I do love “punching up” stories, where those who are oppressed are fighting against powers stronger than them – Les Misérables, all those kinds of stories. This movie has to be one of my favourites of that kind. Not only is it artistic, very Masala and epic in the best of ways possible. Also, the music is fantastic!
In the 1990s, in a small village called Podiyankulam in Southern Tamil Nadu there is constant conflict. There are fights for a bus stop for the small village since they cannot use the Melur village bus stop. The Melur villagers are upper caste and Podiyankulam’s are lower caste. There is conflict because of this between the two villages whenever they need the bus. Soon things escalate and the villagers begin to arm themselves to fend for their village. Karnan is the Podiyankulam village’s hero and only hope for salvation as troubles come from the police, government and society. All the while the Podiyankulam village’s Goddess looks on.
In the Mahabharata Karna in that story is the son of the sun god, he grows up amongst the working classes, fights those above him (not knowing he belongs to their group) and meets a tragic end. He is the flawed everyman, doing what he thinks is right. There are scenes of the sun rising, of horses and donkeys and a sword at the hands of Karnan, a sign that he was destined to fight, even if the world tries to intervene in that path.
Director, Mari Selvaraj and cinematographer, Theni Eswar make this real world raw with their shot choices. Putting emphasis on how small this village, this community, is in the wide sense of nature. One side character even calls Podiyankulam merely a “wasteland”, with no need for a bus stop, because they are not there.
A bus stop is a sign of inhabitance, by denying them this bus stop the government is essentially telling them that they do not exist. This attitude keeps the villagers of Podiyankulam stuck in their village, with no opportunity for upper mobility even if they have all the abilities to do so. They have to constantly fight for respect, to win fair in . They know that the system is rigged agains them, so as the blows keep coming, growing, their only choice is to either fight or to disappear.
Dhanush as Karnan is spectacular. He is a man who has known pain, has a bad temper, but only wants justice for his people. For them to fight back for once, since they have been trodded on for so long. His bad temper often gets him into trouble, but when he goes quiet he is much more dangerous. He is clearly still suffering from the loss of his little sister, with some things that I read as a sign of depression. In his first grand scene after slicing the fish in half with the village sword, he dances with joy. In the end, he has to be forced to dance, with tears in his eyes. The village may have won in the end, but the cost has made him a different man and the win is bittersweet at best.
Lal is Yema Raja is both Karnan’s grandfather, but also the heart of the movie. He is there to supper Karnan and approves of what he does, even if he doesn’t say it out loud. He both encourages him and is the one who effects him the most. Being both a best friend and a mentor. When he self-immolates in self-defence it is tragic, his death brings Karnan back, but at the cost of his life. His face is painted on the mural in the end, being the catalyst for the actions that saved the village. One gets the sense that Karnan, though happy that is free from jail, feels that it should have been Yema Raja that should have lived instead of him.
Rajisha Vijayan as Draupathai, Karnan’s love interest, is interesting, but feels a little weak in the end. Either her character should have been cut or made more prominent in the story, leaving her in this half-and-half role feels incomplete. She and Dhanush have good chemistry and their scenes and song are cute. I guess I just wanted more from her character other than being in the ‘love interest’ slot. It would have been interesting if she would have been the one to ride the horse to call Karnan back, for instance.
‘Poo’ Ram as Karnan’s father is the one connected spiritually to the village Goddess. He has a supernatural sense of the presence of the spirit of his child, now wearing the head of the Goddess – one of the many lost to the injustices put among them, with many like her joining her in song – and guiding him. He gives Karnan his sword in the end, smiling at the spirit of his dead daughter/the Goddess who approves.
Karnan’s sister Padmini, played by Lakshmi Priyaa Chandramouli, is 30 and still unmarried. She puts her frustrations on to verbally and physically abusing him, trying to get her brother to think of her situation. If he acts badly, it reflects badly on her. In the end, she is married and much happier. Her little sister leaving money to her to get married, which is revealed in their father’s dream. She is as much fed up with their situation as Karnan is, though she takes it out on him instead of anyone else.
Nataraja Subramanian as SP Kannabiran is the main Villain in this movie. A corrupt, upper caste police officer, he abuses his power just like those before him. He beats the elders of the village for Karnan’s deeds, almost killing them all and when his death comes, it is satisfying. Karnan beheads him, just like the headless Buddha in the village. Making him nothing but chalk drawings and blood. He is the Krishna character, the otherwise charming trickster, brought to its most violent and unforgiving form yet.
What really grabbed me was the music in this film, filmed with the shots and soundscapes. Made by Santhosh Narayanan, there is a mixture of folk, but also modern. The sound works perfectly with the images. The first song, (above) getting us excited to see how this Karnan became Karnan – the villager to the legend. The whole soundtrack is a marvel.
I do not know how to end this review. Maybe it would just best to see the movie and see for yourself if you can. It is captivating, brutal, emotional and satisfying. Injustices must always be fought, especially those made up by societal hierarchies. This is most certainly a movie that will rise one’s heart to rebellion.
Thank you for reading!