Caste is a state of mind, goes the oft-quoted remark of Dr B.R. Ambedkar, the driving force behind the framing of the Constitution of India, who thought and wrote extensively on the intangible hierarchy that has pervaded much of the socio-cultural interaction in India. It is his photograph that is in focus in one of the scenes of physical confrontation between villagers and the police, in Mari Selvaraj's latest film Karnan, starring Dhanush as the eponymous character (inspired by Karna from the Mahabharat).
Karnan is a story about a remote village in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu. It is a village whose primary demand is that of an exclusive bus stop for the villagers, which would allow them the luxury of not having to travel to the neighbouring village just to board a bus. But this 'bus politics' is not a standalone issue, it is intrinsically linked to the caste-based identity of the villagers. The village in question is inhabited by people belonging to the so-called lower caste. It is home to Karnan, namesake of the outcast character from the aforementioned epic. The premise pits the villagers against the state, as they try to defend themselves from state-sponsored barbarism. Interestingly, the village chief is named Duryodhanan, another character of royalty from the epic. This mere act of someone assuming a royal name without 'social sanction' becomes irksome to the supercilious police chief and leads to unbridled violence and loss of lives.
Selvaraj has peppered the mise-en-scène with emblems associated with caste consciousness. Like his previous film, Pariyerum Perumal, where a dog was used to symbolise oppression, in this film too, he has taken recourse to symbols like a donkey with forelimbs tied with a knotted cloth (signifying bonded labour), horse-riding by members of the oppressed community (historically a reserve of upper-caste kings and warriors), as well as the scion of the oppressed brandishing a sword. All these come together as subtle nods to established realities of caste and their subsequent rewriting as envisioned by the filmmaker. In the film, it is emphasised that the excesses that were meted out by the vengeful law enforcement personnel on the villagers were not as a punishment for violence or damage to property, but because members of the lower caste had dared to stand tall and stand united in confrontation with the state. There had been no subservience on their part, something people in power consider to be a default setting for economically and socially backward individuals. In a Lagaan-esque moment, the protagonist Karnan, like Bhuvan, passionately urges the villagers to unite themselves to seek justice and arm themselves with courage to defend their dignity. The film is a highly dramatic one, which uses all the tools of cinema to depict the atrocities unleashed on the weaker lot. Slow motion, music, dramatic juxtapositions, rousing monologues – everything has been employed effectively to place the audience in the shoes of the oppressed. It is quite clear that the film is Selvaraj's effort to sensitise the uninitiated audience about caste-based violence and to develop in their minds a sensibility toward the possible realities about caste in Tamil Nadu.
Dhanush continues to prove why he is the go-to actor in Tamil cinema for gritty roles. Coming off Asuran, another film where communitarian oppression was the central premise, Dhanush delivers a formidable performance, in which he does most of the heavy-lifting. He is the centrepiece whose actions foment the conflict and whose efforts encourage others to take the conflict head-on. In the film, Karnan gets to romantically be with Draupadi, a character played by Rajisha Vijayan. This is another instance of an attempted rewriting of the storyline of the epic, where Karnan, a suta-putra, was not eligible to marry Draupadi, who was of noble birth. Thus, the film interweaves modern narratives with mythological underpinnings and tries to explore an alternative reality that is characterised by the symbolic uplift of the historically downtrodden.
The heart-rending events depicted in Karnan are being said to be inspired by the infamous violence that broke out in the Kodiyankulam village in the southern Tamil district of Thoothukudi in 1995. In the film, the village has been named Podiyankulam, a very obvious spin on the name of the real village. The 'bus politics' described in the film also has real-life provenance as agitations surrounding bus stops did take place in the southern districts. The film serves as a fictional take on the conflict and doubles down as a wake-up call. Violence and flare-ups around social constructs like caste are still reported sporadically and continue to claim human lives. In such a juncture, films like Article 15, Sairat and Karnan can point out the ailment, but the treatment has to be done by the collective society at large. It is always a good time to rise above the 'us' vs 'them' sentiment, and to gauge people not by the nature of created identities, but by the content of their characters.