The Loss of Power and Reactionary Violence in Dhanush's 'Karnan'
Why is Karnan angry? A look at loss of power and reactionary violence in Mari Selvaraj's 'Karnan'.
Alert: This article contains spoilers.
Karnan (played by Dhanush) is an angry young man. He is non-conformist, short tempered, takes no nonsense and is always eager to pick fights. But why? What is the reason for his anger?
The reason is systematic and institutionalised violence.
At the centre of the story in Mari Selvaraj's film Karnan is a bus stand in a village called Melur. There is another village adjacent to it named Podiyankulam- the village where the film takes place. The residents of Podiyankulam have to go to Melur, in order to board the bus if they have to travel because the bus never stops at Podiyankulam despite of several requests and petitions to government officials. But the residents of Podiyankulam are not welcomed at the Melur bus stop, and are provoked, teased and disrespected constantly by residents of Melur.
Karnan, from an artistic point of view is a masterpiece. There is some brilliant behind-the-camera work which captures the scenic beauty of rural Tamil Nadu. The massive use of symbols and symbolism has added a distinctive aesthetic beauty to certain scenes powerfully backed by equally strong background music.
Podiyankulam is a village whose symbolic universe is upside–down as compared to the universe of the epic Mahabharata. Here, Karnan (Karna of Mahabharata) is the one who wins the 'Slash the Fish' championship. Draupadi is attracted to Karnan; Duryodhana is the wise chief of the village, while Abhimanyu is on the side of Karnan. There is a donkey whose front legs are tied and whenever Karnan experiences helplessness, the director brings in the Donkey, which is trying to run but is unable to do so, because its legs are tied.
The first trigger of Karnan’s rebellion occurs when a village girl is harassed by few Melur residents, as she is waiting to board the bus, which will take her to college. The Melur residents beat her father black and blue. Karnan decides to take revenge and beats up the harassers in a field. The second and decisive trigger to Karnan’s revolt, which engulfs the entire village, happens when a pregnant woman along with her husband and son are waiting at the bus stop. The bus does not stop, which provokes the young child to throw stone at it, following which the bus stops. The driver and conductor of the vehicle come down and start thrashing the family.
Karnan is nearby, in an agitated state, busy cutting the rope tied around the front legs of the donkey. As soon as Karnan cuts the rope, the donkey is free and starts running, while Karnan picks up a wooden log and vandalises the bus. Soon his fellow villagers join and completely destroy the vehicle. Following this, the police arrives at the scene and visits the village to catch the culprits. Meanwhile, the villagers are debating among themselves about how to deal with the crisis. They decide to face it unitedly and save the young of the community. Armed with this decision, they meet the police party as equals. This face-off then leads to crisis, chaos and violence.
Even though ‘caste’ has not been mentioned even once in Karnan, through its symbolism the film captures the core of caste based atrocities; particularly in post-colonial India. This core mainly consists of resentment arising from a sense of ‘loss of power’. The upper/dominant caste think that by the virtue of their birth they are born to rule and everyone else should submit to them. But, when this does not happen, it irks them, which leads to reactionary violence often with the aim of ‘teaching them - the entire community - a lesson’; in the film it is about teaching the entire village a lesson.
The Superintendent of Police is miffed and seethes with anger because he is not given a chair to sit when he visits the village. Another police officer is angry because the villagers “are paupers who have named themselves after royals”. The crime is not the destruction of a bus, but them standing tall, and their refusal to bow, displaying confidence and expecting a humane treatment. The villagers committed a symbolic crime, for which they are punished physically.
When the SP brutally beats up elder villagers in the police station with portraits of BR Ambedkar and Subramanian Bharathi overlooking, he expresses his resentment which emanates from a sense of loss of power, typical of upper/dominant caste. When intervened by a junior officer about why he is beating the elders, the SP replies: “These old men, puff their chests, twirl their moustaches and stand proudly before me, and you expect me to be quiet”. While mercilessly beating the village elders, the SP gives an expression to his resentment as: “You dare to wear a turban?...We are supposed to fear you because you have changed your names?…You thought you could change you names and become king overnight?”.
Later, when Karnan and the villagers rescue their elders by vandalising the police station, the village and community headman attempts to kill himself out of shame. Rightly summing up his assessment of the police violence, he says: “He [the SP] hit us because I wore a turban…because we stood tall...because I was named Duryodhana”. This statement by the village headman and his attempt to suicide provokes Karnan, and he demands the villagers stand and fight the authorities without an apology.
The most striking thing about Karnan is not symbolism, though it serves an important function of challenging the dominant historical narrative informed by religious mythology, but the unapologetic and militant tone, both of its chief protagonist and the film itself. In the very end, Karnan kills the antagonist who again is unapologetic about his reactionary inhuman attitude and vengeful action. Before killing the SP, Karnan in a manner of asking and stating says: “My needs don’t matter to you, my troubles don’t matter to you…all that matters to you is how I stand before you, and how I address you”, to which the SP only responds with yet another threat, even when he is subdued.
In any conventional film, the killing of the villain by the hero is usually a desired end; it is interpreted as the victory of good over evil. The audience and critics do not pose questions like: what is the difference between the Hero and the Villain if the Hero is also violent? Or, why is there a glorification of violence? Or statements like: I am against all kind of violence, both the Villain and the Hero were wrong.
But this understanding and reaction changes when the source of oppression is caste and villain belongs to the upper/dominant caste. In this case, where the oppressed hero kills the oppressor and the source of oppression is caste, all hell breaks loose. This act of ‘killing the oppressor’ is a very powerful metaphor with real life consequences. We see people from the dominant caste taking to streets and social media in protest of the ‘negative portrayal of our caste’, every time there is a film or scene on caste violence which implicates the upper/dominant caste.
Since, Karnan is supposedly based on the Kodiyankulam caste riots (1995) in which a police party of 600 attacked and ransacked a Dalit village on behalf of Thevar caste officials, a Thevar political party namely the Tamil Nadu Mukkulathor Pulipadai, treaded the same line and demanded a ban on the film and arrest of the director and the lead actor Dhanush.
The party alleged that the film Karnan ‘will affect peace in the society…it degrades the police’ and further accused the director of ‘instigating caste-based riots’. There was also a Twitter campaign, demanding a ban on the film. Similarly, a right wing news portal, lamented that Karnan is a “violence-glorifying flick where the violence of the protagonist is justified in inhuman ways”, and quite obviously tried to indicate that the film is an attack on Hindu religion. These kind of reactions from the upper/dominant caste forums are a reflection of how militant and aggressive resistance to caste based oppression is perceived as ‘unjust’ and ‘problematic’. Violence is not inhumane when the upper/dominant caste is the agent, but only when the oppressed communities reverses the role. The dominant/upper caste even wants to dictate the terms for solving caste-based oppression, and its desired approach is gradual social reform.
But Karnan does not believes in social reform and rightly so. The entire idea of social reform is based on the belief and hope that upper-caste oppressors will come to the simple and basic realisation that oppressing other human beings is wrong. Karnan, does not believes that this is ever going to happen. In a symbolic opening scene, an eagle swoops down and steals a newly hatched chick. Karnan castigates the villagers who are pleading with the eagle to return the ‘poor’ chick. He says: “Everyday it [eagle] snatches a chick and eats it and we beg and plead to return…It is going to eat the chick and they [villagers] still gather to worship it”. Karnan does not believe in pleading and appealing to the ‘good conscience’ of the oppressor, and that is what makes him radical.
Perhaps, the most radical message of Karnan is that instead of depending upon the State and appealing to the good conscience of the oppressor (social reform), the only way out for the oppressed communities is to organise and stand in defiance, and if need arises, even militantly. The recent (and past) incidents of caste-based violence in the country, with the state machinery acting on behalf of the upper/dominant caste perpetrators only makes the narrative of Karnan look realistic.
Ambedkar once summed up the battle for annihilation of caste as; “Ours is a battle not for wealth, nor for power; ours is a battle for freedom; for reclamation of human personality”. This is the battle which Karnan and his comrades were fighting for and they fought it valiantly.
Post Script: Just a few days ago, a man from the Dalit community was attacked in Gujarat for sporting a long moustache. The crime here was ‘symbolic’ transgression of caste norms, the same crime Karnan and his fellow villagers committed. The film Karnan in this sense not only captures, the basic logic of reactionary caste violence in the past, but also of the present.
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