From the metaphor of the donkey and the kite to parallels with the 'Mahabharata', there is much to unpack in Mari Selvaraj's 'Karnan'.

Dhanush on black horse and with sword in Karnan still
Flix Film Commentary Tuesday, May 18, 2021 - 15:22

*Major spoilers ahead

In the village of Podiyankulam, a little donkey hops on the road, its front legs tied with a rope. Nobody takes notice of it. They understand that the donkey's legs have been tied to prevent it from running, going where its heart takes it. It's normal to treat it that way, the people believe. But not Karnan (Dhanush). Every time he sees the donkey, he is bothered by its bondage. The fact that it is not free.

Mari Selvaraj, the director of Karnan, also frequently shows us shots of human legs, starting from the beginning when a child lies writhing on the road in the middle of an epileptic fit. There are no ropes around the legs of his people but Karnan, the hero of this Kurukshetra, can clearly see them. Podiyankulam does not have a bus stop, and this severely limits the mobility of its people. The neighbouring village of Melur, which is inhabited by people from a dominant caste, has its own bus stop and they would like to keep it that way. For if the people of Podiyankulam manage to leave the village and go wherever they wish, how can they stay under their control?

It's interesting that Mari uses the donkey to drive home this point. The general perception is that the donkey, known to be a beast of burden and closely associated with the working class, is a stupid creature. However, in reality, the donkey possesses an excellent memory and is an intelligent animal. When it is set free, the little donkey in Podiyankulam knows exactly where it wants to go.

Karnan is the tragic hero of the Mahabharata, the son of Surya and the eldest of the Pandavas who is denied his rightful place because of circumstances. But what does a 'rightful place' in a caste society mean? It means pushing down others in a brutal hierarchy to secure your own position. It is this understanding that permeates Mari Selvaraj's Karnan. His Karnan is not the son of Surya, he says. He doesn't need inheritance or the stamp of a family name to dream bigger and ask more from a world that is determined to keep him from rising.

The kite is yet another metaphor that Mari uses throughout the film. Karnan wakes up to the lament of an elderly woman whose chick has been carried away by the predatory bird. As she pleads with the kite to release the chick, Karnan comments that this is an everyday event and that it is ridiculous for the people to expect mercy from the kite. When her entreaties don't persuade the kite , the elderly woman curses the bird and says that someone will break its wings someday. The scene is juxtaposed with what's happening in another part of the village — a contest where Karnan emerges victorious and lifts up the village sword. This hero, we're told, isn't one for pleading.

Draupadi

In the epic, Karnan is stopped from shooting the eye of the revolving fish in a contest to win Draupadi's hand. She declares that she does not wish to marry a charioteer's son. In Karnan, the hero decisively chops a flying fish into two — not to win Draupadi's (Rajisha Vijayan) hand but to fulfil a village tradition. She is already in love with him and celebrates the fact that he has pulled off the feat.

In Mani Ratnam's Thalapathi, which was also a contemporary retelling of the Mahabharata, Karnan is called Surya (Rajinikanth) and his caste mainly becomes a factor when it comes to marrying a Brahmin woman. In cinema, caste has largely been portrayed as an issue when it comes to romantic relationships, with intercaste love being rejected by families. However, Mari Selvaraj turns the gaze to a much wider spectrum, showing how a caste society crushes the individual at every step.

When Karnan and the other young men from his village go for selection in the armed forces, we don't see the hero automatically pulsing ahead with his muscle strength as would have been the case in the average film. The director shows us the struggle for them to even make it to that point, having had to wait from daybreak for a vehicle that would take them to the place where the selection was happening. Karnan manages to finish the race in the required time but the camera isn't just focused on him, it also shows us the desperation of those who did not make it. It's not because they lacked 'merit' but because they were pushed to a position of disadvantage even before the race could begin.

Just like Subbulaxmi (Shobana as Draupadi) of Thalapathi is disturbed by Surya's violence, Draupadi of Karnan also worries about the hot-headed man with whom she has fallen in love. In the Mani Ratnam film, Subbulaxmi, who is on a bus, witnesses Surya beating up some goons on the road and is frightened. However, despite her fear, she confesses her feelings for him on the steps of the temple pond. In Karnan, Draupadi is scared when Karnan protests loudly on the bus, insisting that the driver stop at Podiyankulam. When the bus drives on, he jumps off the moving vehicle, much to everyone's shock. While everyone else berates Karnan for his rash act, a shaken Draupadi lands a kiss on Karnan's head. At that moment, Karnan is sitting in front of a shallow, shrunken pond. But the top angle of the camera shows us that it's in the shape of a heart. What was solemnised in the courtyard of the gods in Thalapathi doesn't last as Subbulaxmi chooses her father's caste pride over her love for Surya. In Karnan though, the romance lasts despite the modesty of where it was made official.

Krishna and Kaatu Pechi

In the Mahabharata, the Pandavas had Lord Krishna as their guiding light. In Karnan, it is the fiery local deity Kaatu Pechi who becomes the hero's guiding light. As in Mari Selvaraj's first film Pariyerum Perumal, where the dog Karuppi meets a gruesome end and returns unexpectedly as a spirit symbolising a rebellion, Karnan's little sister — the child who dies at the beginning of the film — comes back as the goddess who validates the morality of Karnan's battle against the caste entrenched system.

Interestingly, although there are five men from Melur who can be interpreted as the Pandavas, the film does not dwell on them too much. The chief antagonist is a casteist IPS officer called Kannabiran (Natarajan Subramaniam) who cannot stomach the fact that the people of the village are not obsequious to his authority. Kannabiran is another name of Krishna, who in the epic justifies the actions of the Pandavas and the Kurukshetra war as one for righteousness.

But in Karnan, it is the village head Duryodhana (GM Kumar) and his people who fight the righteous battle. As the elderly man points out after a night of custodial torture, it is not merely the demand for a bus that angered the policeman, it is the village's aspirations that he wants to crush. He does not want them to name themselves after kings, to look him in the eye, touch him and speak as equals. By rejecting ancient narratives that tell the story from majoritarian, mainstream perspectives, Mari Selvaraj inverts our ideas of heroes and villains, gods and demons, good and evil.

The battle

From the beginning, Karnan is infused with a sense of indignation at what's happening around him. But the biggest act of rebellion, which sets into motion a series of events, is not by him. It comes from a young boy who throws a stone at the bus that never stops at Podiyankulam. As chaos unfolds, Karnan does not join the melee immediately. Instead, he is steadfast in breaking the rope binding the legs of the donkey. It's only after he sets the animal free that he joins his people and destroys the bus. At last, the people of the village have reached the saturation point that he had reached long ago.

Though the film can be seen as yet another one-man show that celebrates the hero's masculinity, the narrative constantly underlines why Karnan does not hold back. While the previous generation has made their uneasy peace with social norms, Karnan wants better for those who follow them. In the grotesque sequence when the police unleash their brutality on the village, a woman is in the throes of childbirth. The baby takes its first breath just as Karnan beheads Kannabiran, who threatens him that the people of his village will never be free.

Though the Kurukshetra war ends in 18 days, the Mahabharata itself comes to an end with Krishna's death and the subsequent destruction of his dynasty. With Kannabiran's death in Karnan, the village's fate sees a turn-around. The case attracts attention from all quarters and the village's infrastructure improves. The people are free from the hold that Kannabiran, and all that he symbolised, had over them.

While Pitamaha Bhishma and guru Dronacharya fought on the side of the Kauravas reluctantly, the Pandavas considered them to be their mentors. In Karnan, the hero's mentor is Yaman (Lal), named after the God of Death. It is he who always stands by Karnan, no matter what. Just as Bhishma could choose the time of his death and Drona gave himself up heartbroken in the middle of the war, Yaman chooses to take his own life to stop the violence around him. He sets himself on fire to pause the relentless police brutality. The baby is born; Kannabiran is beheaded; and the headless portrait on the village wall gets Yaman's face as a tribute. It is a new lease of life, with the old ways having been defeated.

The famous war formations in the Mahabharata find an echo in the aerial shots that Mari employs as the people of the village fight back. Whether it's the scene where Karnan lures the Melur men into a fight surrounded by cows or the field after the kabbadi game, the water tank where they hide from the police, or the terrace of the police station from where they rescue their men, the shot selection affirms that this too is war, and a righteous one at that.

The dilemma

In the Mahabharata, Krishna reveals to Karna the truth of his birth and identity. He also persuades Kunti, Karna's biological mother, to meet him and tell him that he's going into war with his brothers. However, Karna chooses to remain loyal to the Kauravas. There is a similar scene in Thalapathi, when Surya learns about the truth of his birth.

In Karnan, the mother, from the beginning, is worried that her son's assertiveness will only bring him trouble. She is unhappy that he's picked up the sword and tries to get rid of it as the police come to the village. But Karnan retrieves the sword and refuses to give it up. The dilemma here, however, is whether Karnan should choose the state or his people.

After Karnan and the others destroy the police station where some of their men had been subjected to custodial torture, the village prepares for the backlash that is inevitable. But the next day, Karnan receives a letter from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) informing him that he has been selected and needs to join immediately. He has a choice ahead of him — leave behind the village and join the state or stay back and fight against it. He initially allows himself to be persuaded to leave, but returns to avenge his people. He is not only committed to the village but to a greater cause.

There have been several reported instances where Dalit men have been beaten for riding a horse. In the first half of the film, Karnan rides an elephant after he wins the contest with the fish. One of the policemen makes a derisive comment about this, suggesting that "such people" were becoming too arrogant for their own good. Towards the end of the film, Karnan enters the battlefield firmly seated on a horse and takes on the police. A warrior seated on a horse is only to be expected in an epic like the Mahabharata, but in the retelling, placed within the context of Mari's film, the scene takes on many more layers.

As Karnan draws to an end, Kaatu Pechi celebrates. It is that stark image that we're left with, a child who turned into a goddess because of the injustice meted out to her, and remains amidst them and within them.

Watch the teaser of Karnan here:

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