The best of screenwriters cannot imagine writing something like the Mahabharata because there are so many plots, subplots, and characters. And one of the most fascinating characters is Karna, who is born a demi-god. He is the son of a queen (Kunti) and a god (Surya). But he's abandoned by his mother and raised by people from oppressed communities. So it's no wonder he's often seen as an outsider; a tragic figure who never gets what he wants. He doesn't get to be with his mother, brothers, or even the woman he loved (Draupadi, in some versions of the epic).
My favorite film version of the Mahabharata is Shyam Benegal's Kalyug. He sets the tale between two feuding industrial families, and Shashi Kapoor plays the Karna character. But Tamil viewers are probably more familiar with Mani Ratnam's unofficial "biopic" of Karna, Thalapathi. The film has all the familiar characters — Karna, Draupadi, Kunti, Duryodhana — but Karna is the hero of the story, rather than the traditional Arjuna. And then we have the actual biopic called Karnan, starring Sivaji Ganesan and made by BR Panthulu in 1964.
There are minor callbacks in this Karnan to those earlier films, which may be unintentional. There's a scene with the sun shining in the background as the mother rocks a child in a cloth cradle. It gives us a mother, father, child dynamic happening in the same frame, even though this particular child is not Karnan. There's also a scene where characters are wearing a T-shirt with Rajinikanth from Thalapathi.
But this retelling is very different. The song 'Kanda Vara Sollunga' says that Karnan might not have the traditional markers like kavasa-kundalam, but he had a sword and he fought with it. I thought the film might be a rousing story about a "saviour" saving his oppressed community. Seen in the broadest possible way, it is kind of that story. But this is also a story of the tragedy of the community.
At the start of the film, a little girl lies on the road, dying. Passing buses don't stop. That's one of the many, many metaphors in the film. The village where Karnan's community lives has no bus stop of its own. So, the people have to hitch rides on vehicles passing by. The subtext is that the lack of a bus stop prevents these people from traveling too much. It keeps them "contained" in their village. And that's where (and how) the dominant caste wants them.
When speaking to Film Companion South, Mari Selvaraj said Karnan is a lifestyle movie. I didn't fully understand it then, but I think I get it now. The first half of the film is dedicated to the lifestyle of the community. The way they live, the games they play, the death ceremonies, customs and rituals, the joy the neighbouring (dominant) community derives from oppressing them, and especially how people who die transform into native gods.
And even as this "lifestyle movie" unfolds around us, we begin to get the arc of transformation of Karnan (Dhanush). At first he is the kind of guy who sees an eagle taking away a chicken and says that this happens every day and there's no point fussing about it. It's a metaphor about how the powerful always prey on the weak. But as atrocities against his community increase, his anger also begins to increase. A girl is humiliated, there's an unfair kabaddi match, a conductor humiliates his village — all of this builds and builds until we get a spectacular intermission moment.
But this is very unlike the usual intermission moment in a "hero" movie, which leaves us with a high. This one leaves us with mixed feelings even though Karnan technically "wins" and takes charge of the moment and unleashes his anger to the fullest. This doesn't feel like a rousing moment at all. And this moment, too, involves a bus, the thing that refuses to stop at their village, the thing that restricts them to where they are.
In a way, Mari Selvaraj's second film is very different from his first. Pariyerum Perumal was all about having a discussion; Karnan is about people being oppressed and their retaliation. And yet, both films are similar in one way. They're not celebratory films. They are not about one community "winning" over the other, or the "hero" conquering the villain. In fact, at the very end, when we get a celebratory dance, Karnan is forced into it; he's dancing with tears in his eyes. It's a mixed kind of happiness that the film ends with.
In the second half, Karnan's anger has been unleashed. He literally becomes a "pariyerum perumal", a god or a savior sitting on a horse. There may be another subversion here: in the epics, it was the kshatriyas who rode horses while the 'lower' communities were foot soldiers. If Karnan was angry in the first half, he really wakes up now. This is where the film differs from Thalapathy which was a closed drama with a one-on-one conflict between the Arjuna and Karna characters.
Here, even if Karnan is the one who's really fighting, even if he is a savior, he is inseparable from his community. So, the whole community gets involved in the war — the equivalent of the Kurukshetra war — that Mari Selvaraj stages in the second half. On the one side, we have members of Karnan's village and on the other, we have the police force, which represents government, politics, even society. The leader of the cops, brilliantly played by Natarajan Subramaniam, the cinematographer, plays the Krishna character. He is literally named Kannabiran.
There's an inevitable comparison when a director makes a film as unique as Pariyerum Perumal. You want to know what the second movie is and whether it's going to measure up. I think I found Pariyerum Perumal much more powerful because it's the story of a single man's angst. The anger that boiled inside him like lava was the driving force of the movie. Here, because it's the story of a community and because Karnan is never separated from this community, there are many, many characters—and the screenplay doesn't do justice to all of them.
Some characters really stand out. Kannabiran, for one. (I wished he had been introduced earlier.) Lakshmi Priyaa Chandramouli plays a very good role as Karnan's elder sister. But Karnan's love interest (the Draupadi equivalent, with the same name) played by Rajisha Vijayan could be taken out of the movie and you would never miss her character at all. Azhagam Perumal who plays the dominant leader of a village, too, has very little to do. We all know what a great actor Lal is. This isn't an especially challenging performance for him but he's very good on screen. He plays the best friend equivalent of Karnan even though he is much older, and I wish he had been given more shades. He's this guy who is solid and is always by Karnan's side, but you kind of don't get a sense of him as being more than a kind of BFF.
The screenplay also doesn't expand some touches it sets up. There's a chilling and fascinating moment in the first half where Karnan's father is visited by the goddess-spirit of his dead daughter. He seems to be able to communicate with her in a way that other people in the house don't seem to be able to. I thought that would have a big payoff in the second half when Karnan is walking away from the war in his village. I thought the father would ask him to go back into the village, because he has had a visitation from his daughter. But these payoffs don't happen, and the set-ups remain set-ups.
There's another moment that wasn't used, as well. Karnan's mother throws his sword in the river and he finds it immediately. That could have been a really rousing mythical moment, but maybe because the film was already a bit too long and had to be cut short, it doesn't quite have the impact you want it to have.
But there are other mythical moments that work fantastically. There's a moment when Karnan has to slice a fish into two. It's this big "heroic" moment, though (again) it involves the community. In the Mahabharata, during Draupadi's swayamvara, Arjuna hits the eye of a fish and wins her hand. Here, the heroic act with the fish is performed by Karna.
I felt the most overdone bit of symbolism in the movie was the presence of so many creatures. You see pigs, a horse, a snail, a dog like Karuppi, a donkey which is the "spirit animal" of the hero and the community. You get the point that we are all one and we share this world with everybody. But the visual symbolism seems overdone, though perhaps a second viewing will settle some of the doubts in our minds.
At the same time, there are other touches that work wonderfully, even though they may appear only once or twice, unlike sustained motifs. Early on, we hear the use of the Alai Osai song 'Porada Vaalendhada', which is actually about asking the oppressed community to rise. That's exactly what Karnan does. And my favourite scene in the film is when Karnan is in a running race for military selection. You'd think he'd be happy because he is one of the few who have passed the finish line. But Mari Selvaraj turns the camera to Karnan's point of view and shows us the man behind Karnan, the man who almost made it. He makes us see that even if we win it comes at another person's cost. This is when you realize what a wonderful humanist Mari Selvaraj is.
And the big moments work beautifully. I am not talking just about action scenes or the big confrontation scenes. I'm talking about the scene where Dhanush barges into a police station and wants to find some people from his village. When he actually finds them, it's an overhead shot and the sun is shining—I had gooseflesh the way the whole incident was framed.
There's so much to talk about Karnan, not just from a political standpoint which I'm sure a lot of people will do, but from a cinematic point of view as well. As a masala movie fan, we all know that one of the big moments is the face-reveal. But here, the actual hero is in custody with his face hooded, while the face-reveal happens as his image is drawn on a wall. We get the masala trope of people praising the hero but we don't see the person, only the representation of this person.
And just as Karnan's face is hooded, a Buddha statue is headless, a mural begins to be painted on the wall but its face is not painted until the end. Kannabiran loses his face because he is beheaded. This has to be about identity, because the minute you lose your face you lose your identity.
Like Pariyerum Perumal was carried by Kathir, Karnan is carried by Dhanush. This is a fantastic performance which is not very surprising but what surprises you is how many variations he brings in. When a friend of his dies, we get a closeup of his eyes with tears, but before that we actually see a closeup of his face. His reaction has the look of not just tragedy but also the futility of it all. It's so magnificent that you can't imagine anyone but Dhanush pulling it off.
I love the fact that though Dhanush does his share of hero roles, when he gets the right director or a director he respects, he completely lets go of his ego. In Asuran he went and fell at everyone's feet. Here he allows himself to be slapped by his sister and a cop. These are natural things that happen to characters but the hero character in our films is so built-up and unreal and godlike that when these small things happen without interference, you get this feeling that the hero is allowing himself to be a normal person.
But the real hero of the film is of course Mari Selvaraj who proves that Pariyerum Perumal was no fluke. Most people work on their first story all their lives and once they've put it out they struggle to find a second story. That doesn't happen here at all. He keeps giving us touches and metaphors and bits of subtext that one viewing is simply insufficient. Take this: Kannabiran is the villain of the piece. But at first, he seems like the only guy who is interested in the village. You think he might actually be a good guy. Like with the Krishna character, Mari Selvaraj names people from Karnan's community Abhimanyu and Duryodhanan and makes us wonder why the children of farmers can't bear the names of kings.
Most mainstream directors aim to leave the audience with a high at the end. Mari Selvaraj prefers to leave us with mixed feelings. He says that a movie can't solve everything but at least it can make us ask questions.