'Karnan' review: Dhanush leads a hard-hitting film on caste

Mari Selvaraj's film draws out the interlocking barricades that caste, lack of access, police brutality and power impose on the lives of many people.
Dhanush with a sword and the sun in the background in Karnan
Dhanush with a sword and the sun in the background in Karnan

That Mari Selvaraj is as a director and script-writer to watch keenly is unmistakable. With the release of his much-anticipated second film, Karnan, he establishes a formidable space for himself amongst the young, progressive voices of current Tamil cinema. His casting choices have proved impeccable. Santhosh Narayanan’s music washes over the film, perfectly cementing each scene in place.

It's hard to think of anyone else among the current crop of young actors who could have carried the weight of the title role as flawlessly as Dhanush does. Give Dhanush a good script and he delivers a performance that has you spellbound. Yaman (Lal) is the older, wiser man who serves both as an impetus to propel the young Karnan towards being the hero his small village needs, and is a steadying hand during his more hot-headed moments. They do well on the comedy front too. Conversing with each other primarily in barbed, but harmless witticisms, their friendship is believable and entirely loveable.

Yogi Babu is thankfully again, as he was in Pariyerum Perumal, given a character who doesn’t have to be a figure ridiculed for his looks, slapped around and be the centre-piece of casteist, racist jokes. It’s a simple ask that Tamil cinema stops using dark-skinned, kinky-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, yet also must navigate past his several flaws to discover a better version of himself. Karnan’s love-interest Draupathi (Rajisha Vijayan in her Tamil debut) is an integral part, but could have had more to do.

Mari Selvaraj returns to the Tirunelveli agricultural-belt where his debut film was also set. At the audio launch of Karnan earlier this week, he spoke of 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 made it to mainstream Tamil cinema, the people and their lives have not. Karnan revolves around a single cause. This cause may have initially sounded bafflingly insignificant to people grown accustomed to a life among good infrastructure and easy connectivity.

Karnan draws out the interlocking barricades that caste, lack of access, police brutality and power impose on the lives of many people. Mari Selvaraj turns up the heat slowly, with impeccable timing, until the film scorches ahead to its pivotal intermission and thundering climax.

Watch: Teaser of Karnan

As we already knew from the clues the songs gave away, characters from the Mahabharata populate the screen, but as mortals. There is an ultimate, pitched battle between justice and villainy. Until this day, I've never been able to accept any telling of the epic in these very terms of good and evil, because the far greater cruelty that the Mahabharata is a monument to, is the varna system. In the epic, Karnan is repeatedly denied the chance to prove his valour because he's mistakenly considered shudra and not the so-called “warrior” caste of kshatriya. Alas, they don't know yet how “high-born” he is: offspring of a princess and the sun god. Mari Selveraj's Karnan, we already know from the day “Kandaa Vara Sollunga” dropped, “is no son of Kunti nor Surya, he has no kavasam nor kundalam”. He isn't in the ‘wrong’ caste, later to be restored to the dominant one. This Karnan claims his warrior-hood where he stands—in the very same caste-location he was born into.

Reiterating this degree of agency throughout the film is a marked shift from Mari Selvaraj’s debut. One aspect that leaves me conflicted about the young filmmaker’s stories is a tendency for the camera to linger too long over scenes of humiliation, as he did in Pariyerum Perumal. I have to truthfully admit here that it took a second, comparatively recent viewing of Pariyerum Perumal and coaxing from a more critical person to properly register this tendency. Several times while watching Karnan, I sat with my hands over my ears, eyes clenched shut, begging internally for the scene to be over. It’s not that the claustrophobia Mari Selvaraj seems to want to convey in both films is lost. There are some similarities in what he states through both heroes-- a caste system and its enforcers that deliberately obstruct progress; make a concentrated effort to block access to everything essential: education, health, peace.

Do prolonged sequences of degradation have to be made cinematic, is a question that merits asking, because the question of whose caste-blindness do such scenes end up being made for, follows right behind. However, unlike in Pariyerum Perumal, Karnan hits back with a ferocity to match his aggressors’.

Without a doubt, Karnan is a film to watch, particularly in theatres, if you can.

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.

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