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English - Opinions - September 22, 2021

Karnan has set a Benchmark for the Serious Cinema

Cinema over the years has become a major source of entertainment but over the years industry has successfully depicted the social reality on several occasions. ‘Karnan’ by Pa Ranjith is continuing the same legacy and redefines cinema by introducing a new form of aesthetics. It follows the legacy of previous similar-looking films like Kala, Asuran, Sairat, etc. Traditionally, cinema often represents the themes that directly or indirectly propagate the interest of political or religious masters. Until now, the struggle of unjust men and their representation in films is encircled around painful or measurable stories. The characters of the oppressed portrayed in cinema deliberately demean and belittle the oppressor with an artificial construction of the character. But Karnan tries to exhibit the real oppressor and his weakness. Moreover, it also tries to unleash the strength of the oppressed through its projection.  

At the outset of microscopic investigation of the film ‘Karnan’ in the domain of social science, I assume it opens up a new perspective to the cinema culture to deal with the prevailing injustice in our society on the big screen. This film offers multiple social perspectives to examine the following themes: Oppression, revolt, animals and symbolism, the role of women, the rural justice system, meaningful dialogues, strong lyrics, and background music. It powerfully expresses the fearless attitude of repressed men in society and motivates them to raise their voices against oppression.

The filmmaker successfully addresses the struggles of the oppressed people and provides solutions by projecting powerful symbolism. 

Karnan is a fine example of serious cinema which aptly portrays reality through fictional elements.

The film ‘Karnan’ is a complete package and is idealistic to qualify for depth analysis. It has started a trend for other filmmakers on the portrayal of reality and social issues in cinema.

The representation of social themes in this movie needs to be studied categorically and carefully to observe the minute expressions. Here is how I have interpreted Karnan.

1. Representation of Oppression: In most of the films on oppression themes, the popular representations are subject to social discrimination (caste and gender), debt from landlords (economic), and injustice in opportunities (justice). In addition to this, not being allowed to drink water from a well owned by the upper caste by force or threat, not being allowed to sit equally are frequent representations in films. These representations establish and strengthen the dominance of the oppressor in popular culture. But in ‘Karnan’ filmmakers invite the discriminators to confront the repressed men directly. For instance, the villagers smashing the bus with sticks and iron rods is an expression of unleashed anger against the oppressor throughout many generations. Although one can merely see it as a destruction of a bus, the thought behind it was to give a hard-hit blow to the oppressor. Here the bus is a symbol of the oppressor. The demands of villagers to make their bus stop are neglected by the authorities for a long time.

In another instance, the girl and her father were waiting at the bus stop for the bus to go to college. During that moment, the girl was molested by a group of people. This incident stirs the anger of the father, and the fight erupts. Consequently, she had given up her education. In many scenes, the assertion of not giving respect to the police (by not giving him a chair) and the bus owner (asserting no need to touch his feet) is a powerful symbol of non-cooperation with the oppressor. Thus, the film set a new trend to confront villains, which had long been neglected by the pseudo-social filmmakers.

2. Revolt: Where there is oppression, there will be a revolt. In this movie, the depiction of revolt against the unjust authorities is given back in a similar manner. The profound message which ‘Karnan’ exhibits is based on the assumption that ‘revolt’ is directly proportional to the evolution of unjust man in society. The burden of irritating morality, habit, routine, tradition, belief is a fetter to unjust man’s development. ‘Karnan’ through its projection, seems to hit hard on the outer layer of rotten morality and make a crack to breed new thoughts and instigate a new wave of revolt against the oppressor. This idea is displayed in one of the scenes when policemen beat the village elders in the police station, later the villagers collectively beat the police in the police station. It demonstrates that unjust men in society would no longer wish to stay calm or surrender or compromise, rather similarly establish an open revolt against injustice. This film brings the ray of hope or renaissance to the struggle of unjust men in society.

3. Animals and Symbolism:  The projection of animals in the ‘Karnan’ exhibits a powerful message to an unjust man in society only if one could understand the depth of these meanings. There were various animals shown in the movie such as pig rearing in the house, chickens and eagle relation, tied legs of the mule, horse rearing by the child, and victorious elephant dance. It is praiseworthy to mention how one uses the limited resources to illustrate such a strong message through the animals. 

However, Buddha never distinguishes between animal and human, instead uses the common word throughout his teachings i.e. sentient beings. Let me elaborate on the projection of pig rearing in cinema. Many countries in the world rear pig on a mass scale for consumption purposes. However, in the Indian social context, this occupation is considered too dirty or unhygienic, it often symbolises the “untouchables”. The film Karnan however tries to exhibit the fact that importance of pig farming for non-agrarian communities of lower strata.

Another powerful representation in ‘Karnan’ was in a scene, when the ‘eagle snatches the chicks from the house and flies’. In this context, a strong and powerful expression of oppressor and oppressed have been tried to establish. These expressions were represented when the old lady was pleading with folded hands begging the eagle to return her chicks but another dialogue emphasizes “no need to beg if the eagle snatch your chicks rather need to hit back”. After that old lady got consciousness she says; if I catch you (eagle), I will chop you. 

The powerful representation of symbolism through animals was “tied legs of a mule”. This part shall be open to various interpretations, but in our understanding, it depicts the mental slavery of an unjust man. His feet symbolize mental slavery which is a tied knot with an old outdated belief system. This belief has enslaved him (unjust man). It prohibited natural growth to explore the full potential of its existence. In one scene, the rope of his feet was broken and he runs faster and reached the summit of the mountain. The mountain symbolized the unfathomable potential of an unjust man. To put it philosophically, all sentient beings are born with natural capacities, enslaving him is the biggest torture and crime to humanity.  

The dancing elephant represents the winning battle against the oppressor. Happiness, celebration, dance in the middle of the road emphasize the lost territorial reclaim of the land. 

The fish has the most meaningful symbolism in this film, first, it was a big fish that was tossed up in two parts just with one hit of the sword the fish was cut into a two-piece. It seems to communicate the idea of hitting the target at the time will bring you joy. Another example of fish was portrayed when an old man catches the fish in the pond symbolizes that no matter how much you revolt in the pond one day you will be caught in the fishnet. So whatever the effort you do within the village you will be caught by the powerful.   

4. Representation of women: Women are the backbone of any society and the film Karnan presented it beautifully. First I will start with the haircut of the mother, who is fearless and busy with household stuff. My focus is on a haircut, it symbolizes that unjust women need not burden themselves with the social construct of growing long hair. Many women, of course, not all, find difficulty in managing long hair and family life. The other projection of women shown in the very beginning of the film was when the girl was dying alone on the road amid busy traffic and her disturbed soul is shown in between movies in the mask. In the end, the girl again appeared while the sun was setting in the background, she disappeared slowly and became a firefly and the movie ends. In these representations finally, the long-awaited injustice comes to an end and her soul is liberated. Another form of injustice was shown when the girl was going to college and was molested by a group of boys in front of her father consequently she gave up her education. And pregnant women’s misery is also displayed on various occasions and portrays the harsh condition of females in unjust families. Here these things portray the shadow of women’s reality. 

5. Art and Paintings: In the context of the film, art has been used in many remarkable ways to bring more meaning to the struggle against injustice. The wall paint, girl with mask, painting with fire stick is represented continuously. The masked girl is portrayed as a reminder of undone justice in the past. The unfinished headless paintings on the wall which complete while the movie progresses. In addition, revolting music, powerful songs, dialogue, and lyrics are favoured for the unjust men.
Conclusion: This film is designed to produce the awakening of masses who are discriminated against and are on end. Through straightforward symbols and dialogue, the movie leaves a burning fire. The battleground is the road to counter the cruel and powerful authorities. The filmmaker’s thoughts on social issues are rare and subject to careful study. It set the example for future generations, perhaps revolutionizing the future of cinemas. The depiction of children, women, adults, elders, animals, art, music, and powerful dialogue opens the gate for endless examination. Minor scenes of seconds or longer are carefully planned to convey the naked shadows of reality. Unfortunately, other filmmakers fail to project it in their filmmaking. The firm conviction with immense confidence successfully delivered the desired message to the targeted audience in a very astute manner. This may revolutionize popular culture and will bring the renaissance or new beginning which is a prolonged wish of an unjust man in society.

Author Vikas is a senior research scholar at was Jawaharlal Nehru University

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