Karnan is an extremely powerful cinema. In the first week following its release it has gathered more than 30 crore rupees. It is an out and out commercial cinema. It is broadly based on the backward class atrocities of Kodiankulam in 1996 when more than 600 police attacked a Dalit village at the behest of complaints that the upper caste villagers filed against them. The atrocities were committed by a system that doesn’t just handle law and order but also has internalised a thought system that normalises a caste and class suppression.
This may be at the heart of the Karnan story however the cinema is not just the retelling of this incident. It is likely that uninformed critics may also target the cinema as excessively violent. They may point out to scenes where the village indulges in violence against the police. However, I personally feel that the cinema is bedecked with a lot of metaphors, cultural references and on the premise of creating an alternative system to an upper caste dominated landscape. Hence, although the violence in the movie cannot be justified it should be seen only and only as a metaphor.
So following this long disclaimer let us understand what is this movie all about and let us also attempt to understand as to why Dhanush will be seen as a new working class hero of the masses. So there is a backward class village in Tamilnadu. The village is there on the map however absent from everyone’s collective imagination. The village has its own tune, rhythm and also dire poverty of centuries typical of a backward class village. The upper caste village is in close proximity. Here upper caste could mean mere a step ahead in the caste hierarchy. However, the difference is telling. Despite a fight of many years the villagers don’t have an access to a bus stop. Even the girls in the village are subject to taunts from the neighboring village as they attempt to go to college. Quarrels and bickering is regular and commonplace.
During one such quarrel the village resists and breaks a bus. Following the attack on the bus the administration suddenly springs into action. Right from the SP to the collector everyone visits the village. The young and the old of the village are beaten up. Collectively actor Dhanush who plays Karnan and the village takes revenge of the incident.
Although the movie’s genre is that of an agit-prop theatre there is a poetic story telling as well. The poetic story telling is very much on the lines of Dalit literature in Maharashtra. Everyday a charging eagle steals chicks from poultry farm of Karnan’s granny. The granny is hopeful of catching the eagle and chases it with abuses in tow and says that one day I will chop off your wings. There is also a traditional sword. The sword is a revolving trophy of sorts which is gifted to only to person who while diving in the river can slash a flung fish into two with the sword. It is reminiscent of the Karna in Mahabharata who despite winning in many such stunts was denied Draupadi’s hand in marriage as he was seen to be born in an alleged lower caste.
However, Karna in the traditional epic tried to prove to the world that how he was an Aryaputra or a Suryaputra and not a backward class prince. However, the protagonist in the movie is barely an apologist. He is aware about his caste identity as well as his subaltern assertion. There is simmering lava of anger simmering inside of him. He doesn’t want a borrowed upper caste identity. His love interest in the village is called as Draupadi. Draupadi loves Karnan for this clarity of assertion and his rebellious streak. There is a donkey in the whole movie whose legs are tied throughout the movie. However, during a dramatic moment in the movie Karnan unties the knot using a stone and the donkey that is at the mercy of the invisible owner feels free and liberated from his bondage. The movie is full of such metaphors.
The young in the movie are also know for a fact that their comeuppance in a caste ridden society is only through education and assertion. Karnan also participates in a paramilitary entrance exam and gets selected for CRPF. The system is replete with aforementioned mistakes and drawbacks. However, the plain truth is that the liberation from the system is also through becoming a part of it. Karnan also gets an opportunity to be a part of the system with joining CRPF. However, he doesn’t accept it. The movie has its own rawness and its own subaltern music. Right from Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat and Fandry to Kala or Mandela in Tamil there is a parallel economy of backward class cinema that is growing in India. I remember a decade and a half back writing about the waning representation of the backward castes in traditional media. I can say with confidence now that a new economy of the subaltern is coming into being. I tried to convince a few editors into taking ‘bahujan’ or backward class programming seriously not as an outpouring of their social commitment but atleast as there exists a market for the same.
They decided to be a part of the mainstream folk and chose to ignore my advice. However, films like Karnan have proven beyond doubt that they are to Indian cinema what American African music was to America. The initial movies may be a little violent in nature however as we see more such subaltern films they will talk about an alternative music, poetry and will create a niche in India. The movie is an assertion of the backward class masses in the country. Hence, Karnan with its dreams, metaphors and retelling of the backward class plight is an important film. The Indian film industry has only got richer with its timely release.