Cast: Dhanush, Rajisha Vijayan, Lakshmi Priyaa Chandramouli, Yogi Babu, Lal, Gouri G Kishan, Natarajan Subramaniam
Director: Mari Selvaraj
Producer: Kalaipuli S. Thanu
Duration: 2 hrs 32 mins
Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan opens with the shot of a young girl suffering from fits lying helpless in the middle of the road. Vehicles continue to ply on both sides of the road, but not a single one stops. Theni Eswar’s camera rises above the ground and goes up higher and higher, giving us a God’s eye view of this tragic scene. There is no divine intervention; in fact, the girl dies, and becomes a Goddess — Kaattu Pechi!
The film then cuts to Santhosh Narayanan’s now iconic Kanda Vara Sollunga song. We see an entire village praying for the return of Karnan (Dhanush). And Mari Selvaraj establishes the mythical status of his protagonist right away. We do not actually see his face; rather, we see his feet (splayed with blood, and trampled by the boots of cops), his hands (handcuffed), and his head (covered by a black cloth). We see who Karnan is through the tattoos that the people sport, and the painting that a painter does with fire.
The film then goes back by a few years, to 1997, to narrate how Karnan became his people’s hero, how oppression can be insidious, and how the bureaucracy stands by the side of the oppressor and even takes part in the oppression. The plot revolves around Podiyankulam, a poor village of people belonging to the oppressed communities which is refused a bus stop. Their powerful men (obviously of the dominant caste) of their neighbouring village, Melur, use this as a means to keep them dependant on them. Matters come to a head when Karnan, an angry, young man from Podiyankulam, who is waiting to be selected in the army, decides to take things in his own hands. A bus is trashed, prompting the cops, led by the egoistic officer Kannapiran (Natty), to retaliate.
On the surface, Karnan might seem like a familiar tale of struggle between the oppressed and oppressor, but Mari Selvaraj’s detailing makes the film feel both unique and universal at the same time. It is quite similar to the conflict within his Karnan, who fights for the public good and also for personal reasons.
In the first half, the director takes his time to set up the milieu and the characters, which include Karnan’s side-kick of sorts Yeman Thatha (Lal, in another empathetic performance after last week’s Sulthan), his unmarried elder sister Padmini (Lakshmi Priyaa Chandramouli, effective), who is the family’s breadwinner, his love interest Draupathi (Rajisha Vijayan, solid in her Tamil debut), her friend who is about to enter college (Gouri Kishan), her brother (Yogi Babu, who gets to play a character rather than a comedian), his docile father (Poo Ram) and the village elder Dhuryodhanan (GM Kumar) among others. In Mari Selvaraj’s world, even the animals, birds and insects, from the eagles the steal chicks to dogs that scamper in the background, the cat that goes after thrown-away food, that the elephant that is brought in for a celebration, the pigs in the sty, and even the bugs that are mating in rain are integral to the milieu, and he repeatedly gives us these throwaway shots to lend a real-world feel to the world he is building.
In the first half, he gradually builds up a pressure-cooker situation that sets off a chain reaction. Like in Maheshinte Prathikaram, where one thing led to another leading to the central conflict, here an offhand remark during a game leads to a tussle, which leads to a falling out, which leads to a domestic friction, which leads to a public spat, which ends up in an act of violence. But Mari Selvaraj shows that sometimes violence can also be catharsis. He makes us care for the people and feel for their struggles so much that when the entire village faces off against cops in the second half, the moment feels as exhilarating as when the one in the Avengers, when the superheroes take on the evil forces.
But before we get to this moment, the director depicts how caste-based oppression works. Kannapiran considers being made to stand amidst these ‘lowly people’ an insult and chooses to make them pay. The director makes us see that this isn’t a heat-of-the-moment decision but a calculated move by literally making him fish! Natty is deliciously wicked in this role. Even Karnan is a thinker despite flying off the handle at times. He realises why Kannapiran wants to keep them servile. More than the act of damaging a bus, Kannapiran is put off by the villagers standing up to him; even their names piss him off (in Mari Selvaraj’s Mahabharata, Karnan and Dhuryodhanan are the good guys while Kannapiran is the evil one)! We constantly get shots of him thinking through his actions, and Dhanush is very good in portraying these moments where he makes us sense the wheels turning in his head. This is a less showy performance than the one in Asuran, in which he could get actorly as he was playing a 50-plus man, and here, he just has to be, and the actor aces it.
The only downside is that magic realism that the director goes for — with the sister-turned-Kaattu Pechi — has mixed results. While it helps us give Karnan’s personal stake in the issue, there are times when it feels overdone and breaks the narrative flow. The pacing, too, might come across as slow, but this is a slow-burn drama. In fact, the narrative (and Karnan’s character) mirrors the donkey which hobbles around in the village because its legs are tied. Just like the animal, which sprints after Karnan manages to let it loose, the film, too, picks up pace at this moment, and never lets go of it until the climax.
Some might have issues with the movie’s call to arms, which is quite a stark contrast to the pacifist tone of Mari Selvaraj’s previous film Pariyerum Perumal, but with hard-hitting lines like “Enga thirumbinaalum evanavadhu oruthan marachutu irukaan” and “Epaadiyavadhu pozhachu kedandha podhumnu irukku paaru namma nenappu, andha nenappu dhaan poora payaluvalum namma thala mela parangalla vekkuranuvo”, the director shows us Karnan’s helplessness. Sometimes, agitation is the only way out for the oppressed.