The first time we meet the protagonists of Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan and Madonne Ashwin’s Mandela, they are fast asleep. Both Karnan (Dhanush) and Mandela (known initially as “Jackass” and played by the affable Yogi Babu) are about to be rudely woken for banal reasons. But more urgent awakenings will soon follow.
Here are two fine Tamil films about lower-caste men faced with hegemony, attaining political consciousness and emerging as village heroes. Their arcs are very different, though, as is the tone and emphasis of these narratives. Karnan, inspired by a 1995 police attack on a Dalit village, is an edgier and angrier film, about a community under threat. Mandela is a good-natured parable, with traces of dark satire, about an individual: a village barber who becomes important during a local election.
In each story there is an inspirational figure whose life serves as a palimpsest for the hero’s (though neither film underlines the connection too much). In Karnan, this spiritual forebearer is from mythology—the Mahabharata’s Karna, denigrated as a low-caste man even after being gifted status. In Mandela, the connection is with a contemporary figure, Nelson Mandela, and is first presented in comical terms. When “Jackass” (also called “Smile” or “Dung Picker” – he never finds out his real name, he only knows his caste, which is the essential marker) applies for an Aadhaar card, a friendly postal officer gives him famous names to choose from. One of these is Mandela, who, she points out, fought for the identity of black people “just like you are fighting for your identity”.
Our man doesn’t care about that, he finds the South African leader appealing because “he has curly hair and dark skin like me”. But the voter’s ID card sets wheels in motion; as an election campaign reaches fever pitch, Mandela becomes a deadlock-breaker between two factions, and now suddenly everyone is pampering him. People who were incensed at the thought of him sitting in their car use the vehicle to help him get down from a tree. It all adds up to a quietly humorous tale about upward mobility and politics of convenience.
Karnan is, structurally and tonally, more complex. It shifts between a mythical mode – riven with symbolism, rousing music, a few stylish setpieces – and a narrative located in the here and now. The opening sequences have the texture of deep myth: a bird’s eye view of a girl dying on a road, depicted as a supine figure with a goddess’s mask, followed by a vivid opening-credits song with a montage of people calling out to Karnan the saviour. All this might lead you to expect a larger-than-life story about a superhero’s journey, but this is a slow-burn film about a few incidents (centred around the absence of a bus stop) that lead to a small revolt – which becomes bigger when the local police respond with cruelty. And though Karnan himself performs a dramatically impressive “fish-cutting” feat with a sword early on, he isn’t a grand or distant figure: he is just one of the villagers – a boy of the soil, son, kid brother (often scolded by his big sister), friend, lover. Dhanush’s down-to-earth persona emphasises this, even after circumstances force Karnan into a proactive role.
This film is very aware of two contrasting approaches to societal change: the slow, incremental one (like Karnan painstakingly using a jagged rock to fray the rope binding a donkey’s feet) and a decisive call to revolution, where sticks and swords may be brandished and bus windows and bones broken. Ultimately it seems to cast its lot with the latter approach, and this results in a climactic sequence that could have come from a more conventional action film. But the recurring motif of the long-dead girl with the mask, stirring the villagers in their revolt, is also reminiscent of the powerful climax of Pa. Ranjith’s Kaala, in which the appearance of many Kaalas (or Kaala masks) suggest a hero alive in the spirit of those whom he inspired. Both sequences also evoke an underlying premise of Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta: that it doesn’t matter which face lies behind the revolutionary’s mask; individuals may be killed but the idea is imperishable.
In the Mahabharata, when Karna is offered a chance to broker peace by revealing his true identity, he rejects the offer partly because he knows a cleansing war is required. Karnan’s situation is different in the specifics, but there is a poetic similarity in his decisions: after passing a military test, he can join the establishment—perhaps positively representing his people and helping to improve their lot over time—but he opts for swifter action.
Given its more modest canvas and its story about someone who isn’t a leader or totem, Mandela doesn’t have to deal with such epic conflicts. It has some faith in the idea that slow change can work, that the system can be benevolent and supportive. There is a droll moment where we see Mandela and his friend staring blankly at a wall, the payoff being that this is the back of the post-office building and they are wondering how to get in since there is no rear entrance for low-castes. You can come in from the front, says the smiling officer—a suggestion that the authorities are moving past old discriminations. And the film’s final scene is an unapologetically idealistic one that might discomfit those who believe there is no room for sugar-coating in caste-struggle depictions.
This is eventually a key difference between the films: Mandela gets legitimacy through a government-issued document (which he doesn’t have to struggle too hard to obtain) while Karnan turns his back on a state offer. One man will continue to work patiently with his shaving razor, even in a rousing final scene where the village gathers around him as the election results come in; the other will take up a sword because a jagged stone isn’t enough when you have to hew right through a big fish—or a societal structure.