Karnan Tamil Movie Review
Mari Selvaraj's Karnan is a powerful action drama about the collective uprising of an oppressed community against the upper class. The village in Selvaraj's story, Podiyankulam, is full of oppressed people. The neighboring area has upper cast people with political clout and influence over law enforcement. So, they virtually walk over Podiyankulam's natives mostly for sadistic pleasures. There is no bus stop in Podiyankulam, and the villagers cannot go to the nearby stop and travel safely. So, they have to hitchhike up to essential places.
The film opens with the image of a girl crying for help in the middle of the road. The heavy stream of traffic comes and goes away in neglect, in turn leaving the girl to die there. Later, a donkey hobbles around the village with its front feet tied against each other, representing the shackles that deprive the villagers of their rights.
The elders in the village seem to have been accustomed to accept the reality that the upper class is too powerful for them. That is why when one man, Dhanush's Karnan, physically opposes the oppressors, the old folks cannot agree with him as they fear the chain reaction it might lead to. Watch how Selvaraj shows this scene in a clever way, with Karnan and his faithful friend, Lal's Yeama Raja, staying one side of the village while the elders argue against them from the other side. It is a clever sequence that indirectly establishes Karnan as an outsider making his way into the community.
We realize early that it would take a more significant form of oppression for Karnan to wake his villagers up from their slumber and start a revolt. That significant moment comes around the intermission point, triggering Karnan's efforts to rally the other villagers for freedom.
Karnan is a bit light in characterization but heavy in ideas and symbolism. In fact, the symbolism in the film is heavy-handed. Take the masked, mythical figure in the film that represents Karnan's dead sister, for instance. It is used casually in the film only as a metaphor for the oppressed class. Selvaraj kind of uses it as a set-up for what we think would be an exciting moment later in the film, but that scene does not quite come.
I also thought some of the characters lack depth. Lal is such a fabulous actor, but his character does not seem as essential for the story as he may be on paper. There is an inessential love angle between Dhanush's Karnan and Rajisha Vijayan's Draupathai. But the characters and the parts that need to work more do work.
With Dhanush, Karnan becomes a savior for the masses, yet not a traditional hero with his usual highs and lows. That character aspect is established in a lovely early stretch that shows it is not a victory if only Karnan wins. Selvaraj uses Dhanush's appeal of a mass and art-house actor and such terrific stretches of storytelling to make Karnan a fine character study.
Natty's cop character Kannabiran comes late in the film, but the actor's chilling portrayal makes him fascinating. Lakshmi Priyaa Chandramouli and Supatra also have their moments as Karnan's sister and mother, respectively.
The movie also has stunning imagery from DOP Theni Eswar. If you only watch the last few minutes of the film, you might mistake it for a swashbuckling western, or a period actioner from Santosh Sivan. Theni Eswar's visuals of mass revolt affect us at a sensory and emotional level, giving Karnan just enough heft to justify its epic running time. You may see Karnan on Amazon Prime.