Friday 4 February 2022

My streaming gem: "Karnan" (Guardian 04/02/22)

Many of the Indian releases that pivoted to streaming over the past 18 months have deserved burial-by-algorithm, if I’m being honest. One that doesn’t is the Tamil melodrama
Karnan, an exceptionally vivid spot of latter-day mythmaking. You wonder whether writer-director Mari Selvaraj pitched it as "what if Baahubali" – the two-part SS Rajamouli epic that redrew the horizons of Indian commercial cinema back in 2015 – "but in the here-and-now?". Enter our eponymous young hero (local megastar Dhanush), introduced completing a ritual that involves leaping off a rock overhanging a pool and, while still in mid-air, bisecting vermillion-daubed fish with a flashing blade. Lakes, swords: British viewers may be reminded of Camelot. Here’s another green knight in search of a worthy cause.

Yet the surprise Selvaraj has for us – one of the biggest curveballs in any movie released this past year – is that this cause should be a fully integrated public transit system. This is a tale of two villages, one of which (Karnan’s native Podiyankulam) is dirt-poor, the other (neighbouring Melur) rich enough to afford its own bus stop. When the residents of Podiyankulam hike to Melur to catch the bus, they’re regarded with suspicion and sometimes outright contempt as outsiders taking up valuable space – a source of ongoing tension between the two communities. Selvaraj has taken us somewhere very specific to tell a story that is broadly universal: a story about tribalism, and how it’s now often tied up with issues of free movement.

The film's first half, however, serves chiefly to define its warrior-in-chief – and thus to demonstrate that appearances can prove deceptive. Karnan initially presents as a nice lad with sensible hair, ticking the first box of Indian movie heroism by being good to his put-upon mother (Janaki). Yet the characterisation is soon complicated. A drinker and a gambler, Karnan is less your typical masala maverick than a punk-in-waiting. He’s a hothead who spends this first hour getting into scraps, pushing away the one gal who’s crazy about him, and – in a pre-intermission sequence that must have been tremendous fun to shoot – singlehandedly trashing one of those rackety old buses pootling between backwaters. (He does much the same to a police station just after the break.)

This is a kid with fire in his belly – that’s what makes him such a hothead – yet while Selvaraj grasps these flames can be destructive, he also knows that in certain cases they’re exactly what’s required to effectuate real and lasting change. Sometimes, the movie posits, you have to burn down the whole rotten system and start again from scratch. The blazingly unpredictable hero is one reason Karnan emerges as such an unpredictable watch – it’s a morality play hitched to a genuine loose cannon. In the course of the film, Karnan will alienate family members and the wider village; at points, all we can cling to is the knowledge our boy seems unlikely ever to take the shit the penniless farmers around him have been forced to swallow for generations.

Somewhere in the mix, there’s a standard-issue crowdpleaser: you glimpse it whenever Dhanush raises himself up to his full 5’5” (5’4½”, when wet) and sets about righting this world’s wrongs – wealth inequality, police brutality – to what you suspect would have been huge cheers from the cheap seats had the film’s theatrical run not been curtailed by Covid. But it’s been overlaid by an artistry and delicacy rarely observed in films of this scale: if not the full Rajamouli, then not a hundred miles away. Cinematographer Theni Eswar provides lustrous cutaways to the region’s flora and fauna. And his overhead shots are positively sculptural: men gathering in a field mowed to resemble a bull, lovers trysting by a heart-shaped pond.

The worldbuilding is elevated to the point where it begins to resemble cosmology, yet as we look upon this busy, tempestuous, hotly contested few acres of land, we realise it’s not so far removed from our own backyards. It could do with more lady in its lake, true: where the Baahubalis offered equal-opportunity mythos, the women here fall between spectators and damsels-in-distress. (It’s a Dhanush film, and some hierarchies may be harder to topple than others.) Yet Selvaraj makes enough genuinely bold, even radical choices elsewhere, not least amid the tense siege finale, to make one regret that Karnan got shuttled off to streaming mid-pandemic. This is a film that takes up a small, everyday struggle, then rides hell-for-leather to fill the screen entire with it.

Karnan is available to stream via Prime Video.

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