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Karnan Movie Review: Mari Selvaraj's powerful tale of caste oppression

Modified On: 09 April 2021 | Reviewed By:

Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan, which features Dhanush in one of his fiercest roles, is a bold, powerful portrait of a flawed system letting down its people, caste-based riots and police brutality.

Karnan (2021)

Director: Mari Selvaraj | Music Director: Santhosh Narayanan

Karnan (2021) Movie Poster

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Cast: Dhanush, Rajisha Vijayan, Lakshmi Priya Chandramouli, Yogi Babu, Lal, Natarajan Subramanium

Directed By: Mari Selvraj

Mari Selvaraj's Karnan is a  follow-up to Pariyerum Perumal is even more assertive, even more aggressive, and twice as painful to watch and introspect. 

Karnan raises several valid questions – all equally important- about the state of the oppressed community in our society. Through soul-stirring visuals of Theni Eswar, the film gives us a front-row seat to the events that led to the infamous Kodiyankulam riots which were allegedly orchestrated by the police. The film throws the spotlight on police brutality and abuse of power but at the same time, it’s also a heart-wrenching drama about Dalits being denied even their most basic needs.

 The film is beautifully empowered by so many metaphors, especially one involving a donkey, and the way they’re used to convey the intended message is commendable.

Mari Selvaraj uses Nature as a powerful tool to narrate and understand his people. Their everyday interaction with pigs, piglets, eagle, pigeons, native dogs, a horse and an elephant, paint a larger picture of a quaint, normal life. At the same time, Selvaraj treats their existence in a metaphorical fashion — like when a fish hook is used as an allegory in the latter half, or when an eagle poaches on a chick raised by a family, which could again be taken as an allegory on caste violence.

Dhanush as Karnan is one of the prime reasons why the film works, and he’s great to watch as the guide to the people of his village. Veteran Malayalam actor Lal gets a meaty part and as Karnan’s mentor and has a solid presence. Both Rajisha Vijayan and Lakshmipriyaa Chandramouli, two key female characters, play their parts convincingly. Lakshmi as Dhanush’s elder brother delivers one of the best performances from the supporting cast. 

The running commentary about gods and their indifference makes for a very interesting sub-plot. Santhosh Narayanan’s music plays a crucial role in accentuating the mood of the film.

The film works both ways: an uprising drama and a lyrical re-interpretation of Karnan, the warrior character from The Mahabharata. Like Anand Neelakantan’s Ajaya, Mari Selvaraj inverts the gaze to tell the story of Karnan from the point of view of the oppressed. The parallels don’t stop in the character names.

 A sword is won by Karnan during a ritual sacrifice which becomes both his weapon and shield. There are at least four silhouette shots with the Sun by Karnan’s side. At one point, Kannabiran (Natty), a police inspector, mocks the village head who is named after Duryodhana. You could argue that the film is rather a war between power and powerless.

Mari Selvaraj is, of course, angry. But he channels all that built-up rage into making a powerful piece of art. He seems to be at much more ease with his craft. Right after Pariyerum Perumal, there were criticisms of Selvaraj dumbing down the movement spearheaded by Pa Ranjith.

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