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Karnan review: Powerful portrayal of caste-based riots and police brutality

Release Date: 09 Apr 2021 / Rated: U/A


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Haricharan Pudipeddi

Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan, which features Dhanush in one of his fiercest roles, is a bold portrait of a flawed system that lets down its people.

For years now we have been made to believe that violence is a part of normal life for Dalits and other people living on the margins of society. We mostly remain unaware of the plight of these people who have to fight for their rights — the right to live, the right to education, the right to livelihood and to better wages. In the Indian social context, there have been innumerable incidents where these people have borne the brunt of government and police high-handedness.

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

Loosely based on the 1995 caste riots in Kodiyankulam; Karnan paints a hard-hitting story of a village — led by Karnan (Dhanush) — fighting for recognition. It is about the people of Podiyankulam who have been oppressed by everyone around them. From the people (upper caste) of the neighbouring village to the local collector and the police department; nobody pays heed to the people of Podiyankulam.

The film opens with a haunting shot of a girl passing away in the middle of a road — as several vehicles pass by without even stopping to help — due to epilepsy. Following this incident, the people of the village meet several authorities and request for a bus stop, but to no avail. One incident involving a local bus turns into a riot. The police intervene, paving the way for events that leave you shocked.

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

The film is beautifully empowered by so many metaphors, especially one involving a donkey, and the way they are used to convey the message is commendable. While Mari Selvaraj deserves all praise for the vision, it is cinematographer Theni Eswar who brings these images to life.

If Mari Selvaraj’s first film Pariyerum Perumal (2018) was about education, Karnan is about agitation. The filmmaker brings forth his inner anger to talk about caste politics and police excesses.

Dhanush as Karnan is excellent. His ability to blend into the character is one of the prime reasons why the film works, and he is great to watch as the shining light of the people of his village. Veteran Malayalam actor Lal gets a meaty part and has solid presence as Karnan’s mentor. 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 the lack of their presence makes for an interesting subplot. Santhosh Narayanan’s music plays a crucial role in  accentuating the mood of the film.

Karnan will definitely go down as one of the most powerful films to emerge from Tamil cinema in recent years.

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