With his first film Pariyerum Perumal, Mari Selvaraj had made it very clear that he will be approaching his movies with brutal honesty. His new movie Karnan, starring Dhanush in the title role, is an exhilarating drama with so many layers. The caste-based oppression is the theme that drives the story forward. But Mari Selvaraj places you in the middle of the action and what you get to witness is a brilliantly made movie with stunning visual metaphors. With a row depiction of the oppression, Mari Selvaraj once again astonishes you with his clarity.

The movie is set in the backdrop of a village. The village is always ignored as the people who lived there belonged to the Dalit community. The upper caste people humiliate them in public, they don’t have a bus stop, and there are so many other struggles for the village people due to this discrimination they face. Karnan is a short-tempered young man in the village who constantly questioned the compromising behavior of his seniors. The movie Karnan shows us the consequences the village had to face when they finally decided to speak against this inequality.

The interval sequence in the movie is a masterpiece, in my opinion. The way the Donkey gets freed, the way the sister character’s soul looks at the beginning of the revolution, and the transformation of Karnan, etc., are falling into place so brilliantly that it gave me goosebumps. And after a long time, I saw a movie using the scale to depict authenticity rather than a visual spectacle creation. In the first half of the film, Mari Selvaraj is more interested in setting up the equations between the characters within the village. In a way, he wants to portray how internal politics and differences of opinion have affected the rebellion. There is a group that believes they should remain helpless, and there is also another set who are sort of okay with living a life like this. Through lots of minimal instances and conversations, Selvaraj creates an endearing image of the village in our heads. And that helps the movie significantly when it comes to that second half.

Mari Selvaraj’s vision for including metaphors is really remarkable. By looking at the Donkey in a more empathetic way, he is somewhere asking his viewers to shed all their prejudices. He is breaking a stereotype through that symbolic representation, and maybe that’s what he believes society should do to give the Dalits an equal chance. In the second half, the gears are getting shifted, and Selvaraj gives you a view of how the upper caste system endorses this class divide to remain in power. The anger you see in the upper caste people when they hear the village people’s names are never shown in a gimmicky way. And Karnan is not a movie that tries to be a one-man show. The hero is presented as a character who asks the older generation to let him take a stand so that at least the coming generation can aspire to live in an equal world.

Theni Eshwar has done the cinematography of the film, and he uses the silhouette lighting occasionally to depict the Karnan aspect of the movie by making the Sun the backlight. Santhosh Narayanan’s background score is earthy and pulsating at the same time. The movie’s production design is really brilliant, and they have captured the brutality with utmost authenticity.

Dhanush, as Karnan in the beginning portions, is your typical angry young man. But as the trauma increases, there is a gradual change in the way the character reacts (still being that short-tempered one), and he makes sure that his performance has that strength and grace to feel like the hope of a village. As a Malayali, it was a bit tough in the beginning to get accustomed to Lal’s dubbed voice. But his performance as the cool Thatha was really good, and in the climax portions, the performance was genuinely heart-wrenching. Rajisha Vijayan may not have an extensive role in the movie, but the film does offer her some space to be the feisty and understanding girlfriend, and she delivers a memorable performance. To see Yogi Babu in a serious character was a refreshing sight, and I hope more filmmakers will use him for quality character roles. Lakshmi Priyaa Chandramouli, as Karnan’s sister, delivers a top-notch performance. As the menacing police head, Natarajan Subramaniam conveyed the upper caste frustrations subtly and effectively. I don’t know the names of many actors who portrayed the roles of the village seniors. They all delivered an incredibly earnest performance which helped the movie make the audience root for the villagers.

The rise of the oppressed is the ultimate theme of Karnan. And through several pumping visuals and a smartly constructed screenplay, Mari Selvaraj attains that. The presence of craft in Mari Selvaraj’s storytelling is brilliant. By the time he completes around ten films, I think people will be keener to witness his use of visual metaphors in his movies. Karnan is a politically fearless and cinematically sensational creation.

Final Thoughts

The rise of the oppressed is the ultimate theme of Karnan. And through several pumping visuals and a smartly constructed screenplay, Mari Selvaraj attains that.


Green: Recommended Content

Orange: The In-Between Ones

Red: Not Recommended


By Aswin Bharadwaj

Founder and editor of Lensmen Reviews.