Karnan Movie Review: Mari Selvaraj’s dance of defiance makes for glorious cinema

Where does one begin with Mari Selvaraj’s superlative Karnan? Let’s start perhaps by getting the obvious out of the way: the comparisons with the Karnan from mythology. There’s the constant suggestion that Dhanush’s Karnan has all the makings of a great leader—selflessness, benevolence, courage, and the willingness to stand up for the innocent. If Kunti cast away Karnan in Mahabharata, Mari’s Karnan is caste away. He shares with the mythological hero the yearning for equality and respect. His generosity isn’t in handing out riches; it’s in handing himself for the community’s protection, for retention of its dignity even if at the cost of his life. He once jokes, “Yaarukku enna kudukka mudiyumo, adhaane mudiyum.”

Director: Mari Selvaraj

Cast: Dhanush, Lal Paul, Lakshmi Priya Chandramouli, Yogi Babu, Rajisha Vijayan, Gouri Kishan

The community of Podiyankulam (named, I suppose, after Kodiyankulam, which suffered a police rampage in 1995), needs a dynamic figure, even if it doesn’t realise it, and from the beginning of Karnan, there’s the indication that the protagonist is a warrior, a saviour. Barely minutes after you get introduced to him, an old woman glares at a bird of prey and warns, “Un rekkaya odaikka oruthan varuvaan.” Shortly, we see the son of the Sun—here, the son of the soil—being carried on the shoulders of elated Podiyankulam’s citizens, as he holds a sword aloft to the sun. Unlike in Mani Ratnam’s Thalapathy (a poster of which Karnan flaunts on his tee)—which too was an interpretation of Karna—Mari’s Karnan doesn’t rely on visual homages to the sun, save for the rare silhouette shot; the sunny village of Podiyankulam is reminder enough.

While Kunti’s Karnan had to make the choice between staying loyal to the Kauravas and taking over the Pandavas, Mari’s Karnan has to choose between fighting for his village and joining the enemy ranks, in a sense. While the film makes it clear that a villain is every person—even those with fleeting appearances (like Azhagam Perumal)—who considers another person to be beneath him, the most vicious among them is a police officer played by Natty, whose subtlety accentuates his menace. Watch him express discomfort while waiting for a chair from the Podiyankulam community, and you recognise immediately that he’s a dangerous man. The character’s name, Kannabiran, leaves you with little doubt on the mythological character—considered to be god—who is being referenced, and in a sense, criticised.

There’s, in fact, quite a bit of subtext about god in this film. In one scene, one of the police officers dismisses the Podiyankulam citizens as paganists who worship a deity without a head. In another scene, one of the villagers, who is painting the deity on the wall, ends up leaving the figure headless. (This could be relevant reading in this matter.) The Podiyankulam community, instead, seems to show a love for harmonious living, the like of which was hinted in the recent rage, Enjoy Enjaami. The film is full of animals: cats, dogs, goats, roosters, cows… A butterfly falling is a sign (Santhosh Narayanan’s beautiful Utradheenga Yappo asks, “Oor ulagam suththam povurom; enga rekkai yenga kelunga”). A man riding an elephant is a signifier of respect; this, of course, irks a Meloor (named for a reason) leader into wanting the beautiful creature dead. A horse—and its young rider—feature in a heroic scene towards the end of the film. Perhaps the most relevant of them all to this film, the donkey—that meek animal of labour—gets freed by Karnan. For the longest time, it’s shown to be limping about, on account of its front legs being tied together. The metaphor writes itself. In any case, what’s the point of a deity when cruelty occurs unchecked… when a young girl dies of a seizure on the main road, while vehicles are driven by around her? Those opening sounds of traffic, as the credits begin to roll, haunt this entire film. Santosh Narayanan’s music does wonders to this film. The songs are already a rage and each of them is amplified by the theatre experience and the potent events of this film. ‘Manjanathi‘ works even better in the film. Kanda Vara Sollunga is guaranteed to echo in my head for weeks to come.

Also haunting this film are visuals of those girls bearing the symbolic head of a guardian deity. Each time, Karnan shows spunk, these angels rise. They appear in dreams as guides; they appear as voices of encouragement and applause. They even dance about, when, finally, war seems inevitable. There can be no peace when the real authorities, police officers tasked with the role of being guardians, turn out to be agents of oppression instead. ‘Utraadheenga Yappo’ calls them ‘thoppi potta pei’ and warns, ‘kandavana adikka varaan; kanavayellaam posukka varaan’. That’s why Karnan constantly suggests, even if with some empathy, that docility in such a world is almost cowardice. Mari shows how that the oppressed show great tolerance even when brutalised, but the oppressors, like the police officers drunk on authority, deem even invisible acts of defiance as blasphemy deserving of torture.

The violence in this film isn’t simply of the cathartic variety, even though that would ostensibly have felt like a valid choice by itself. Mari goes a step further and shows how violence, in such extreme cases of oppression, becomes the only available response—even if it can barely match up to the levels that Kannabiraan unleashes… sometimes at even imagined provocation. The clash between the police and the villagers is this film’s rather contained interpretation of the Kurukshetra war. Krishna took on Duryodhana and friends there; here, Kannabiraan takes on pretty much the same names. But crucially, it’s clear who is deserving of our support, and who, of our condemnation. The Duryodhana in this film may be old and weary (which in itself could be a metaphor), but like in the Mahabharata, he displays much love towards Karnan. When a whole community asks for Karnan to be sent away, he kisses him. Sounds familiar?

The film is full of such memorable characters, and this helps stop Karnan from getting burdened as the solo heroic figure, which, in such movements, is often counterproductive. His friend and a village elder, Yamarajan (Lal), is a hero too. Built big and full of exuberance and affection, his strength and his helplessness is never seen more than when he is forced to be a mute observer of torture and slams the wall in frustration. But his character isn’t just about the physicality; he’s perhaps the emotional core of this film and gets an entire song in which to express his love for his dead wife. It’s also ever a pleasure to see Yogi Babu plays roles that don’t objectify him. Mari, here, goes a step further and even strips the humour label off him. The result is wonderful.

Karnan also has many memorable women. There’s Karnan’s sister (Lakshmi Priya Chandramouli), who is perhaps the only character capable of bringing him in line. There’s his girlfriend, Draupadhai (Rajisha), who, even with the limitations of her character, is given the agency to choose her partner. Even smaller characters like Karnan’s mother, who communicates a real sense of concern and helplessness at protecting her son, and a passing old woman who Yama steals from, make an impression. And of course, Karnan’s sister, though present in a single scene, haunts the entire film. If I had some grouse at all, it would be that the women don’t seem to play a stronger part in the war. This means that when they consequently are shown to implore at the feet of Karnan, it seems like the exact behaviour that he often condemns.

And yet, for the most part, the heroic moments in this film don’t necessarily feel manufactured for Dhanush’s presence. There’s a genuine attempt at empowering the other members of the community, who despite having the motivation and strength, simply seem to lack the courage to take the first step. In fact, for much of the final battle, Karnan is a lonely figure, walking away elsewhere. Just the idea of a star-like Dhanush not involved in the final battle for the longest time… that, in itself, is a fascinating choice. And then, to be able to write in a rousing, organic moment of heroism that’s also visually so gratifying…

The real pleasures of Karnan aren’t these mass moments though; it’s the film’s love and empathy for a trampled people and their way of life. It presents with such detail their music, devotion, ritual, dance… why, even their gambling. The story is hardly revolutionary, even if it is about one. And yet, it’s astonishing what Mari does with this rather contained premise, and how he brings in the emotions and the majesty befitting a premise far vaster in scope and scale. This loftiness in execution documents the dehumanisation of so many people among and around us, and in a way that is deeply affecting.

Even though you could have forgiven it for doing so, Karnan isn’t interested in painting people in black and white. It still shows you the policeman who doesn’t partake in State-sponsored torture. It shows you many Podiyankulam citizens who would rather run than fight. It also shows you someone like Yogi Babu’s character who believes that survival can happen only by lying meekly at the feet of the oppressor (when Karnan sees an old man do this, he responds, “Thu!”). Karnan is a symbol, not necessarily a real man swinging about a sword on a horse, like the Kalki avatar. He’s the manifestation of the fury that comes from being stomped on for generations. Even more affectingly, he is the summary of all the frustration and helplessness every oppressed person has ever felt, when attempting to appeal to the humanity of the oppressor. This is why even when Karnan puts a sword to a malicious man’s neck, he is more frustrated than angry. “Apdi pesaadhayaa!” he screams in tears, almost to the world at large.

In a perfect world, Karnan would be free to pursue a career of his choice and travel where his wings take him. But like the donkey in this film, he can only move so much with his feet tied. That final dance may seem like joy, but don’t for a minute stop to notice that it is simply a momentary physical release of all the frustration built inside. The flailing about of the arms and the facial contortions feel like defiant pleas for freedom. Karnan is a tearful dance, and with this film, Mari Selvaraj establishes for a second time that he has all the markings of a masterful filmmaker.

This review was written for Cinema Express, and was originally uploaded here.

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