Star Cast: Dhanush, Lal, Rajisha Vijayan, Lakshmi Priyaa Chandramouli, Yogi Babu, Gouri G. Kishan, and ensemble.
Director: Mari Selvaraj
What’s Good: caste discrimination, oppression and atrocities are limited to newspapers and TV channels for privileged folks like you and me. Selvaraj drags you in this shatteringly stunning visual telling of the story and makes you live the life of suffocation for almost 160 minutes.
What’s Bad: My ignorance that I did not ever look at the evil levels of oppression some communities still face to get basic things.
Loo Break: Karnan is enough to make you uncomfortable that you pause the film at least a few times. Utilise those moments of shock to do the deed. But once you press the play button, there is no chance you are allowed to move.
Watch or Not?: It’s a story about people like you and me. It is being told to you through a mythological and symbolic approach, so you know how vast the gap between the powerful and powerless is. Watch and make others do too. Awareness is the key.
A Dalit community is living in a small village, caged from all sides by powerful people who don’t allow them to have a voice. Amid them rises Karnan (Dhanush), a young man who becomes the voice of the community who pray to the faceless god. Karnan becomes the face and resists the powerful, creating sparks that do burn his surroundings.
Karnan Movie Review: Script Analysis
It isn’t that any of us don’t know systemic oppression exists. We conveniently give it a side-eye, but not Mari Selvaraj, who is consistent in showing what people on the lower level of the hierarchy have to go through. There is a structure to his showcase of individuals rising from the resistance. Unlike Pariyerum Perumal, Karnan does not believe in sitting silently, even for a minute.
Also written by Mari, Karnan is a metaphorical film by taking references from the mythological story Mahabharat. The movie opens up with a girl younger than even 10, who is battling a seizure in the middle of a busy road and needs help. The camera zooms out, buses pass from her sides, she continues to battle, she dies but none of the vehicles stops. The camera zooms in, and her face is now replaced by a facade (mask) of a deity. Her life had no value for the people watching her die like a stray dog.
The writer-director with his team is not here to tell you the story while you sit in comfort. They want to take you to the very core of this community and make you live with them, and their struggles. Karnan, aka Dhanush, is introduced to us through the track Kandaa Vara Sollunga, a song more of a cry for help than introducing their hero. He is Karnan, the saviour who will become the face of their headless god. The whole film has names from the Mahabharat. Selvaraj suffices two purposes. First, he makes the evil and the good clear. Second, he manages to give the high born protagonists, of the mythological epic, a low born twist and shows what if the tables were turned.
There is a war in the movie, the war between people who want to rise high and the ones who don’t let them. Their demands are not the sky, but ones that people living in a city with good infrastructure don’t even pay much attention to. Their plight is to have a bus stop, let their kids study, their girls be safe when they roam around alone. But what they get in return is police brutality, caste discrimination, harassment, lack of resources and so on.
Mari Selvaraj who gives this movie a mythological twist shows how even the gods have dulled out and taken their blessing away from this community. The deities have almost faded; one of them doesn’t even have a head. Which means their saviour doesn’t have a face. They themselves have to become their saviour. Karnan is filled with some amazing metaphors.
It draws an ample amount of similarities and references from nature. For instance, a donkey is set free to roam around, but 2 of his feet are tied so it cannot run. A quick nod to the community, who is given their land, saying they can delve there. But are they allowed to do that peacefully? No. The donkey learns to hop until a saviour comes to the rescue. And it is Karnan in both cases.
The film is about the hopeless existence of people who have to fight for the most basic necessities. The writing in Karnan is simple; it does not give you twists and turns and suspense doses. It instead gives you an abundance of discomfort and makes sure you feel it to your gut. Every time a police officer beats an innocent for no crime, every time the powerful men from the parallel village talk ill about the low born women, every single time their homeland is ridiculed to a wasteland, you must experience what it feels likes, Selvaraj with his team makes that sure. Police officer beats the people because they didn’t take off their turban in front of him because they looked him into the eye because they have names of the iconic warriors. Check if there’s even a single crime in that.
How ironic is the fact that the Bollywood film Radhe: Your Most Wanted Bhai, which glorifies Police brutality as if it is the need of the hour and normal, released at the same time on OTT as Karnan. Chose where you put your money wisely.
Karnan Movie Review: Star Performance
I cannot even imagine anyone else, but Dhanush playing this role. Some notes similar to his Vetri Maram epic Asuran, Dhanush roars like a lion who has been kept away from his prey with force. The actor embodies Karnan as he stands with the sun in his backdrop. There is no lousy bone at all, just an impeccable performance. For a man who has met the actor in real life, I am forever shocked how he manages to pull off characters so far away from his real self.
Lal is a stalwart, and my experience is minuscule in front of the talent the man possesses and the calibre he has proved. Cutest when needed, and the most brutal when the situation demands, Lal becomes the man Friday to Karnan and wins our heart all over again. Yogi Babu, for that matter, finally has a character that respects him. A seasoned actor can prove himself if given parts that do justice to their calibre. Yogi proves it this time, as he isn’t comic relief.
The women in this universe have the agency. Resistance is a bone that the community has grown over the years. Women weren’t left behind, and the characters make sure they obey it. Rajisha Vijayan plays Karnan’s love interest Draupathi (another Mahabharat reference), and a strong-headed girl. While she is a treat watching, I hope her character was explored more. Lakshmi Priyaa Chandramouli plays Padmini, Karnan’s sister and is a character I won’t mind having a separate spin-off for.
Karnan Movie Review: Direction, Music
Mari Selvaraj is a beast when it comes to shooting in the heartlands. He shows you vast landscapes, open skies and ample space, but somehow creates enough claustrophobia too. He doesn’t take the camera away from scenes that will make one cover their eyes; instead, he zooms in. He makes his actors live the life of lack of vanity and tans them under the real scorching heat of the sun. Authenticity seems to be his favourite word.
Santosh Narayanan’s music is similar to Karnan’s sharp sword. It pierces right into your guts and adds more thrill to this already thrilling ride. Kandaa Vara Sollunga will haunt me for another few days, but I won’t stop listening to it on loop.
Theni Eswar’s camera is a master at creating fusions. Watch the video for the aforementioned song and you will know. Connecting mythology to the story, metaphors to the story and even nature, Eswar does that without anything looking out of context. Read the trivia on Prime which says, in a scene where police are assaulting the village heads, he randomly shot a butterfly that was trapped in the closed doors. It made it to the final cut!
Karnan Movie Review: The Last Word
You need to watch the right kinds of film. By that, I won’t say which I feel are right. But there are no two ways that Karnan is one of them in your and mine list together. While entertainment, we need awareness and realisation of where we exactly are. Karnan deserves your attention.
Karnan releases on 14th May, 2021.
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Skipping this film? Read our Joji review to know why you should must watch that.