‘Karnan’ opens with a young girl lying on a road suffering from an epileptic fit and on the brink of death. Lorries and Buses pass by, but no-one stops. She eventually dies and becomes a goddess. And at many times in the movie, through her eyes and conscience we witness the events that unfold at Podiyamkulam – a small village, often referred to as a wasteland, where a Dalit community survives. These five minutes alone tell you that this is a serious tale.
‘Karnan’ is a story about the titular character and the systemic oppression that his village endures and fights against. Podiyamkulam is a small village with aspirational youth and wise elders. Their asks are not many. They wish to be allowed basic privileges like a bus stop, thus saving them a trip to the bus stop of their pompous neighbours, Melur ( literally translates to ‘upper village’). It might not seem like much- a bus stop. But what it represents is so much more. A bus stop means convenience, a bus stop is an opportunity to a better life, in fact, a bus stop is identity. When you sit in a bus where there isn’t a ticket for you, a bus that wont stop for you, you realise you’re unwanted, an outcast.
The central conflict arises from this bus stop or rather, its lack thereof. In a moment of frustration a young boy hurls a rock at one such bus that wont stop for his pregnant mother and there the tables turn. Soon the police, the collector and others who would never see themselves visiting such a place are forced to visit Podiyamkulam and parley. The story follows this conflict while highlighting the casteism and police brutality that these people endure. Karnan is always faced with a difficult decision – does he fight back against his oppressors thus causing his entire village to suffer the fallout. Or does he bow down like his elders. This conflict is beautifully captured by a donkey in the village who’s forelimbs are bound in order to make sure that he doesn’t run away to freedom. In a pivotal moment in the film and in Karnan’s mind, he decides that it was time to break free of the shambles and he cuts the donkey’s leg loose and proceeds to destroy the arrogant bus that would not stop for a pregnant women on a sunny day.
It is in moments like this, entrenched in metaphors, imagery and brilliant music, that the movie shines. Anyone who has seen ‘Pariyerum Perumal’ knows that Mari Selvaraj is not one to hold back. His fearless film-making , the editing and cinematography has given us a movie full of powerful scenes. The clever references to the Mahabharata too have gravity – “ Do you think you are a king, just because you have named yourself Dhuryodhana ?” Where the movie does falter a little is in the pacing in the first half, the storyline with Karnan’s love interest Draupadi ( there is a very good explanation for this on-the-nose naming) and a few moments in the movie where events were overtly dramatised. Not every crisis is made better by a pregnant women in labour, nor does the hero need to make dramatic entrances. With such a story and writing, the scene works much better without these overused tropes.
Dhanush deserves special credit for his powerful performance here. He and the ensemble cast work very well to lend the movie the air of authenticity that is pivotal. Movies on topics such as this, are very difficult to get right. When done wrong, they suffer from misrepresentation, a lack of authenticity or they play to painful stereotypes ( ‘Madam Chief Minister’). But in the capable hands of Mari Selvaraj, we have a cinematic gem.
The Cinemawala Rating – 4/5
About The Author-
Anushree Periasami is an electrical engineer from IIT Madras, currently working as a financial analyst. But her pet project has always been writing. An avid reader right from school, her favourite exercise was essay writing on novels and stories and the critical analyses of plots, characters, themes, etc. That interest continued right through college and to work as well. She was the Regional Editor for the internal quarterly magazine of her company – a compilation of interviews, technology articles and fun puzzles. The only things she loves as much as writing is watching movies and shows, especially masterpieces that aren’t advertised much and largely ignored. As Bojack Horseman put it, “But isn’t art, less what people put into it, but more what people get out of it ?”
Also elle peut parler francais !