How do I put this? Karnan is one of the best films I have seen in recent times and truly deserving of that over used phrase ‘epic’. A towering tale of oppression with a protagonist (played by Dhanush) who is one among the downtrodden and refuses to take the path of least resistance, inspiring the others in his tiny village to rise with him, the film is often hard to watch. The opening scene features a little girl in her death throes while the rest of the world is callously indifferent, literally trundling along the highway of life and it sets the tone for what is to follow. A skinny, hooded fellow is being taken away by the cops. There is blood on his hands and the cops are shown at their brutal worst as they beat the handcuffed man to within an inch of his life. You shudder at that display of graphic violence so reminiscent of what happened to Jayaraj and Benix and set aside your cheese popcorn which suddenly tastes like privilege.
Mari Selvaraj’s craftsmanship is excellent and he seldom sets a wrong foot forward. Unlike most others in the Tamil film industry who have handled this sensitive subject, there is no sense of propaganda, torture porn, or excessive messaging in place of good cinema. With infinite sensitivity and command over his narrative, he portrays the damning divide between the haves and have – nots. Even in the 90s, in the fictional village of Podiyankulam, these wretched people have none of the things that most of us take for granted. There is no electricity or running water in their homes, education has been denied to them for generations, and there are no hospital facilities for miles. All they want is a bus stop so they can get the hell out of there in search of jobs, send their kids to school, take a heavily pregnant woman to a hospital or simply make a better life for themselves and their own. But they are systematically thwarted at every turn by those who would rather see them remain slaves to their whims. It is hard on the conscience and a slap in the face of a smug society and its fat cats gobbling away with unlimited greed, the limited resources of a land that has failed its poor.
Karnan is replete with rich emotional content and the writing is exquisite for even smaller characters are etched with delicate strokes that takes you into the heart of the other India that we have all left behind. The hero’s older BFF (played by Lal) has never forgotten his dead wife, Manjanathi and there is a tender moment between him and a sweet old woman who calls him Manjanathi ‘purusha’ (husband) which reduced me to a puddle of goo. The cops have shades to them too and Mari Selvaraj rises above the common tendency to portray everything in black and white. All the villagers are not paragons of virtue. Some are cowardly and self – serving. One among them makes an inappropriate suggestion to the hero pertaining to his sister and is bashed up for his impertinence but this character played by Yogi Babu has his moment of redemption. Even among the cops, there are those who don’t have the stomach to see helpless citizens bashed up just because an officer’s ego has been bruised. Said officer would like to have been seated while conducting an inconvenient interrogation but his needs are forgotten when the youth sent to fetch a chair is called by his bedridden grandmother who needs help answering a call of nature. The expression on the cop’s face is priceless and the scene is gut – wrenching for it portends what is to follow.
The villages led by Karnan are not above taking the law into their own hands, so great is their rage at having been failed repeatedly by the law, bureaucratic red tape and a country and its people who are perfectly content to leave them behind in the dirt. In the pre – interval stretch said to have been inspired by the Kodiyankulam riots of 1995, a bus is stopped with a hurled stone and even as the passengers flee in terror, the vehicle is attacked and taken apart by a horde of angry young men in an act of wanton terrorism that somehow feels inevitable. It is terrifying, especially when you can’t help but think that if this is based on real events, then there must have been casualties unlike in the movie where everybody save the attackers have melted away into the surroundings…
The performances are excellent. Dhanush is extraordinary whether he is playing the savior of his people, or the angry youth with a loving side to him or in a tearful dance at the climactic portions where he conveys the anguish of one who is painfully aware of how much his people and he himself have lost and the heavy price paid for a few gains that those more fortunate than them have taken for granted for yonks. It is powerful, poignant and heartbreaking stuff. This is one actor who seems to have committed himself to creating a superlative body of work for himself and his efforts have paid off in rich dividends for himself as well as cinema lovers. Natarajan Subramaniam, who plays the bad cop deserves mention for a wonderful performance too as do the rest of a well-cast ensemble.
Did I mention the music? Santosh Narayanan’s score is tremendously rousing and used wonderfully. Kanda Vara Sollunga is an instant classic and I keep hearing it in my head. The other tracks are also monster hits and they work even better onscreen and contribute to a satisfying theatrical experience.
Much has been made of the fact, that this film is an interpretation of Karna from the Mahabharata. There are characters named Duryodhana, Draupadi, Abhimanyu, and the villain is Kannabiran, and the director’s purpose in doing so, appears to be to question the existing status quo and our own definition of right and wrong when it comes to those with power and money and those who lack these. Of course, the role of religion in enforcing an ancient evil that is the caste system is also examined and Mari Selvaraj subverts traditional religious tropes by depicting headless deities and grama devatas who are usually those among them whose tragic fate have seen them elevated to Godhood. The visual imagery and heavy – handed symbolism is overdone in parts and I would have liked a closer look at the struggles of women in this milieu but these are minor quibbles in a film like Karnan where so much works beautifully. Take a bow, Mari Selvaraj. Karnan, which follows on the heels of his remarkable Pariyerum Perumal, is a powerful film which is going to haunt me for a long time.
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