This is not just a film. It is a movement. A wake-up call for all Indians who think all men are born equal (what about the women? That, some other time). Get real. The caste system still exists in various forms. Inequality is in our DNA. Anubhav Sinha tore through the caste system in his masterpiece Article 15 …or perhaps “tore” is not exactly what he did. The tone was far more gentle, the approach sweetly savage.
In Karnan the director Mari Selvaraj’s anger is stamped (like a heavy boot on a cowering face) on every frame. It is safe to assume that Dhanush plays the director’s alter ego. A seething living exploding fireball of indignation. Dhanush, in one of his best performances, plays Karnan the only loud unstoppable voice of protest in a tiny village in Tamil Nadu which probably doesn’t exist on the map.
It’s a village of lower caste people forever oppressed humiliated and ostracized from the mainstream. One of the villagers’ primary anguish has to do with no bus stopping at their village. The authorities just don’t think they are of any consequence. While the other villagers accept their fate as nobodies why does one young man feel so strongly about it? Why does Karnan seethe with anger every time a bus refuses to stop in his village? Or a child dies on the road for the lack of medical attention (this is before the COVID when every human life had the right to healthcare)? Or when, in that moment of supreme eruption, elders of the godforsaken village are bundled and taken to the than a and thrashed all night?
Is this socially acceptable behaviour? Shockingly it is. For the downtrodden underdogs, living at ground level, humiliation subjugation and manipulation are everyday occurrences. All men are born unequal, some like the villagers in Kodiyankulam are more unequal. This jolting brutally violent film serves as a timely warning to all of us locked away in our citadels. India is simmering with discontent. We are sitting on a hotbed of exploitation that can erupt anytime. That small nondescript village in Karnan becomes a microcosm of the Great Indian Reality. Ignore at your own risk.
I have seen innumerable seething simmering films about social injustice. None so tense and implosive. I’ve seen several angry heroes. None as angry as Karnan. As played by Dhanush he is the voice of a voiceless village. The hand that won’t hold itself back. The face of the social protester who is no poster boy. He will act. He will kill. He won’t be stopped. Dhanush is so volatile I have never felt more compromised, more a part of the socio-economical system that allows a handful to have all the wealth and power.
To be honest I have never seen a film like Karnan. It rambles and roars, dances and writhes as it explores the dynamics of exploitation with a straightforwardness that eschews any kind of cinematic deceit. And yet strangely enough it is filled with allegorical allusions and metaphors including a masked girl child indicative of the faceless victim, and a donkey with its two front legs tied which Karnan frees before the climactic violence (get it?)
At its heart, Karnan is a distinctly violent film. The carnage at the climax will make your stomach churn, as it is meant to. You cannot turn away from the savagery. Avoidance is not an option. Karnan puts you right in the vortex of the violent underbelly that the higher classes have willy-nilly nurtured. It will make your blood boil.
This is a no-frills drama authentic almost-documentary like drama filmed on an epic canvas with mobs running towards us with sticks rods boulders and their wrath. It scoffs at melodrama and music (the songs are sharply critical folk tunes, or shall we call them fork tunes?).
It is a drama of heightened realism where the hero rides into the carnage of his village on a horse. It is a frightening, fascinating unforgettable film that you would give anything to forget. But it won’t go away. It tells us that the underprivileged won’t be ignored any more. And why.
The performances are beyond brilliant, as is the camerawork (Theni Eswar), music (Santhosh Narayanan) ….and the razor-sharp editing (Selva RK) which creates an illusion of a lazy narrative only to bludgeon us with a scathing eruption of violence which we may or may not see coming. How does it matter?
Directed by Mari Selvaraj, Karnan gets 4 stars!
Image Source:- youtube/thinkmusicindia, twitter/karthikravivarm
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