’s another scene later. When the building plan is presented to the people and Huma just doesn’t hear all kinds of things. Doesn’t seem to notice that housing is only promised for some residents, not all. And that there is a class system built into it, separate schools and so on. She just sits there and smiles, thinking that the wise rich people are going to come in and solve all the problems of the poor people, and she is a saint for bringing them both together.
Huma needs to learn a lesson, needs to understand that she was a fool to think she could belong with the poor people any more, or was able to understand the rich. And that is the purpose of the love triangle, seemingly. For Rajinikanth to show her that whatever they had when they were young is gone, his life is something she cannot possibly understand and he is with the right woman for himself, and if she thinks there is still a possibility, it just shows how blind she is. Once she learns that lesson, she can move on to learning other lessons, like how she doesn’t really belong with the wealthy either. Which is hinted at already in a scene where Nana forces her to touch his feet.
(It’s almost here in this song. But then the film moves away from it, moves away from the idea that anyone could not want the white woman in preference for the older looking darker woman)
The only problem is, Huma ISN’T rejected by Rajinikanth. And she never really learns her lesson. After the first half structuring Huma as the foolish one who is failing to listen, that whole storyline is just dropped. And instead the film veers into setting up the Huma and Rajinikanth romance as a tragic loss, that Huma is his true equal and match, and that she understands him, and cares about the community, on a deeper level. In fact, buying into the wise white woman trope instead of rejecting it!
This problem ends up destroying far more than just Huma’s character. Because Huma is there, there isn’t as much space for all the other characters to be there as well. This is supposed to be a story about the people of Dharavi rising up and saving themselves. But instead it turns into a white lady, Rajinikanth, and some other folks in the background.
There’s a lot that is good in this movie. There’s a lot of exploration of how “clean” and “white” are only good terms because society has made them so, how those who are called “dirty” and “black” should be proud of who they are, not hide it. How the solution isn’t to give up control to people who convince you they are better than you, but to keep your control no matter what, be proud of what you have built on your own for yourself.
But then it is all lost in the confusion of Huma. She drifts through the film like a white plague, draining energy and logic where ever she goes. Why does Rajinikanth still love her? Why does Manikandan and the rest of his group believe in her? Heck, why does Nana bother to use her? We see how easily he moves on and finds a different option once she changes sides.
Ultimately, Huma is a sign of class and color preference buried within a film that rejects it. She is there to provide eye candy for the audience, to prove Rajinikanth’s manliness, to make us shudder in horror at Nana’s disrespect. Because she is young, she is pale, she is beautiful. She is what the audience is supposed to want, supposed to respect, and none of the speeches and songs about the lowerclasses being beautiful and rejecting the “pure” identity have any meaning with her there.
There’s a lot of other themes I haven’t touched on, the use of Ram-Raavan for Nana-Rajinikanth, embracing their identities as hero-villain in the eyes of the world. there’s the idea of generations continuing, Nana killed Rajinikanth’s father to end his power, and Rajinikanth rose up in his place. He killed Rajinikanth, and his family rose up in his place. There’s a lot of great stuff with religious integration too, Huma is Muslim and Rajinikanth isn’t (I think? I always have a hard time with southern names), and it never even comes up as a problem between them. And of course the basic discussions around city planning and improvements and so on, the way the poor and their needs tend to be marginalized in these discussions.
But like I said, I keep coming back to Huma. She stops the discussion of everything else, blocks any meaningful theme, is there as a roadblock to this changing from a decent movie with good ideas, to a great movie.