Mari Selvaraj's 'Karnan': The unrelenting fight for dignity

Many a time, when Karnan sauntered into the frame with his quiet charm and undeniable swag, I thought of Velutha, the beautiful Dalit hero of 'The God of Small Things'.
Dhanush riding a black horse in Karnan
Dhanush riding a black horse in Karnan
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It’s over 48 hours since the very last of the movie’s credits rolled by. Yes, after a really long time, I was so riveted by a film that I stood and waited for the very last of the credits to roll away. For the next few minutes, as I navigated the serpentine, socially-distant queue to get out into civilisation, I found myself in a strangely, quiet place. I usually do some shopping as well soon after a movie, but not this time. I was far too absorbed in the thoughts that Karnan had triggered in me.

Images of the girl child clad in a pattu pavadai, balancing the head of the village goddess, Kattu Pechi kept swirling in my heart.

Karnan’s [Dhanush] pain-filled, but resilient eyes that shine as he tries in vain to dance away the pain, in the last scene, kept piercing my mind. What is it that makes people inflict such mindless, heartless pain and trauma on fellow humans? What happens to the ones who only see pain and more pain all their lives, and all for the mere fault of being born in a certain social location?

To say that Mari Selvaraj, the director of Karnan, has explored the terrible consequences that a depravity such as caste brings to humanity, is but an understatement. He has in many images, colours, and stories, painted the gory picture that’s the legacy of caste and its upholders. That caste touches just about every aspect of one’s existence, be it your name, gender, class, art, mobility, and more is what Karnan says in many ways than one. And, that people who inhabit caste-blind islands are not just innocent victims of this system, but most often its very enablers.

While the movie has quite a few violent and excessively gory scenes, the story that underpins the narrative keep the audience riveted and not repulsed. The most graphic shot, for me, was one of the opening few where the drone camera captures a child dying on the road due to an epileptic attack. The shot itself, like many others in the movie, is a commentary on how oblivious and unthinking we as a society are to a crime that’s happening right before our eyes. Even if you do not actually commit a crime based on caste, you are still implicated by your imperviousness is what Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan tells us in no uncertain terms.

No wonder the caste society is reacting with its vitriol.

The story is set in a nondescript village in the outskirts of southern Tamil Nadu. One keeps hearing the mention of Melur, a town just outside the great temple city, Madurai, also popular for being the caste capital of the state and spawning Madurai masala films, which are nothing but caste by various other names. I have sojourned in the city myself and so can attest to its dubious distinction. The city is otherwise utterly beautiful for its temples, jasmine, and delectable parottas and mutton kurmas.

This little settlement in the film, called Puliyankulam, by its very existence, gives the dominant castes around the sore eye. The angry young men of the settlement are perennially angry because their mobility is checked at every step. Even sporting Hinduised names isn’t enough. Madasamis are now Duryodhanans and Abhimanyus, but that’s not enough to fool the Subbaians and Kannabirans into believing in humanity or Ambedkar’s Constitution. Instead, they casually hang Ambedkar and all other founding fathers’ photographs in the police station and beat the daylights out of anyone who questions the status quo.

The older men of the settlement are vicariously happy when the young make even a slight dent in the established ways and draw little gains. However, their biggest problem, getting a bus stop of their own, seems insurmountable until a fateful day when one of their very young picks up a stone and pelts it at a moving bus. That scene brought to mind the iconic end shot of the Marathi film, Fandry, where an adolescent boy pelts a stone at the never-ending, badgering of the casteists. That stone-pelting is but the very last resort of battered human beings crying for one opportunity to live a life of dignity, and is so poignantly captured.

In Karnan, this rather small provocation is more than enough for the caste society to unmask its beastly face and unleash its monstrosity in broad daylight, and have the police enter the settlement and destroy it threadbare, until cinema intervenes and saves the day for us, the viewers. At this point, it would be worthy to note that the violence in the movie is inspired by real life events, perhaps sans the cinematic climax.

In the course of the movie, we are witness to the lives and loves of people whose very existence is defined by their marginalisation and their constant aspiration, which is denied and checked in every way possible, to reunite and assimilate with mainstream with dignity and self-respect. And, they merely naming themselves after Hindu heroes causes heartburn for the caste society, which doesn’t quite admit to its nefarious and sadistic ways openly.

The oppressed don’t necessarily have to do big things; the realisation of their self-respect causes the dominant castes enormous sorrow and despair. Many a time, when Karnan sauntered into the frame with his quiet charm, and of course his undeniable swag, I thought of Velutha, the beautiful Dalit hero of The God of Small Things, and how his very existence and ways were unbearable to the caste society: “Perhaps it was just a lack of hesitation. An unwarranted assurance. In the way he walked. The way he held his head. The quiet way he offered suggestions without being asked. Or the quiet way in which he disregarded suggestions without appearing to rebel.”

Mari Selvaraj’s canvas is vast and covers a myriad of issues, much beyond the scope of this review. Religion and spirituality is a recurrent theme, especially the iconography of female goddesses and the negotiation of enormous pain and grief through music and dance is aesthetically captured. That all of us navigating the margins, as women, Dalit people, or trans people, straddle and walk the tightrope between rationality and faith, comes to fore in the scene where Karnan, after much resistance, digs the ground in the middle of the night to unearth the money his dead sister had saved for their other sister’s wedding. His unshed tears and his mother’s wailing as she touches the now-devalued, but invaluable coins, say so much of the pain that people living in the margins swallow and live with every day of their lives.

One of the most endearing aspects of the movie is its animals. The hens and their chicks, the thieving eagle, stray dogs, pigs, the elephant, and the lone donkey keep grounding the story in the geography. Cutting the fish was particularly drool-worthy! The final shot of the now-released-from-captivity foal reaching its mother at a safe distance from its captors, had me in tears. Perhaps nothing comes easy to those of us whose life is defined by our denigrated social location; we must fight and fight, without losing sight of our end goal, no matter the price. In the end, in our quest for a life of dignity, we may have to lose some of us and perhaps our very life, but in the end, the embers of resistance will continue to slowly, but steadily catch fire and burn down the master’s house that foments the evil of caste.

This, I believe is what Mari Selvaraj says in his inimitable style and beautiful colors, and Dhanush is just the perfect coming together of boyish looks and understated acting that Karnan demands. And, as we forge and imagine a society that’s built on humanitarian values, would it be too much if Karnan and Draupathi [Rajisha Vijayan] fell in love with each other and went on to usher in a brand new dawn?

Karnan leaves us with more questions than answers and asks of us to do the hard work of finding the answers, not just for ourselves but for our future generations as well; the world as it is now cannot sustain any longer. It needs justice, imagination, art, colours, and a passion to create a new world. Go watch Karnan and be ready for some hard questions.

Watch: Teaser of Karnan 

Hannah Dhanaraj is a Dalit feminist from Chennai, India. She loves travelling, gardening, storytelling, and baking. When she isn't doing any of these, she's busy bringing up her little son into a sensitive young man who believes in equality.

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