Mari Selvaraj’s film draws the interlocking barricades that caste, lack of access, police brutality and power impose on the lives of many people.
That Mari Selvaraj is as a director and screenwriter to watch carefully is undeniable. With the release of his highly anticipated second film, Karnan, he establishes a formidable space for himself among the young and progressive voices of present-day Tamil cinema. Her casting choices turned out to be impeccable. Santhosh Narayanan’s music permeates the film, perfectly cementing each scene in place.
It’s hard to think of anyone else among the current generation of young actors who could have carried the weight of the title role as perfectly as Dhanush. Give Dhanush a good script and he delivers a performance that fascinates you. Yaman (Lal) is the oldest and wisest man who both serves as the impetus to propel young Karnan towards the hero his tiny village needs, and is a steady hand during his hottest moments. They do well on the comedy front. Conversing mostly in barbed wire, but harmless words, their friendship is believable and utterly amiable.
Fortunately, Yogi Babu is again, as he was Pariyerum Perumal, given a character who doesn’t have to be a ridiculed figure for his appearance, slapped the face and was the centerpiece of racist and casteist jokes. It’s a simple request that Tamil cinema stop using dark-skinned, frizzy-haired people as props for their slapstick comedy. In Karnan, he has a complex role: a person who seems to have some of the right intentions, but who also has to navigate past his many flaws to discover a better version of himself. The love interest of Karnan Draupathi (Rajisha Vijayan in her Tamil debut) is integral, but could have had more to do.
Mari Selvaraj returns to the Tirunelveli agricultural belt where his first film was also shot. When launching audio from Karnan earlier this week he spoke about how so many stories and cultural modes of storytelling reside in these small villages he knows so well. He also mentioned that while the distinct cultures of the region have reached traditional Tamil cinema, the people and their lives have not. Karnan revolves around a single cause. This cause may have initially seemed insignificant to people used to living in good infrastructure and easy connectivity.
Karnan highlights the interlocking barricades that caste, lack of access, police brutality and power impose on the lives of many. Mari Selvaraj turns the heat up slowly, with impeccable timing, until the film reaches its pivotal intermission and thunderous climax.
Watch: Teaser of Karnan
As we already knew from the clues the songs gave, the characters in the Mahabharata populate the screen, but as mortals. There is an ultimate, pitched battle between righteousness and wickedness. Until this day, I have never been able to agree to tell the epic in these very terms of good and evil, because cruelty much greater than Mahabharata is a monument to, is the varna system. In the epic, Karnan is repeatedly denied the chance to prove his worth because he is mistakenly viewed as a shudra and not the so-called “warrior” caste of the kshatriya. Alas, they do not yet know how “high-born” he is: descendant of a princess and the sun god. The Karnan of Mari Selveraj, we already know it since the day when “Kandaa Vara Sollunga” fell, “is not the son of Kunti nor of Surya, he has neither kavasam nor kundalam”. He is not in the “bad” caste, only to be reestablished in the dominant caste. This Karnan claims his warrior cowl where he is – in the same caste location he was born into.
To reiterate this degree of agency throughout the film is a marked departure from Mari Selvaraj’s early days. One aspect that leaves me at odds about the young filmmaker’s stories is the camera’s tendency to linger too long on scenes of humiliation, as it did in Pariyerum Perumal. I have to honestly admit here that it took a relatively recent second viewing of Pariyerum Perumal and persuade a more critical person to correctly register this trend. Several times watching KarnanI sat down with my hands over my ears, eyes closed, internally begging for the scene to be over. It’s not that the claustrophobia that Mari Selvaraj seems to want to convey in the two films is lost. There are some similarities in what he states through the two heroes – a caste system and its performers who deliberately obstruct progress; make a concentrated effort to block access to everything that is essential: education, health, peace.
Whether extended sequences of degradation are to be made cinematic, is a question worth asking, as the question of who caste blindness ends up being made of such scenes follows just behind. However, unlike Pariyerum Perumal, Karnan retaliates with a ferocity on par with his attackers.
Without a doubt, Karnan is a movie to watch, especially in theaters, if you can.
Also read: What ‘Joji’ and ‘Great Indian Cuisine’ Have in Common: Women Against Patriarchy
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