Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan screams for attention right from the beginning when the title credits roll with background noises of what happens in a highway. Then we are shown some arresting visuals of a young girl suffering from seizures right in the middle of a busy village road and all kind of vehicles plying by, without stopping to even look at her. Eventually we understand that the girl dies. Right at this early point in the film, you realise that it is not going be another film just for entertainment but one that has a compelling story to tell and that which will shake your conscience.
If you look at it, Karnan and Mandela, the other recently released Tamil film, deal with the same theme. Of social discrimination in the villages of Tamil Nadu. But what differentiates the two is the treatment. While Mandela takes the route of being a comedy and satire, Karnan treats the subject in a very hard hitting manner and it works.
The film is set in a village in Tamil Nadu, which decides to be at peace with itself in spite of being at the wrong end of social equality. The village doesn’t have a legitimate bus stop and buses do not stop. This simple deprivation leads to its own problems. Yet, the community which includes the people and a whole bunch of animals and birds, is shown to live within itself, accepting the fate as reality. This, till Karnan the main protagonist played by Dhanush emerges in the scene. He is obviously an angry young man and defiance is in his blood. How his questioning of status quo upsets the peaceful ecosystem in the community and how finally the people get their justice is the story.
So, the route Karnan chooses is to lead an uprising that leads to a lot of violence throughout. Director Mari Selvaraj tries to bring in the Mahabharata metaphor here in which the originally wronged Karnan is the hero. There are other characters like Duryodhan, Abhimanyu and Draupadi etc… also in the story. Unlike Thalapathy where Mani Ratnam just faithfully super imposed the characters from the epic in the film in a modern day storytelling, Selvaraj deliberately does role reversals. Karnan gets his justice at the end here.
At times, the film feels like a sequel to Dhanush’s earlier film – Asuran. Dhanush is convincing in the role of the leader of the uprising and treads the line of Heroism Vs Emotion very carefully. There are many mass moments for him as well which he excels to the hilt. In the other cast, Yogi Babu, Malayalam actor Lal and Cinematographer Natarajan as the cop impress with their realistic portrayal. Among the female cast, Lakshmipriya is impressive.
Santosh Narayan’s background score is eerily impressive, haunts you and shakes you up at the same time. The songs which are placed well in the screen play also stay with you for a long while. The songs convey the pathos of the situation where it demands and add value to the story telling. This must be one of the best outing as a music director for Santosh both in terms of background score and songs. Camera work by Theni Eswaran is another asset to the film.
The film is full of imagery, where the director tries to convey a lot of things through metaphors. At times, you feel that this is going a bit overboard. For example, there is this donkey which is shown with its front legs tied in the beginning. So, obviously it is constrained to run and struggles to unshackle itself throughout. And towards the end, when the rope is cut, it is shown to gallop like a horse to freedom. Now, when you see this in the early frames, you can guess how this will play out as we have seen such “Director Touch” scenes in K.Balachandar’s movies even in the 70’s. Having said that, metaphors apart, the imagery meant to impact the viewers at many places are indeed captivating to watch.
This film is seemingly based on true incidents that took place in a village called Kodiyangulam in Tamil Nadu in the 90’s. I am not sure if such practices of social deprivation and discrimination exist in Tamil Nadu even today. If they do, it is shameful for a state that is supposed to be on top in the country in terms of most of the development indices. To that extent, I did feel that the core issue of “buses not stopping in a village” might have passed the expiry date. I may be wrong.
Karnan is Mari Selvaraj’s 2nd film. I haven’t seen his 1st film – Pariyerum Perumal yet, but watching Karnan, I am convinced that this is one story teller to watch out for in Tamil. As far as this film Karnan goes, I will put it in ‘must watch” just for the visual story telling.