Readers Write In #363: Karnan (Tamil film, Review)

Posted on May 15, 2021


(by Sundar)

Filmmaker Mari Selvaraj’s second outing Karnan is replete with symbolism and assorted aesthetics that have clear purpose too. Some of them are rare visual treats that could not have been conceived and executed by an ordinary creative force. One of my favourites is the donkey with the tied up front limbs. And the beautiful, perfect frame we get as the just then freed donkey runs up over the rocky hillock to join the little girl-deity (again, someone symbolic) who is cherishing as she witnesses Karnan getting unleashed. He is no more a helpless, bridled bundle of rebellion – now, he is the saviour of the masses.

Set in the late 90s, the story unfolds in Podiyankulam, a tiny village in the south, that is home to the oppressed, landless people. Karnan is one of them. But he is a local hero – in addition to being unemployed and generally whiling away time, he is kind-hearted, he has a girl swooning over him, he could accomplish things that no one could ever do, he picks up fight at will and obviously wins all of them, he is capable of coming out on top in every game he plays, he could ride a horse easily, he could smash up a public bus, he could dive into rocky pools and retrieve swords, he could vandalise police stations, he could kill cops, and so on. But his pet project is – to get a spot for his village in the bus routes; the public buses do not stop at Podiyankulam and it hurts everyone badly on a daily basis. Finally, after a bloody, ruthless event that ends up with Karnan chopping the head of the district police chief, and spending a few years in jail- more than just getting its due place in the district’s bus routes, we now have buses that even have Podiyankulam as their terminus.


It is a fail-proof Kollywood masala template. But just that it puts us off when we think of the director’s calibre, and the real incidents that supposedly inspired the film. It is a let-down.

There is scope for creative liberties when interpreting and adapting real events to the screen. In fact, you could go even berserk and provide alternative realities and give birth to new branches of history like Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds or Once upon a time in Hollywood. But the audience has to be prepared for it. And that is purely the maker’s responsibility. The script, the casting and the making – these three have to be in a state of lovely and efficient harmony. Only then the audience would happily lap up the creation like a faithful,jolly pup running behind its master. Unfortunately, in Karnan these elements are out of sync with one another.

But with stellar performance by the cast (special mention: Lal as an old man named Yaema Raja and Lakshmi Priya as Karnan’s sister Padmini), extraordinary visuals by Theni Eswar,brilliant staging (special mention: The scene where Karnan is made to dig up his house for treasure. Simply top class!) and pretty decent support by the composer Santhosh Narayanan, Karnan is way ahead of most of the films churned out by Kollywood.

But an awful thought grips me – had the film been made a few years ago by Perarasu with Vijay as the lead, I would have loved it for sure.