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Karnan: A Perfect Screenplay

Mari Selvaraj and Rajisha Vijayan
Director Mari Selvaraj (L) and actor Rajisha Vijayan (R)

After the powerful 2018 debut film Pariyerum Perumal, Tamil writer-director Mari Selvaraj has returned with another brilliant film—Karnan. Karnan is a story of a man determined to break the chains of caste discrimination, and, in this film, Selvaraj gives us a feast of performances loaded with powerful dialogues. The protagonist of the film, the eponymous Karnan (starring Dhanush), is a rebel with a cause and Selvaraj has drawn on his personal experiences to shape this film thus making it even more breathtaking.

The movie starts with a scene of a 10-year-old girl who is lying in the middle of a road struggling for life. No bus or any other vehicle stops to carry her to the hospital and she stops breathing after a while. As she lies there quietly, you can see the indifference of society. I am led to believe that Selvaraj wanted to tell his audience that the face of the girl doesn’t matter because this could be a story of anyone who has been oppressed but has suffered silently. 

The girl transforms into a deity after her death. This deity could be a symbol of a god, a superior power, or justice, whose face is superimposed on the victim. The girl on the main road is a metaphor. Like a street dog, she is left alone on the road as if her young life has no value. The heavy emotions that the opening scene evokes in you will only grow stronger as you come to see how a community of people is dehumanised.

The movie portrays a lawless society. A high-level cop’s pride gets hurt when the village head refuses to remove the turban around his head. He also does not like the fact that the men in the village do not bow in front of him and instead look him in the eye. How ironic is the fact that the Bollywood film Radhe, released at the same time as Karnan on an OTT (over the top) platform, glorifies police brutality.

Dhanush has embraced the unglamorous features of his character with a lot of conviction giving up his stardom. He has delivered a blazing performance as an angry young man, who can no longer sacrifice his self-respect simply to stay alive. Lal, Rajisha Vijayan, Lakshmi Priyaa Chandramouli, Yogi Babu, Gouri G. Kishan, young children, old people, Mudhol hound dogs, the horse and even a donkey in the film makes an impression on you.

Karnan will pull you in and make you experience what a heavily persecuted community goes through. It is hard to imagine that people in real life endured and still endure such tragedies. 

The director doesn’t mention a  particular caste or community, but one must applaud his subtle use of imagery through animals and daily conversations to showcase oppression. The use of nature as a narrative device, such as the policeman’s use of a fish hook or when an eagle poaches on a chick raised by a family (which could be taken as an allegory on the death of Karnan’s sister) shows what a masterpiece this film is. 

Selvaraj’s vision for including metaphors is really remarkable. The donkey’s feet are tied and it is shown limping. When Karnan asks why it can’t be freed, his grandfather Yeman (Lal) says that if he runs away, the owner won’t be able to find it. It’s about control and misuse of power and how even though you see it everyday, you don’t question it or set it free. The screenplay is perfect! As soon as Karnan frees the donkey, the animal, free from all bondage, runs up all the way to the hill. There is no owner to stop him; those shackles were an imposition. 

The rise of the oppressed is the ultimate theme of Karnan. And through several pumping visuals and a smartly constructed screenplay, Selvaraj attains that. The presence of craft in Selvaraj’s storytelling is brilliant.

Vaibhav Tayde is a software engineer, web designer and an avid reader, who also sometimes writes. He loves Dalit and Bahujan literature and is a self-proclaimed movie/web series reviewer.

One Comment

  1. Karnan deserves all the hype. It’s a radical, moving, democratic and necessary film. Subtext, tropes and symbolism are quite good.

    What is more impressive is that the film takes a bold stand of not sticking to the hero’s journey and blends the hero’s arc with the community’s, which is commendable. However, one feels a bit detached in the first half.

    Maybe it’s the curse of breaking the structure into four acts for the sake of interval. Two things feel missing at the expense of subtlety: the exposition of a clear objective of what the community and hero want and second, absence of antagonist in the first act. Maybe Mari Salveraj had it in the script, but it couldn’t make it in the final cut.

    The underdeveloped antagonist’s arc is the problem. It needed 3 to 4 scenes to fix it: scenes where the superintendent of police is transferred to the Rural from City police for screwing up something in city slum, one with SP is empathizing with his ailing father, but being absolutely asshole with his wife and daughter. A scene where he is seen to be helping a complete stranger from upper caste with crossing the road.

    This would have added the conscience to the antagonist’s character and the climax where he gets punished would have been more impactful.

    Again this is just my take. Mari has proved that he is a master of the game. I am just looking at it from the screenwriter’s perspective.

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