Mari Selvaraj is only two films old as director but he has already developed a unique vocabulary, making startling, charged works about the grim workings of caste oppression in Tamil Nadu. His first, Pariyerum Perumal (2018), was about the relationship between a young man from a backward caste and his upper-caste classmate, and the systematic oppression he faces. His second, Karnan, released last week on Amazon Prime, is about a village called Podiyankulam, historically discriminated against because of the caste of its residents; they have to beg for government jobs and can’t even get buses to stop nearby.
The film follows in the wake of caste-critical works like Sairat (2016) and Kaala (2018) in using mainstream devices to present the simmering resentment of its protagonist, Karnan (Dhanush). Of particular interest are its song sequences, Selvaraj teaming up again with Santhosh Narayanan, perhaps the most vital Indian film composer today. As with Pariyerum Perumal, the songs in Karnan aren’t interludes but little explosions of vivid storytelling.
Kandaa Vara Sollunga
The film opens with a bird’s-eye view of a young girl lying on a highway, vehicles passing on either side. We hear the high wordless wails of folk artist Kidakkuzhi Mariyammal, which leads into a series of incandescent images: women rocking babies at dusk, a man drawing on the wall with fire, flash zooms on silhouetted figures, close-ups of wizened faces, hands, tattooed backs, animals, insects. If you see him, tell him to come. Someone fetch Karnan at once, Mariyammal demands repeatedly, to the accompaniment of urgent drums. From time to time, Selvaraj shows the reason for her distress—a man in police custody, blood dripping, face covered. The song ends with the finished drawing of Dhanush’s face, even as his real face remains hooded. At once defiant and despairing, it’s a stunning variation on a staple of Tamil cinema: the hero entry number—minus the hero.
A lilting love song in the A.R. Rahman mould, Thattaan Thattaan starts out as a rural counterpart to Pariyerum Perumal’s Potta Kaatil Poovasam before a brilliant turn away from the romantic in the third verse. Temporarily shelving the happy frolicking of Karnan and Draupadi (Rajisha Vijayan), Selvaraj focusses on an elderly woman listing the virtues and hardships of the farmer clan. Our ancestors lost the uplands, our forefathers lost the farmlands, Meenakshi Elayaraja sings. It reminded me of Arivu imitating his grandmother in Enjoy Enjaami, his recent hit single with Dhee. That track too was composed by Narayanan, and shares with Thattaan Thattaan a common vision of rural pride and historical injustice (I planted five trees/ Yet my throat remains dry, Arivu had sung in that).
A funeral in the village provides the setting for this folk number. As Karnan sulks after a fight with Draupadi, his older companion Yeman (Lal) sings about his wife, Manjanathi, who died of cholera. Here, too, their societal status is invoked, almost matter-of-factly (The wretched people of our castes/ Would come after us with swords). In Pariyerum Perumal, mourning prompted the haunted Karuppi. This is a more upbeat track, beautifully performed by Lal and shot without his normal cutaways by Selvaraj, with a fluid one-take movement late in the song as Dhanush explodes into dance.
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As the title indicates, this instrumental track is where the film turns both literally (it’s where the interval would have been) and narratively, as Karnan and a few of his fellow-villagers wreck a bus. The provocation is extreme, but Selvaraj knows how the destruction of public transport is usually spun by dominant powers, and films it with no triumph and a lot of foreboding. The music matches this: pounding drums, wails of electric guitar and mournful blasts of trumpet. Even the release promised by the visual at the start of the scene—Karnan freeing a donkey with its feet tied together—is dispelled by the final image: an eagle frozen in flight.
After Karnan and a few others free their companions from the police, the village knows retaliation is imminent. A classical night-before-the-fight montage follows—plans drawn, weapons readied, prayers said. The words are heavy (Come, stop those cyclical wheels that trample us) but the choice of music is curiously light—not the sort of pounding anthem you would expect but a dance number with a bouncy beat, sung by the cool-voiced Dhee. The nature of the track—a village preparing for a clash with a stronger enemy—can’t help but bring to mind the Chale Chalo number from Lagaan (2001).This ties in nicely with Karnan’s thematic and stylistic similarities to the 2019 Brazilian film Bacurau, whose director, Kleber Mendonça Filho, mentioned Lagaan as a reference point.