I remember watching Fandry in a packed theatre and the audience laughing at the character and his mishaps, but then came the gut-wrenching climax and the audience went numb because it exposed them. I cannot remember such a stunning silence after a movie, here I thought was a director who has failed but then he has done a much bigger job as he had shown us the mirror.
The voice of Dalits by Dalit filmmakers was a refreshing take for cine-goers in India and it became evident why we need Dalit filmmakers to tell their stories. This was followed by rising of Pa Ranjith and Mari Selvaraj. Mari’s Pariyerum Perumal to be honest for me was much better than his producer Pa. Ranjith’s films. It captured the raw anguish of the people who are suppressed by their race in India.
I was excited about his second film Karnan but I must say I was disappointed by the film. Let me begin by asking myself first it a bad film, the answer to that is a big no. The film is gripping and engaging but fails to address caste discrimination in India.
First, let me highlight the film’s points that I enjoyed as a viewer. Now remember Tamil cinema does not have an art cinema moment or parallel cinema moment. Most directors have to work in the limited space of commercial cinema, catering to everyone and try to push the envelope bit by bit.
Mari Selvaraj uses the hero introduction song like most Tamil films but we do not see a hero, he is in jail being beaten his face covered, this increases our anticipation but I felt this was similar to Rajini’s introduction scene in Sivaji The Boss where we see people supporting him and he is in jail till the reveal.
Mari uses the entire first half to set up scenes where people are being oppressed for no fault of theirs but their caste, but then it is presented as casually as the clash of those who have in power and powerless.
While Karnan’s village lacks basic necessity like a bus stop, for them a bus stop is a gateway to better economic mobility but then it is never mentioned explicitly that is because of the caste but the makers indicate it is because of lack of apathy by the government officers which is not the case. The discrimination is pre-determined and is done consciously not because of any animosity but due to the caste factor. Mari surprisingly glosses over all of these.
We get to see glimpses of his virtuosity in few scenes, like the scene where Karnan wants to stop a bus in his village, but then he is humiliated by the conductor. What frustrates him is the despite him paying the money the bus does not stop at his convenience. Karnan does something similar to what Mohandas Gandhi did in South Africa. He protests in a nonviolent way without hurting others.
Karnan is not a brash hero, he is someone who is trapped in circumstances and the helplessness is what kills him. He does not resort to violence for a major part of the film.
Even when he passes the physical test for the army, we do not see him being happy we see from his gaze the man who could not make it. Karnan knows the importance of the line which will help him and the community cross the line of discrimination faced by them.
Like Asuran which was based on caste riots, Karnan is based on the 1995 Kodiyankulam violence, this just takes the incident as a background and weaves a story around it. There is nothing wrong in it all fictionalising the events around a real-life and giving us an alternate history where oppressed people get justice but here the problem is that it trivialises the issue.
The bus owner says he cannot stop the bus at their village because of government regulations, the bus owner does not have a problem with the village. The rival villagers also do not have a problem, it becomes just an egoistic cop having a problem with villagers which was not clearly the case. The second half reminded me of Pa Ranjith’s Kaala where cops want to enter Dharavi under the pretext of lawlessness and make way for commercialisation. We see people coming together just like Kaala in Karnan, we see corrupt cops like Kaala but Pa Ranjith dared to expose how upper caste people colluding with politics and cops denied justice to the Dalits. Here it is just a cop against the entire village. Like Kaala this movie too ends with a dance.
While Kaala focused on how the community fought back here it is just one playing saviour and even when Karnan confronts his enemy he does not speak about caste at all, it is such a wasted opportunity for a film with a star and it could have made viewers think or at least have a conversation about caste.
What we get is a watered-down version of power and powerlessness and not the history of discrimination in India.