Karnan: An Essay on life, on Cinema and Everything in between

Updated: May 26

Spoilers ahead...


Mari Selvaraj is an altruist, a humanist, an activist, and very importantly, a wonderful artist. His first outing, Pariyerum Perumal, showed that when a story is felt and narrated, everybody gets it. Films like these are testimony to the fact that the divide of "A", "B" and "C" centres is all but whimsical and imaginary. And with Karnan, he doesn't disappoint at all. In fact, he proves his mettle yet again, showing that his success wasn't a fluke. The way this beauty sprawls the run-time is another feather to his cap and lives up to the expectation set by the former President, APJ Abdul Kalam, who said, "Don't take rest after your first victory because if you fail in the second, more lips are waiting to say that your first victory was just luck."


As much as the work that's gone into making this film - this film too has a lot of extras in almost every scene and most of them are the inmates of the village and not trained actors - to prove his worth, it's also the way it gets translated onto the screen that creates the impact that it does.


Mari Selvaraj, in one of his interviews, said that Karnan is a lifestyle movie. And that is true. The majority of the first half of the film focuses on the lifestyle, the way of living of the people of Podiyankulam. Right from the first few shots of the old women rearing the chicks, a ritual of cutting a fish into two, to the way of dressing and worship, etc., everything is shown in detail and a fleeting manner. The beauty is that none of these fleeting shots leaves you untouched. There is beauty, depth, significance and reason for and in every single frame of this film. Along with this being a lifestyle film, it is also, in my opinion, an epic in its own way. It is the tale of a people. It is the story of a people who are awakened after generations of slumber. And even this awakening doesn't happen over a period of a song or in a montage. It is real. It is slow but sure, gradual. The rousing climax and the subduing ending are fitting ends to this film.


Mari Selvaraj has made one thing clear about himself in his films. He is here to make films or rather tell stories using cinema as a medium of oppressed people breaking away their shackles. To put it in simple terms, it is just the template of an underdog's-rise-to-power or from-rags-to-riches story. Let me say a few words about the "generally accepted" way of filmmaking.


Here, when I say, generally accepted, I mean the commercial movies that have the essential ingredients of being a hit viz., hero introduction scene/shot, heroine introduction scene/shot, a villain, a fight sequence, a sidekick to the hero, a comedy track, duet songs, sad songs, climax fight and most importantly, a happy ending. Now, I am not averse to the commercial way of making cinema. After all, to many of us, cinema is a way for us to forget the harsh realities and get some entertainment. But, as I said, this is just a template. Sure, in the earlier days when there were a lot of films releasing with this template (sometimes following even the same order of the elements) that became super-hits and blockbusters. But as the audience became more exposed to the art cinema, this brand of cinema went into jeopardy of being disliked and so people had to re-invent themselves. This also saw a lot of template-driven cinema performing poorly. Therefore, people like Maniratnam (who saw this happen way before it actually did and started pushing the boundaries right from his Iruvar days), Vasanth, in the earlier part of the 2000s and directors like Karthik Subbaraj, Nalan Kumaraswamy and Lokesh Kanagaraj have been pushing the boundaries of this commercial cinema template to tell the stories that they want to say and yet without being to auteurist or artistic like Mysskin or Thiagarajan Kumararaja.


Mari Selvaraj too, like the directors mentioned above has created a niche for himself. For starters, when I heard that this was also another film about the rise of a hero (the hero being an oppressed class/caste) I was a little sceptical about the experience. After all, it is just a repetition of Pariyerum Perumal. But man was I mistaken! For instance, take the first song, Kandaa Vara Sollunga, that talks about the hero. The hero's face is shown by the time the song ends. But not in person. It is shown as a mural on a wall. This fits the boxes of the hero introduction shot (this is even better, it has a song!) and the existence of a hero figure in the story.



If Pariyerum Perumal was about the angst of one man, Karnan is about a whole village, a whole community. Pariyan was just a representative of his community that faced oppression. In other words, the oppression was made cognizant to the audience and the character only when it happened to him. But in Karnan, right from the first frame, we are made to witness all the atrocities that the inmates of Podiyankulam face at the hands of the people from the neighbouring Melur. In Karnan, the titular character acts only as a catalyst to rouse the fire in the bellies and hearts of the villagers whereas Pariyan fights a lone battle.


Besides all these obvious differences, there is a lot of similarity in both of these ventures as well. To begin with, Karnan, like Pariyerum Perumal is replete with visual metaphors. And it is really interesting to see how these metaphors are not like blink-and-miss. They are very deliberate, slow and there are pauses on the screen that let the beauty of the frame and the idea behind it breathe. Take for instance the drone shots at the beginning of the film where Yeman (Lal in sublime form) and Karnan (Dhanush, just being his usual terrific performer-self) are cycling to witness the traditional worship at a hillock-top. That shot is reminiscent of the drone shots that you would see at the beginning of Pariyerum Perumal as well. But there is an improvement here as well.


Such wide-angle shots of the landscape in the previous outing were to show mainly how barren the life of Pariyan is. However, in Karnan, Mari Selvaraj goes a step further. He not only uses these as breath-taking eye candies, but he also uses such shots to establish some key moments and emotions in the film as well. Take for instance the drone shot just before Thattaan Thattaan song begins. The shot is a wide-angled one at the top where the two lovers are shown, locked in an embrace, with the rocky earth beneath their feet forming the shape of a heart. Talk about symbolism. This isn't all! There is another shot where Yeman's face is shown from in-between the horns of a bull/cow. This is just before Karnan beats up the hooligans who misbehaved with one of the girls from Podiyankulam.


Talking about metaphors, it would be unfair if we don't talk about the names of these two villages. Podiyankulam - Podiyan in Tamil roughly translates to a small guy/weakling. Melur - Mel (pronounced male) is generally used to depict something that's "above" or "high". And Oor (like in moor) means a village/town. Now club the two to get a glimpse of detailed and layered writing. It's not just in the metaphors alone. If Thalapathi was a modern adaptation of the Mahabharatha, Karnan is an inversion of the same. And there is a layer even in that inversion. The villain of the story is named Kannabiraan (a south Indian name for Krishna) and the heroes are Karnan, Duryodhanan and the likes. Beyond the obvious role reversal, the character that plays Duryodhanan, the village chieftain, is a very good-hearted person of lofty ideals and high principles. In this re-telling, Duryodhana isn't greedy or even deceitful. He is exactly the opposite of that.



Along with the inversions, there is some fan-fiction of sorts too... but with a twist. In the Mahabharatha, Draupathi loves Karnan, but due to circumstances never gets to marry him or even tells him how she feels about her. Here too, Draupathi (a fantastic Rajisha Vijayan) never says what she feels about Karnan, but ends up marrying him. There is no time spent in showing how the love blossoms. There is only one song that shows all the cute scenes for a love story and that's about it. After this song, the couple goes through a fight and even gets together. But none of these scenes is dramatized or romanticized out of proportions. The writing of this film, in that sense, has been so focussed that there is almost no scope for looseness.


While talking about the writing of the film, it is important to talk about the developmental arcs of the supporting characters. I was so happy to see Yogi Babu as Vadamalaiyaan. His character was well nuanced. I'm not really sure if I was happy with the writing (the potential and 'what-it-could-be') of the character or his performance l. It's because I don't see any shots where there was scope for him to really bring out the grey in the character. Then comes the characters of Yeman and Padmini. Lal as Yeman is terrific. For once, we get a sidekick to the hero who is more than just a glass-partner to the hero who badmouths the heroine when they drink together. Instead, he actually promises that he would make sure that Karnan never drinks again. Lakshmi Priya Chandramouli is so endearing in this film! Hers is the kind of characters that is adamant about making a good man out of the ruffian of her younger brother. The scene where she slaps Karnan and goes back into the house crying is pure beauty. You see the pain of her brother failing, the desperation at their situation (poverty and oppression), the anger and disappointment at the probability of a good thing that has happened to Karnan going away.


The characters of the police officers is another example of terrific writing. Of course, the acting by Natarajan (Natty) as Kannabiran is a huge factor in making the film a success. But that acting can't come if solid writing is missing. The inversion of the epic aside, the character conveys a lot more non-verbally than it does verbally. In fact, the dialogues are a lot cliched and a little bit stagey. But the silent bits are the best parts of his character arc. Take for instance the look of disgust when he first comes to the village of Podiyankulam and observes that despite one of his subordinates telling one of the villagers to get a chair for him no one does it. Now follow that up with the shot where he compensates for this "insult" later on when he spots a man with a fishing rod nearby well taking off his turban in respect for Kannabiran. These are moments of pure brilliance in writing and acting.

It is not that the writing of the film is flawless. The characters of Draupathi (called endearingly as Drovathai) is so under-written and lacks any significance. The film wouldn't have changed a bit even if her character was not present. But what the character lacks in the writing department, the actor in Rajisha Vijayan more than makes up in her brilliant performance. Her callous proclamation of love for Karnan in her introduction, the way she ogles at him every time he passes by, etc. are just pure brilliance. Even the character of Gouri Kishan (of 96 fame) as Poovaiyal, is underwritten. Now, I don't really mind this because, in a film of such epic proportions, there are bound to be characters whose presence and/or absence doesn't really affect the happenings. For instance, if a war were to happen in reality, there would definitely be characters like these. Even cinematically, these characters, in my opinion, break the suspension of disbelief and make the film more rooted and believable.


Earlier I said that this film is no short of an epic. And very much like an epic, this film has a lot of metaphors that are shown on the screen brilliantly. There are instances of foreshadowing, symbolism, and so on. The best example of foreshadowing is the first scene in the film. Right before the camera moves to Dhanush's face who's shown sleeping we get to see a vulture swooping down out of nowhere and picking up one of the chicks. This is exactly what happens in the second half of the film when Kannabiran comes to Podiyankulam out of nowhere and picks the elderly people of the village and tortures them. There is another instance of metaphor and foreshadowing that happens in the second half. After feeling insulted at the village, Kannabiran stops by one of the simpletons fishing from a well. He takes the fishing rod from that guy and sits on the precipice of the wall with the hook in the water, meditatively. This scene is intercut with the scene where Karnan dives into the village tank to pick up the sword that his mother threw away. As he comes back to the surface, we are shown that Kannabiran has caught a fish. The scene where the village elders are brutally assaulted follows a few minutes earlier.


The film is epic not only in scale, how the film unfolds, it is also epic in the way it is filmed. We get the highs of action sequences, the motivational speeches, the cute love scenes (my favourite is the scene where Lal's character tries to steal 10 rupees from one of his late wife's friends) and the grand closure. The epicness of the film also unfolds in the climax fight between the policemen and the villagers of Podiyankulam. This is Mari Selvaraj's version of the Mahabharatha war. Only, this war is to get rid of everything that shackled them and is literally and metaphorically against the system.


Despite this being a "hero" film, the film is not sans its human touch. Take for instance the scene where Karnan beheads Kannabiran. We see Karnan in a loud wail of helplessness, anger, disappointment and frustration. Something akin to the helplessness that Kamal Hassan's character faces in the 1984 cult classic, Thevar Magan. At the same time, Karnan is not a sissy as is established in the first fight sequence of the film where he teaches the inmates of Melur a lesson for assaulting a girl from his village.


While talking about the epicness of this film, it is important to note the crucial role played by the music and background score. It is possible that the music gets overdone or underplayed too much. But Mari Selvaraj has found a wonderful ally in Santhosh Narayanan, very much like how Mani Ratnam found ARR or Selvaraghavan found Yuvan Shankar Raja. Not that these music directors don't churn out great numbers with other filmmakers. But there are certain filmmakers with a unique set of sensibilities. And then there is this set of musicians who can catch the wavelength of the filmmakers and bring out the unison so harmoniously. Of course, a lot of this harmony can happen only if the filmmaker is invested in the music-making as well.


Coming back to the music of this film, the film has a melancholic undertone throughout. Simply because the community has been struggling a lot to get what is rightfully theirs. In such a film, having a romance track itself is a tricky thing because it has the potential to break the flow of the film. But Mari Selvaraj pulls it off with lovely grace and great panache. So much so that even the only romantic melody has a melancholic undertone to it thereby sticking to the core of the film and at the same time bringing out the blossoming of love between the young ones.


I can go on and on. These are some of my thoughts in just two viewings of this brilliant piece of art. I am sure, the more I watch, the more I will have to ruminate on, write about and talk about. This is something that everybody would go through. Mari Selvaraj and his stories are such. Karnan is an epic that will stand the testimony of time for being a cinematic masterpiece and an endearing story told with utmost earnestness. With this, Mari Selvaraj proves himself that he is on the path of his mentor, director Ram (of Peranbu fame) where he believes that films should make one think and discuss. And just like Ram's films, you can't bracket Mari Selvaraj's films into unidimensional "good" or "okay" or "bad".


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