Karnan Movie Review: Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan opens with the shot of a young girl suffering from fits lying helpless in the middle of the road. Vehicles continue to ply on both sides of the road, but not a single one stops. The camera rises above the ground and goes up higher and higher, giving us a God’s eye view of this tragic scene. There is no divine intervention; in fact, the girl dies, and becomes a Goddess!
The film then cuts to the now iconic Kanda Vara Sollunga song. We see an entire village praying for the return of Karnan (Dhanush). And Mari Selvaraj establishes the mythical status of his protagonist right away. We do not actually see his face; rather, we see his feet (splayed with blood, and trampled by the boots of cops), his hands (handcuffed), and his head (covered by a black cloth). We see who Karnan is through the tattoos that the people sport, and the painting that a painter does with fire.
The film then goes back by a few years, to 1997, to narrate how Karnan became his people’s hero, how oppression can be insidious, and how the bureaucracy stands by the side of the oppressor and even takes part in the oppression. The plot revolves around Podiyankulam, a poor village of people belonging to the oppressed communities which is refused a bus stop. Their powerful men (obviously of the dominant caste) of their neighbouring village, Melur, use this as a means to keep them dependant on them. Matters come to a head when Karnan, an angry, young man from Podiyankulam, who is waiting to be selected in the army, decides to take things in his own hands. A bus is trashed, prompting the cops, led by the egoistic officer Kannapiran (Natty), to retaliate.
On the surface, Karnan might seem like a familiar tale of struggle between the oppressed and oppressor, but Mari Selvaraj’s detailing makes the film feel both unique and universal at the same time. It is quite similar to the conflict within his Karnan, who fights for the public good and also for personal reasons. In the first half, the director takes his time to set up the milieu and the characters, and gradually builds up a pressure-cooker situation that sets off a chain reaction. Like in Maheshinte Prathikaram, where one thing led to another leading to the central conflict, here an offhand remark during a game leads to a tussle, which leads to a falling out, which leads to a domestic friction, which leads to a public spat, which ends up in an act of violence. But Mari Selvaraj shows that sometimes violence can also be catharsis. He makes us care for the people and feel for their struggles so much that when the entire village faces off against cops in the second half, the moment feels as exhilarating as when the one in the Avengers, when the superheroes take on the evil forces.