Director: Marie Selvaraj
Writer: Marie Selvaraj
Starring: Dhanush, Rajisha Vijayan, Lal, Yogi Babu, Laxmi Priyaa Chandramouli
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
Like Marie Selvaraj’s first film, Pariyerum Perumal,, Karnan also begins with a horrible death. Initial credits appear on a black screen against the background of the sounds of a busy road – cars, trucks, buses, bicycles, ambulance. The road passes from Podiankulam, a small fictional village in Tamil Nadu, but traffic rarely stops there. The village and its people are just a blur in the landscape. There is no bus stop. So even when a sick girl or later pregnant woman is waiting to be transported, no one stops to help. DOP Teni Esvar gives us a godsend view of traffic. The world is indifferent to the unfolding tragedy. The road is not just a way out. It is a symbol of everything that the people of Podiankulam do not have – opportunity, freedom, respect, dignity.
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Karnan is a powerful call to arms. The cycle of oppression is interrupted by horrific violence that begins when a young boy throws a stone. This act, stemming from rage and frustration, triggers events that lead to destruction and murder, but ultimately to a phoenix-like rebirth. Selvaraj, who is also the author of the story, demonstrates this sometimes violence is The answer. The boy reminded me of other young boys whose stone-throwing act announced that they no longer wished to be subdued – Jabia in Naraj Manjule Fundry and the boy in Sham Benegal Anchor – both brilliant debut films and Karnan, stories about the tyranny of the caste system.
But before we get there, Selvaraj immerses us in the rhythms and life of Podiankulam. He doesn’t just want us to look at these signs through common labels of “marginalized” or “Dalit.” He wants us to see them as human beings. So there is a young girl who aspires to study in college; Karnan’s family — his older, unmarried sister, his constantly crying mother, and his ineffective father — are clearly established; as well as Draupadi, who loves Karnan without hesitation or restraint. These names are not accidental. Selvaraj reconsiders Mahabharat so Karna is no longer a good man on the wrong side. He is a hero who makes his people destroy a system that is set against them. The village head, a wise man who supports Karnan’s aggression, is called Dhuryodhanan.
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It is these names that come under the skin of the investigating police officer Cannabis, played superbly by Nati. He is horrified that these people, who don’t even have a bus stop, have the audacity to give themselves these royal names. Selvaraj skillfully dissects how the caste system works, so it is not enough for those below to remain submissive and impoverished. They cannot be allowed even a fraction of ambition or aspiration. Cannabis sets out to show the people of Podiancoulam their place in the world.
Selvaraj and Eswar blend tonalities seamlessly, moving from naturalistic textures to myth-making. They even include a thread of magical realism, which is the weakest link in the film. From the very beginning, Karnan established himself as a savior, shot in silhouettes and low angles. Immediately after the opening titles, the great song by composer Santhosh Narayanan, “Kanda Vara Sollunga,” which means “if you see him, tell him to come,” shows us the whole village waiting for Karnan to return. We understand its significance through the eyes of the villagers who are desperately waiting for it.
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Karnan is every inch of the liberator of his people. But there is no lightning in the way Dhanush plays it. The character is very ingrained in the middle. Dhanush’s ability to combine Everyman with Hero is remarkable. The others – Lal, Rajisha Vijayan, Lakshmi Priya Chandramuli and Yogi Babu – are also solid. And Selvaraj’s shots aren’t just filled with people. His gaze also covers animals – pigs, dogs, horses, elephants, birds and even fish. A donkey with its legs tied becomes a running metaphor for the people of Podiankulam. He struggled everywhere until Karan released him.
The symbolism is heavy and for two and a half hours, Karnan it looks too tight. But Selvaraj successfully turns his boiling anger into a blazing movie.
You can watch Karnan on Amazon Prime Video.