Director: Mari Selvaraj
Writer: Mari Selvaraj
Starring: Dhanush, Rajisha Vijayan, Lal, Yogi Babu, Laxmi Priyaa Chandramouli
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
Like Mari Selvaraj's first film, Pariyerum Perumal, Karnan also begins with a horrific death. The opening credits appear on a black screen against the sounds of a busy road – cars, trucks, buses, cycles, an ambulance. The road runs by Podiyankulam, a small fictional village in Tamil Nadu, but traffic rarely stops there. The village and its people are merely a blur in the scenery. There is no bus stop. So even when a sick little girl or, later, a pregnant woman, waits to be transported, no one halts to help. DOP Theni Eswar gives us a god's-eye view of the traffic plying. The world is indifferent to the tragedy unfolding. The road isn't merely a way out. It's a symbol of everything that the people of Podiyankulam don't have – opportunity, freedom, respect, dignity.
Karnan is a powerful call to arms. The cycle of oppression is broken through horrific violence, which begins when a young boy throws a stone. That act, stemming from rage and frustration, puts into motion events that lead to destruction and murder, but eventually to a phoenix-like rebirth. Selvaraj, who has also written the story, demonstrates that sometimes, violence is the answer. The boy reminded me of other young boys whose act of stone-throwing announces that they aren't willing to be subjugated anymore – Jabya in Nagraj Manjule's Fandry and the boy in Shyam Benegal's Ankur – both brilliant debut films and, like Karnan, stories about the tyranny of the caste system.
But before we get there, Selvaraj immerses us into the rhythms and life of Podiyankulam. He doesn't want us to simply view these characters through generic labels of 'marginalised' or 'Dalit'. He wants us to see them as human beings. So there is a young girl who aspires to go to college; Karnan's family – his older, unmarried sister, his constantly wailing mother and his ineffectual father – are clearly established; as is Draupadi, who loves Karnan without hesitation or coyness. These names aren't incidental. Selvaraj reimagines the Mahabharat so that Karna is no longer a good man on the wrong side. He is a hero who leads his people to wreck a system that is rigged against them. The village head, a wise man who backs Karnan's aggression, is named Dhuryodhanan.
It is these names that get under the skin of the investigating police officer Kannabiran, played superbly by Natty. He is appalled that these people, who don't even have a bus stop, have the audacity to give themselves these regal names. Selvaraj skilfully dissects how the caste system works so it isn't enough that the ones at the bottom stay servile and impoverished. They can't be allowed even a sliver of ambition or aspiration. Kannabiran sets out to show the people of Podiyankulam their place in the world.
Selvaraj and Eswar seamlessly mix tonalities, moving from naturalistic textures to myth-making. They even include a running thread of magical realism, which is the weakest link in the film. From the onset, Karnan is established as a saviour, shot in silhouettes and low angles. Right after the opening titles, composer Santhosh Narayanan's terrific song 'Kanda Vara Sollunga', which means 'if you see him, do tell him to come', shows us the entire village waiting for Karnan to return. We understand his significance through the eyes of the villagers who are waiting desperately for him.
Karnan is every inch the liberator of his people. But there is no flashiness in the way Dhanush plays him. The character is very much rooted in the milieu. Dhanush's ability to combine Everyman with Hero is remarkable. The others – Lal, Rajisha Vijayan, Laxmi Priyaa Chandramouli and Yogi Babu – are also solid. And Selvaraj's frames aren't just filled by people. His gaze also takes in animals – pigs, dogs, a horse, an elephant, birds and even fish. A donkey with bound feet becomes a running metaphor for the people of Podiyankulam. He hobbles everywhere until Karan sets him free.
The symbolism is heavy-handed and at two-and-a-half hours, Karnan seems over-stretched. But Selvaraj successfully converts his seething rage into blazing cinema.
You can watch Karnan on Amazon Prime Video.