“He did not hit us because we vandalized the bus. No, he hit us because we stood tall. He hit me because I, Maadasamy’s son, was named Duryodanan.”
~ (Dialogue from Karnan)
Karnan is a Tamil language film which was recently released on Amazon Prime. Karnan is the second movie directed by the Periyerum Perumal fame Mari Selvaraj that speaks about caste atrocities and injustices in society. It is a beautifully crafted Indian film that brings out the suffering and pain of oppressed communities. Karnan, played by Dhanush, is one of the main characters in the film and a symbol of the new generation of the oppressed who speak against historical injustices and the Brahmanical state structure.
Karnan opens with a powerful scene of a young girl (Karnan’s sister) lying down in the middle of a road and vehicles are passingon both sides of her. It seems like that nobody is coming to rescue her. Finally, a bus runs over her and she dies with her dream. This opening is the symbolic portrayal of ongoing brutality and atrocities with millions from oppressed communities. Mari Selvaraj’s films alwayes come with strong metaphorical visuals which makes him one of the finest directors of Indian-Tamil cinema. In Karnan too, he used a lot of symbolic characters which shows the meaning of freedom, assertion, and justice.
It brings up one of the most important issues of our time and that is the right to public spaces. Karnan reveals that after seven decades of independence, millions of citizens are still deprived of the fundamental right of equal access to public spaces, like roads, bus stops, etc. In this movie, Selvaraj portrays the reality of the deprivation of oppressed communities in so-called modern India. In Karnan’s village, there is no bus stop and hence the villagers have to come to a bus stop which is located in the area of socially powerful communities. The bus stop is a symbolic representation of modernity which talks about empowerment, equality, and egalitarian society. The constant conflict and struggle of villagers to get this basic right to public space creates chaos among socially powerful communities and they take this issue as a challenge against their superiority and hierarchy.
Each visual of Karnan needs to be experienced beyond the cinematic subject. Selvaraj always uses animals to explain complex aspects in his cinema. In this movie, he used the donkey with its leg bound with a chain denoting how powerful people control our freedom. Karnan breaks that chain from the donkey’s leg thus symbolizing the assertion of the anger of oppressed communities. It opens a new discourse of recognition and self-respect. Karnan ends with a revolt against the state-sponsored brutality on the oppressed communities. Mari Selvaraj addresses the everyday experiences of oppressed communities with the state powerfully. The state that represents the privileged class exclusively constantly uses its powers to humiliate the less privileged class.
Source: Amazon Prime
In a nutshell, Karnan is a cinematically powerful film that brings the everyday suffering of generations of lower caste communities. It has powerful visuals which are attached with so-called stigmatized metaphors. The convictions of characters are so real and associational forcing us to rethink caste atrocities and the state’s brutality against oppressed communities.
Vidyasagar is a Doctoral Fellow at the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi.