Readers Write In #353: Karnan: An Essay on the Radical

Posted on April 13, 2021


Hemanth Bharatha Chakravarthy

I read Mari Selvaraj’s stunning Karnan as an essay on the radical, as a story of radical movements and radicalism within political struggles. There is a lot else in the movie: visually rich screenwriting with stunning landscapes and aerial shots, previously unsaid ethnography of the “lifestyle” of oppressed communities from their customs to their daily struggle, and a mainstream hook in an individual mass hero, a Karnan, who loses everything for his people.

But, to me, it was the story of a radical. I find the single greatest part of the movie to be the donkey. A lost donkey, its owner unaccounted for, hops slowly but persistently with its front feet tied together throughout the movie. It is systematically restricted in its movement. Early in the movie, Dhanush wants to free it but is told by the grandfather that the master of the donkey would have tied a knot so complex, only he can unravel it. And this becomes the parallel for the community, where petition after petition—attempts to fight within the system—yield nothing. The knot cannot be untied by the donkey nor the samaritan.

In the interval sequence that breaks the course of the village’s story, an exhausted Dhanush gives up on the knot. Instead, as the donkey staggers around the village, he hammers the rope between two rocks till the rope breaks. And thus, they smash the bus that cannot be made to stop at their village. Before and after this, the apparatus made of dominant castes—politicians, bureaucrats, and police—all suppress the community, intending to keep them dependant and trapped. Moreover, opposition to radicalism comes from within—from older generations who do not want to lose what little they’ve gained or other forms of moderation. But these are let go of in an ultimate last resort. To me, this is the thesis of Karnan: a view of the radical from the point of the oppressed and the suffocating.

Finally, Karnan’s radicalism is unabashed in its imagery. It calls upon all the taboo images of violence in revolutions that evoke reflexive abhorrence from the dominant castes. Stone pelting, thee kulithal, smashing buses—all of which have strong resonances in our political history be it in modern-day Kashmir or the so-called silver bullet against the Dravida Kazhagam that was held by its opponents based on its youth self-immolating in protest. These images are constantly held as proof that oppressed groups also go overboard and perhaps deserve some of what they get. Mari Selvaraj makes a frustrated audience cheer for these images instead.

There is a lot of things that have been added to make the movie mainstream-compatible, but there is a voice in this movie that maybe only occurs in a political moment like this (both in Tamil cinema and Indian politics) and in a moment in history when someone like Mari Selvaraj can come and command the industry, telling a different story with a rooted aesthetic. I think the future is bright for Tamil cinema.