Karnan Movie Rating: 4.5 stars (four and a half stars)
Featured actors: Dhanush, Lal, Rajisha Vijayan, Lakshmi Priyaa Chandramouli, Yogi Babu, Gouri G. Kishan and the ensemble.
Director: Husband Selvaraj
What is good: caste discrimination, oppression and atrocities are confined to newspapers and TV stations for the privileged like you and me. Selvaraj draws you into this mind-boggling visual retelling of history and brings you the life of suffocation for nearly 160 minutes.
What is bad: My ignorance that I have never looked at the perverse levels of oppression that some communities still face to get basic things.
Loo break: Karnan is enough to make you uncomfortable that you interrupt the movie at least several times. Use those moments of shock to accomplish the deed. But once you hit the play button, there’s no way you’ll be allowed to move.
Watch or not ?: It’s a story of people like you and me. It is told to you through a mythological and symbolic approach, so you know how vast the gap between the powerful and the powerless is. Watch and get others to do it too. Awareness is the key.
A Dalit community lives in a small village, caged on all sides by powerful people who do not allow them to be heard. In the midst of them rises Karnan (Dhanush), a young man who becomes the voice of the community which prays to the faceless god. Karnan becomes the face and resists the powerful, creating sparks that burn his surroundings.
Karnan film review: scenario analysis
It’s not that none of us know that systemic oppression exists. We conveniently give her a sidelong eye, but not Mari Selvaraj, who is consistent in showing what people at the lower level of the hierarchy have to go through. There is a structure in its showcase of individuals emerging from the resistance. Unlike Pariyerum Perumal, Karnan does not believe in sitting quietly, even for a minute.
Also written by Mari, Karnan is a metaphorical film taking references from the mythological history of the Mahabharat. The film opens with a girl under 10, who is struggling with a seizure in the middle of a busy road and in need of help. The camera zooms out, buses pass by her side, she continues to fight, she dies but none of the vehicles stop. The camera zooms in and her face is now replaced with a facade (mask) of a deity. Her life was of no value to the people who watched her die like a stray dog.
The writer-director with his team isn’t there to tell you the story while you sit comfortably. They want to take you to the very heart of this community and bring you to life with them and their struggles. Karnan, aka Dhanush, is introduced to us through the track Kandaa Vara Sollunga, a song more a cry for help than the presentation of their hero. He is Karnan, the savior who will become the face of their headless god. The entire film is named after the Mahabharat. Selvaraj suffices for two purposes. First, it makes the evil and the good clear. Second, it manages to give the protagonists born to high level, from the mythological epic, a low twist and shows what happens if the tables are turned.
There is a war in the film, the war between the people who want to rise up and those who won’t let them. Their demands are not heaven, but the ones that people living in a city with good infrastructure don’t even pay much attention to. Their fate is to have a bus stop, to let their children study, their daughters to be safe when they walk alone. But what they get in return is police brutality, caste discrimination, harassment, lack of resources, etc.
Mari Selvaraj, who gives this film a mythological twist, shows how even the gods have blunted themselves and taken away their blessing from this community. The gods have almost disappeared; one of them doesn’t even have a head. Which means their savior has no face. They must themselves become their savior. Karnan is full of amazing metaphors.
It draws a great deal of similarities and references from nature. For example, a donkey is free to move, but 2 of its feet are tied and therefore cannot run. A quick nod to the community, which receives its land, saying that it can dig there. But are they allowed to do so peacefully? No. The donkey learns to jump until a savior comes to the rescue. And that’s Karnan in both cases.
The film is about the desperate existence of people who have to fight for the most basic necessities. Writing in Karnan is simple; it doesn’t give you twists and suspensions. Instead, it gives you a lot of discomfort and makes sure you can feel it in your gut. Every time a police officer beats an innocent without crime, every time the powerful men in the parallel village speak badly about the low-born women, every time their homeland is ridiculed in a wasteland, you have to go through what you feel his team make sure. A policeman beats people because they didn’t take off their turban in front of him because they looked him in the eye because they are named after the iconic warriors. Check if there isn’t even a single crime in there.
How amazing the fact that the Bollywood film Radhe: Your Most Wanted Bhai, which glorifies police brutality as it is the need of the hour and normal, was released at the same time on OTT as Karnan. Choose wisely where you put your money.
Karnan Movie Review: Star Performance
I can’t even imagine anyone else but Dhanush playing this role. Some notes similar to his epic Vetri Maram Asuran, Dhanush roars like a lion that has been forcefully removed from its prey. The actor plays Karnan as he stands with the sun as a backdrop. There are no ugly bones at all, just a flawless performance. For a man who has met the actor in real life, I’m forever shocked at how he manages to pull characters so far from himself.
Lal is a devotee, and my experience is tiny compared to the talent the man has and the caliber he has proven. The cutest when needed, and the most brutal when the situation calls for it, Lal becomes the Friday Man in Karnan and wins our hearts again. Yogi Babu, moreover, finally has a character that respects him. A seasoned actor can prove himself if he is given plays that do justice to his caliber. Yogi proves it this time, because he’s no comedic relief.
The women of this universe have the power. Resistance is a bone that the community has developed over the years. Women have not been left behind and the characters make sure to obey them. Rajisha Vijayan plays the love interest of Karnan Draupathi (another Mahabharat reference), and a strong-headed girl. While she’s a treat to watch, I hope her character has been explored further. Lakshmi Priyaa Chandramouli plays Padmini, Karnan’s sister and she’s a character who won’t mind having a separate spin-off for.
Karnan film review: direction, music
Mari Selvaraj is a beast when it comes to shooting deep in the land. It shows you vast landscapes, open sky and big space, but also creates enough claustrophobia. He does not remove the camera from scenes that make you cover your eyes; instead, it zooms in. He makes his actors live a life of lack of vanity and makes them tan under the real scorching heat of the sun. Authenticity seems to be his favorite word.
Santosh Narayanan’s music is similar to Karnan’s sharp sword. It pierces right through your guts and adds more thrill to this already thrilling ride. Kandaa Vara Sollunga will haunt me for a few more days, but I will not stop listening to it on repeat.
Theni Eswar’s camera is a master at creating mergers. Watch the video of the aforementioned song and you will know. Linking mythology to history, metaphors to history and even nature, Eswar does so without anything seeming out of context. Read the trivia on Prime which say that, in a scene where police attack village chiefs, he randomly shot a trapped butterfly behind closed doors. He arrived at the final cut!
Karnan Movie Review: The Last Word
You have to watch the right kinds of movies. By this, I will not say what I think is right. But there isn’t two ways that Karnan could be one of them on your list and mine together. During entertainment, we need to be aware and realize where exactly we are. Karnan deserves your attention.
Karnan releases May 14, 2021.
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