It’s difficult to recall many scenes in Dhanush-starrer Karnan that are not punctuated with shots of animals, birds or insects. Even in scenes that depict simple, everyday life in Tirunelveli’s Podiyankulam, we find a shot of a fluttering moth, squealing pigs or crawling worms. At first, these ‘reaction shots’ take a little getting used to. Either in direct conflict or in complete harmony, these non-human ‘actors’ have a way of pulling us away or thrusting us deeper into Karnan. But as you go along, you realise that this story of the fallen rising is not just about the people.
Oppression isn’t selective like that and it’s macro-effects have a bearing on the tiniest of microorganisms. It affects the chicks just as it affects the eagles. It affects the soil, just as it affects the trees. It affects the donkeys, just as it affects the stallions. Karnan is a record of a rebellion fought not just by an army of soldiers, but also by the land beneath them.
This land is unique in many ways. For one, Podiyankulam only exists in the map of its dwellers. For outsiders, it’s simply a kaadu, a barren wasteland that deserves no pride nor progress. There are no schools, clinics or bus stops. It’s 1995, but the village appears to be frozen in another time. There’s no room for divine intervention either because the people believe in a God that remains headless. As for their hero, the village proposes a sport that involves the chosen one slicing up a flying fish using a mythical sword.
But the divine cannot be too far removed from a film titled Karnan. For Karnan (Dhanush), there’s no escaping destiny’s repeated calls demanding his action. At first he appears to be sleeping, oblivious to what’s happening around him. If Arthur was the only one in England to pull out the Excalibur from the stone, in Podiyankulam, it’s only Karnan who can sail through the skies (with the sun watching over) to bisect the fish with a sword that fits his body like a limb.
This sword isn’t the weapon of his choice and our hero Karnan knows this better than we do. When you come from such a place, heroism isn’t really a choice. Even the idea of vigilante justice appears silly to him. His entire identity is chained to a place and a caste, and he doesn’t have the option to fight back with a mask on. He’s also been trying to get enrolled in the Army, hoping that it would be his way out. In one of his trials, we witness the devastation it causes another villager when he’s an inch away from getting this ticket to freedom.
But others are not looking for a way out. One of Karnan’s neighbours (played by Gouri Kishan) stands to be the first to get a college education, but that’s only if she can get there first. Without a bus stop for the village, even the wheels of progress have no time for Podiyankulam.
What other option does Karnan really have when the weapon of education evades him? The villagers have tried every democratic method to get them this bus stop; they’ve appealed to government officers and signed petitions, but the State refuses to acknowledge their existence. The use of neighbouring bus stops are not an option because the dominant caste will never allow that.
The oppression they face is two-fold. It uses the deep chains of casteism to shackle the people of Podiyankulam. What if the powers of the system too join hands with these forces to further make the village miss its bus again? Karnan’s enemies too take this form. In the first half, he faces a set of enemies that are at least visible to him. He’s grown up as one of the victims of the caste system, so it’s not shocking when he has to deal with caste-based crimes. But when even the new police officer brings no relief or respite, the sword has to come right back to this chosen one.
The layers in Karnan will take several readings to uncover. It’s an in-depth study of character as we witness three different attitudes among the three generations living here. Servile and subservient, a certain weakness is a part of the thinking and the body language among Karnan’s seniors. When the local bus owner agrees to finally allot a stop at Podiyankulam, these seniors thank him by prostrating before him; a reaction Karnan objects to strongly. But even Karnan appears mellow compared to the courage of the next generation. If Karnan appears to walk, they want to run (some of them smile as Karnan attacks). Which is when we realise the nature of this strength. Built on the shoulder of hundreds before them, it has taken several sacrifices for the village to finally stand straight and fight back. And when they do, it’s children, women and finally the men who have to lead.
Like in Pariyerum Perumal, Mari Selvaraj creates vivid imagery that has the power to remain tattooed in our minds for long. Symbolisms are spread across the narrative with a donkey with its legs tied together, unable to break free, used across the film. An important event is bookended when a central character finds a broken watch. Karnan keeps eclipsing headless statues or paintings of the hero the village has long been waiting for. The film’s most brutal scene is set in a police station where the walls are lined with photos of Nehru, Kamaraj, Bose and Bharathi (Ambedkar rests on another wall, during another time). Karnan himself is seen wearing a Thalapathi t-shirt even though the film about him rejects the very idea of divinity in birth and there are no saviours nor are there allies in this fight for equality.
With Santosh Narayanan’s rousing score (‘Kanda Vara Solunga’/the ‘hero introduction’ is song one for the ages), great performances all around and the earthy, burnt tones of Theni Eswar, Karnan intentionally disturbs the viewer from their slumber. It tells us that there’s no peace or prosperity, no matter how far you travel, when your home is burning. Eventually, it’s also an exploration of anger and how it’s an emotion only the privileged are allowed to express.