Readers Write In #379: Karnan and the Trauma of Oppression

Posted on July 2, 2021

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(by Venky)

Film Director Ram once famously stated “I treat my films as theses.”

And so do film critics. Voracious readers of Baradwaj Rangan know his most memorable thesis: “Every film is a continuum”. (Gosh, “Readers” sounds so anachronistic now that we get to hear/see BR AND read his thoughts that are probably filtered by his presenting self).

In response to this, if you ask him, BR would courteously recall the legends of film criticism who followed this thesis in their body of work.

Quod Erat Demonstrandum.

When Baradwaj Rangan reviewed Karnan, going by his thesis, he starts off with Mahabharata and takes us on a brief tour of the various adaptations, before setting the context for Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan. Although BR spells out few crucial facets through which Mari Selvaraj reimagines Mahabharata for the purpose of telling his story of Karnan, in my reading of the film, BR missed a crucial element: Mari Selvaraj beautifully subverts the clear dharma-adharma boundary that popular retellings of Mahabharata have often hung on to.

By naming the chieftain of the oppressed Podiyankulam village (in a powerful retelling of the Kodiyankulam incident) community as Duryodhanan (played superbly by G.M.Kumar), who entrusts and endears Karnan in a crucial moment when villagers berate him for his recalcitrant behaviours, Mari Selvaraj challenges our ingrained reactions to Duryodhanan. In Mari Selvaraj’s eyes, ‘Dur-yodhanan’ becomes ‘Su-yodhanan’. Mari-Selvaraj also does the reverse by naming the chief oppressor as “Kannapiran” (Lord Krishna). Through this subversion, Mari Selvaraj comes tantalizingly close to the essential spirit of “dharmasankata” that sets the epic Mahabharata leagues apart from Ramayana. Beyond the glittering facade of a rousing saviour’s tale of an oppressed community, what endeared me towards the film was its psychological acuity in capturing the trauma of oppression at various levels.

Throughout the movie, Mari uses names and naming as a powerful device to convey the trauma that the oppressed have been carrying for millennia. It is the name which ultimately triggers the anger of Kannapiran and it is the name which unleashes the heroism inside Karnan in response to the oppression.

If you want another example of how powerfully the movie explores the trauma of oppression, take the opening shot once the song sets the mood of the film. A Headless Village God. What do we see towards the end when Kannapiraan is murdered by the heroic act of Karnan?

If the chief oppressor was ordained to become a village deity of the oppressed, (‘Kolaiyunda deivangal’ as they are called in folklore tradition), much like the oppressed who become “kanni deivams” (innocent gods) of the village, then where does the oppressor ultimately reside?

In his fascinating tamizh essay on the subversive politics of Karnan, T. Dharmaraj explores this nuance in great detail. If you think about it, the entire movie chronicles the journey of how ordinary mortals become Gods either through being oppressed or oppressor. And not just humans, Mari Selvaraj evokes divinity even in a donkey, which has borne the brunt and weight of human ignorance, perhaps more so than any other animals.

At a psychological level, the little girl’s death symbolizes the death of self-respect of the community. When Karnan gets fuckin tired of oppression and jolts the community to reclaim their self-respect, we see the “kanni deivam” (innocent god) spirit dancing and rejoicing in exuberance. The Gods are Happy. Finally the village wakes up to its self-respect.

It gives me goosebumps even now as I recall that scene. Who is this “kanni deivam” ( innocent god) who observes the entire village and their agony of everyday oppression from the mountain top?

Why did she have to tragically die for something as banal as a bus stop?

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As much as I celebrate the fact that we have film makers of the calibre of Mari Selvaraj and Pa. Ranjith,it warms the cockles of my heart to see Mari Selvaraj use culture, folklore & tradition as a weapon against Casteism. 

Unlike Pa. Ranjith, Mari Selvaraj’s films don’t portray naive hopes of modernism liberating the village from the shackles of casteism. When Karnan returns to his village, the village elders force him to join the village festival, where they perform the collective catharsis to cope with their traumatic memory of oppression.

Perhaps Mari Selvaraj is aware that in a country like India, folklore tradition runs in our cultural veins, and if we have to challenge casteism from within, we need to forge our weapons from the embers of our culture. And what a powerful weapon he has forged!! I can’t wait to see what Mari Selvaraj will cook next!