Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Thoughts on Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan


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.

Dealing with Indecisiveness


It is hard for me to make up my mind. Should I go bonkers, cooped up at home during the pandemic or risk getting infected by stepping out and living a little? Should I work harder on losing the weight I piled on during the lockdown or encourage myself to love mine own self even if said self is dangerously close to bursting at the seams? Should I follow through on my occasional urge to leave home with nothing more than my backpack (and all the credit cards and cash I can stuff into it) to explore the furthermost contours of the world or stay put and continue to cope with the humdrum monotony of the daily grind?

Shaking my head like a Bollywood heroine in the utmost throes of theatrical despair, I scold myself a little for being obsessed with pathetic non - issues that are of little consequence to anyone other than me. Then I turn my attention to whatever is trending on Twitter, figuring it has to be better than Instagram and Facebook, which have perfected the art of packaging envy incited by filtered images that give the impression of perfect bodies and lives, and using it to sell overpriced products which will supposedly give us the superficial satisfaction that only pretend perfection can. Twitter is always interesting for those who thrive on chaos or depend on it for stimulating ideas that can be worked into columns. It can also be conflicting as hell.

Is the HBO documentary Allen Vs Farrow a scathing indictment of a predator who groomed and married his step – daughter in addition to molesting his own daughter or is it PR/ activism on behalf of Farrow given how much key information has been omitted that may have exonerated Allen? Is Megan Markle a poor little rich girl who is a victim of racism and violation of privacy or is she merely playing the victim and bemoaning the loss of her privacy while revealing intimate details about the sex of her unborn child to the entire world? Did Kamaraj, a Zomato delivery executive punch Hitesha and break her nose or did she whack him with a slipper and injure herself to grab some sympathy likes for herself?

Perhaps, it would be simpler to fixate on my own stuff. Should I humble brag about an award I have been nominated for? Or acknowledge that I don’t have a shot against my brilliant fellow nominees and forget about begging everyone I know and don’t to cast their votes for me? I could always listen to my mother and disappear into a weight loss facility. Or stock up on Patanjali products that promise solutions for everything from obesity to finding inner peace and making up one’s mind.

This article was originally published in The New Indian Express.

Unpromising Politics


If you have the stomach for it and tend not to throw up when confronted with all things revolting, it is always amusing to watch politicians in action when elections are around the corner. They step out wearing crisp ethnic wear, sporting bad dye/toupee jobs, palms folded together reverentially, flashing sincere fake smiles while waving from top open vehicles, trundling past giant hoardings of their photo-shopped selves and strategically placed loud - speakers promising the citizens that the candidate is ‘The One’.

These sterling individuals who repeatedly reiterate their unswerving commitment to making their constituencies an indubitable slice of heaven are usually accompanied by a motley crew of not – quite gentlemen togged out in ill – fitting traditional gear in assorted hues of white the supposed color of purity, flaunting sunglasses, gold jewelry and the odd recurved blade or two, which their attire doesn’t quite conceal. These bear an uncanny resemblance to ruffians in masala movies who serve as the muscle/fawning toadies of the villains who are mostly there to impress upon the masses that they better vote for their exalted leader or else...

Usually there is a lot of speechifying at rallies where the audience are lured in with promises of petty cash, booze and chicken biriyani. Most seeking to become elected or re-elected representatives of the people, for the people and by the people usually can’t speak worth a damn but clearly they have found a way around their limitations and managed to channel their inner Cicero meets Deepak Chopra with the right dosage of inebriant even if it does cause them to slur over their tall promises.

Speaking of promises, there are many of those made in rousing speeches delivered at volumes guaranteed to bust eardrums and via paid advertisements across social media. The impoverished, minorities and women are assured that their rights will be the top priority and not the rich men who actually run the country. Aspiring candidates swear on their lives that the evil that is the caste system will no longer deny people their due, religious rights of all will be upheld, and women need not worry endlessly about being gang – raped, murdered, harassed, or being denied opportunities for career advancement. Hell, even house – wives will receive a much deserved salary, they are told. Law and order will be maintained, there will be beautiful, fully – furnished houses for the poor with as many toilets built as temples/churches/mosques. Quality education will be free for all, development will proceed unhindered and soon, the entire country will look twice as pretty as Switzerland in Spring.

Of course, the oft frustrated Indian voter doesn’t buy any of it but they can’t look away either. Because despite the awfulness of it all, dirty politics makes for one riveting spectacle.

This article was originally published in The New Indian Express.