While watching the trailer of Maamannan, one particular shot caught my attention. It was a silhouette of a dog standing on the edge of a cliff. Now, in a trailer replete with shots of animals intercut with actions of humans, this particular shot stood out for me because it is a convergence of Mari Selvaraj’s two powerful films that precede Maamannam. While the dog's presence in the scene felt like an instant callback to his groundbreaking debut, Pariyerum Perumal (2018), the choice to frame the moment as a silhouette has Karnan (2021) written all over it. Theni Eswar being the cinematographer for Karnan and Maamannan, naturally, contributes to this overarching style to an extent. In all, it felt like a true-blue Mari Selvaraj shot communicating a broader message likely to be pronounced more clearly in the final film.
The fact that the two-film-old Mari managed to maneuver a signature shot itself is a remarkable feat, and it’s Karnan that helped the filmmaker hone his ability to visually underline the allegories of his stories and his protagonist’s journeys. In addition to the animal symbolism and the magical realism in Karnan, one facet that the filmmaker strongly banks on to add a new layer of storytelling is the usage of silhouettes. Now, silhouettes, by form, are fascinating. There’s something naturally alluring about them for the eyes, while the brain has a fun exercise identifying the subject merely on the basis of their shape and outline. Kattappa backstabbing Bahubali, for instance, is one iconic shot. In that sense, silhouettes naturally lend an ‘iconic’ quality to a character or a scene because if they are popular enough, we can identify them purely based on a minimal silhouette. While the purpose of a silhouette tends to incline more toward the creation of iconic imagery, when backed by a strong motive, silhouettes can add a whole new layer of storytelling. Karnan benefits a great deal from this ‘motivation’.
Mari Selvaraj stated in a recent interview that the titles of his films guide him on the right path, encouraging him to take creative calls that complement the title and the themes he discusses. Karnan, for instance, was originally titled Pandiarajakal, but only after he locked Karnan as the title did the many elements—the sword and the horse, to name some—from the myth around the tragic mythological character get embedded into the film. The title of the film is precisely what lends greater meaning to the silhouettes on a narrative level, instead of simply serving the purpose of beautification. In Mahabharatha, Karna is the son of Surya, the sun God, and Princess Kunti. This mythological connection makes the Sun a spectator or a participant in every silhouette. While there are around 50 silhouettes in the film, very few of them come across as simplistic, stylish choices.
The film makes its Sun symbolism pretty clear within the opening few minutes. After the scathing opening scene of a girl child dying in the middle of the road, when the haunting ‘Kanda Vara Sollunga’ begins, the opening lines of the song, ‘Suriyanum pekkavila santhiranum satchiyila (The Sun didn’t give birth, the moon isn’t a witness)’ play over the image of a woman swinging a cloth cradle as the Sun watches from a distance, remaining as a constant presence throughout the song. Even when Dhanush’s Karnan steps out of the police vehicle in which he is apprehended and escorted, we first see the Sun before he emerges with handcuffs and a black cloth masking his face. When the song ends, and the story begins, a poetic shot of a decapitated Buddha statue bridges them both, with the timelapse technique enabling the rising Sun to metamorphose into the Buddha’s head.
Likewise, an important sequence in the film in which Karnan is tasked to bisect a fish with oor-vaal (the village’s sword) and restore his village’s prestige makes effective use of silhouettes. Be it Karnan’s walk to the cliff from where he has to make the jump to slay the fish or the act of the bisection that happens mid-air, they are framed as heroic and visually stimulating silhouettes. When villagers rejoice in Karnan’s win as a collective victory, we get what is perhaps the strongest image of the film, one that encapsulates the spirit of Karnan: the villagers holding the sword, a symbol of resistance to marginalisation, together as the Sun blesses them from afar. It’s also an super cool silhouette. Karnan himself gets another celebratory silhouette when he is paraded on an elephant.
The myth of Karnan is such that silhouettes bear a larger meaning even when the action they are capturing isn’t particularly dramatic. Sure, when Karnan fights crooks from the neighbouring village for making lewd remarks about a girl and hitting her father, who questions them, a silhouette captures his act of giving it back. But there are also simpler moments that capture the life of Podiyankulam, the village Karnan is set in, with all its culture and hardships included. Be it through the shots of Perumal grooming his horse and trying to ride, or the villagers waiting on the road for a vehicle to stop by and board one finally, arrangements being made for a funeral or a coin being tossed for a Kabaddi match, the silhouettes establishes the Sun as a silent spectator in these sequences.
The oor-vaal undergoes an arc of its own in the film. After Karnan smashes a bus in the film’s cathartic intermission sequence, his mother is daunted by the arrival of police in the village. Believing that the oor-vaal is the reason why the danger befell her son, she takes the sword to the very lake where Karnan bisected the fish and throws it away. When Karnan learns about his mother’s action, he angrily runs to revive the sword from the lake. The whole sequence, from Karnan coming out of hiding when police enter the village to jumping into the lake to search for the sword, uses silhouettes economically but effectively.
And in the finale, when Karnan finally becomes the hero he was poised to be all throughout, once again, the frames are kissed by the Sun. The most heroic shot of the film is the one featuring Karnan riding a horse, having made the decision to stand up for his village and its progress, even if it means trading his own future. As Karnan rides the horse to protect his people from the violence being inflicted on them by the police, it is captured using multiple silhouette shots that create a rousing impact.
Silhouettes are also used to underline the importance of the sword in his arc for one final time, with glimpses of Yema Thaha handing him the sword, flashing in front of his teary eyes as he sees him dead after incinerating himself to put an end to the police brutality being launched on the village.
We get one final silhouette of Karnan holding the sword before he proceeds to fight the police back. This last silhouette, in a way, stands for the strength and anger that Karnan manages to channel into the sword for one last time, once again, blessed by the Sun. It’s with this sword that Karnan beheads Kannabiran, the personification of oppression. The Sun was there when it happened. He was there throughout. The silhouettes registered his presence.