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The Bahujan Review of the Karnan Movie

For the oppressed Dalits, there are countless atrocities. Some of them stay forever in their heart and mind to provide needed anger and emotions to fight for their justice. 

Even after inventing a constitutional-democratic form of vaccines against caste-psychosis, the government’s lowest preference to make people receiving them has prevented eradicating such vicious mental disease from the Indian subcontinent. The hateful debates on the reservation system inside the Indian educational institutions itself throw light on the presence of caste disease among the new generations, even today. And those who complain about the reservation system are not always innocent and ignorant about how the system works. They usually deny the logical reason within the system by repeatedly blaming SC and STs for their incompetence in exams.  For some intermediate caste people (from the OBC quota) reservation is not the problem (since they too getting it), but the reason for their anger is to share it with the indigenous people of Dravida land’ (SCs of TN) as well. It is nothing but the stomach-turning behaviour out of caste-psychosis while seeing the SC candidates also getting empowered. 

Why it should be seen as stomach-turning behaviour when they (usual people from OBCs or General quota) usually use the word ‘merit’ as their defensive mechanism? Because they understand that the word ‘merit’ or ‘qualification’ of a candidate by just equalizing it with the marks the candidate score. But, higher marks can also be scored by just mugging up the answers. Merit is not something equivalent to memory power. For example, for social science scholars, critical thinking and questioning on the conservative social system and practices are important criteria to be addressed as ‘meritorious social scientists’. Rather mugging up the syllabus that has been culturally, politically and religiously reinforced by the state, are the merits or qualifications that a social scientist must not have. According to this understanding, many social science students from the Forward communities who are reinforced by caste mindset are not qualified to be called “Meritorious students”. Why because they score high marks but in most cases, they fail to produce critical and rational thoughts which is essential merit for social studies. 

And the problem is they are struck by the myth that only the Forward communities are meritorious and Dalits are meritless. Maybe, the incompetence makes them blame the socially challenged category – it is like, they want to compete between a physically advantaged and physically challenged.  Their absolute lack of knowledge on ‘equity’ makes them see the real meritorious candidates of SC STs as meritless. Even though facing socio-economic-psychological discrimination, many SC STs are scoring pass marks.

Moreover, in recent times, the competitive exams reveal that the cut-off scores of the EWS categories are double the time lower than the SC ST’s cutoffs (SBI Exam Leaves OBCs, SCs, STs Struggling To Figure Out EWS Quota Trick, n.d.). In this circumstance, who should be called actual meritorious candidates? When these types of issues stand as socio-psychological hurdles for the Dalits at the institutional level, there are many Dalit villages that are still struggling to access the basic resources from the government. Even in 2021, many Dalit villages are not having basic needs such as schools, bus stops, etc. The media shows less interest to reveal and address the atrocities that have been faced by Dalits. 

Cinema, the popular media in India is less democratic and inclusive. In its history, it has rarely accommodated the narratives of Dalits. In the history of Tamil film industries, there were no Tamil movies with Phule and Ambedkar’s ideologies till Pa Ranjith’s works take place. It can be claimed that the actual emergence of Dalit narratives in Tamil cinema has achieved because of Pa Ranjith’s directions and productions. Pa Ranjith has put keen interest to invest in the oppressed narratives through his Neelam production, which acts as a platform for talented Dalit creators. One such talented Dalit creator, Mari Selvaraj has started his career as a director on the same platform. His directorial debut film Parierum Perumal (2018) has created a social wave and debate in Tamil society. His next work Karnan (2021) has reflected the atrocities that have been faced by the Dalits in the Indian villages. In this article, I have made an effort to discuss the film Karnan by employing narrative and feministic analysis methods. 

In Karnan, Kattu Peatachi, (Teen-aged sister of the male protagonist who was left to die because the Bhramanical system has transformed into spirit, social memory and that constantly reminds the oppressed of that village to fight for their justice) was set at the centre of the narrative who is waiting in the outskirts of the village, to see the revolutionary acts of the oppressed to achieve justice. Intermediate caste groups who think of themselves as “superior” to the Dalit villagers, and have been mentally uncivilized for centuries due to caste psychosis which protects their unquestionable and privileged socio-economic status, interprets the socially emerging oppressed masses with annoyance and make them suffer in all possible ways. 

Dhanush as Karnan, one who enjoys his youngness with full-fledged entertainments turns out the saviour of his village people, was provocative of injustices and held emotionally connected with the oppressed youths who have been cornered in every means in our caste India.

It is a powerful narrative with Mari Selvaraj’s usual symbolism. In the film Pariyerum Perumal, he used the ‘blue’ colour symbolically to politicize and raise discussion and debates on the questions of reservation, the essentiality of education and the mind of the intermediate castes on inter-caste marriage. Now in Karnan, he portrays the Dalits as justice seekers even at the cost of living. He necessitates the assertion of Dalits but also did not ignore informing the audience about the consequences of such assertion which may be more painful, torturous and disastrous. Yet, for him, the time has arrived for assertion and freedom

He politicized the oppressed youth. At this moment, the youth from every oppressed community/class/gender/ethnic section who are living with comfort have forgotten one thing, there were many like the young girl (Kaattupeatchee) on the road who were left to die or the elder of the Dalit colony who was subjected to torture and eventually succumbed to police brutality and sacrificed valuable lives. They were the victims and rebels born out of our unequal society.

For the minimal freedom that the oppressed sections are enjoying today, there were billions of “Kaattupeatchees”, through the ages, who have lost their blood, life, body, tears, life, youth, food, desire, love, lust, friendship, family, hometown, and country. And they are staring at you, longing for justice to come through you. 

On the outskirts of your village, in the village well, in the coconut grove, in the banana grove, in the cotton field, in the peanut garden, in the river, in the mud, in the fields, on the street, on the tracks, even in the middle of the house – they are all staring at you with the bloodstains, with the amputated arms, legs and head, and by losing dignity and life. They look down on you, with the hope that you will somehow “fight” for denied justice through your enlightened knowledge, hand-held power, head-turning progress, uncompromising determination, fearless valour, laughter that does not lose self-respect, and ultimately through your victory. They stand beside you; hoping that you will find a way out for their pain.

In Pariyerum Perumal, he showed the Dalit youth who endured all the oppressions but would expect for the attitudinal change from the oppressors, but now he has shown that Dalit youth would not wait but fight to seek justice. As of my understanding “It is enough to be remained silent, let’s get provoked and fight for the rights and self-respect,” is the ultimate message of the story.

From the scenes

Mari Selvaraj’s extreme courage for exposing the realistic story, sorry! not a story but a history of the voiceless is extremely admiring. Yes! The history of the oppressed is now on the big screen. The film is set in the south of Tamil Nadu before 1997 when vigorous conflicts were taken place between the Hindu intermediate caste groups and the outcastes (Dalits). 

The film pronounces that, the bus stop is a government-recognized right for every people through which one can be brought to the outside world and shine. But it is a stomach-turning act to prevent only Dalits from accessing it. Karnan is a young man who is outraged to see the government’s indifference and government employee’s strategies to prevent Dalits from accessing the resources. 

The symbolism of the restrained donkey and its release has been paralleled with Karnan’s assertion towards the fight for his village’s rights. In the beginning, the headless statue connotes the destruction of Buddhism by the Bhramanism and the Dalit people venerates it spotlights the cultural history of the voiceless. And the headless figure on the wall reminded of the contemporary Dalit leader Immanuvel Sekar, who worked towards uplifting the Dalits have been brutally killed by the goons of Muthuramalinga Thevar for not standing up while he enters one common meeting.

The government, through its own policy, should act to provide equal resources to its subjects, but it has never been fulfilled in our country especially if it is for the Dalits and the minority groups. Such repression by the state turns the Dalit aspirant’s destiny. Here, Karnan who wants to be a military servant faces usual hurdles created by the caste psychos and eventually qualifies for the post also but his village’s situation became a blockage. The film deserves great applause for revealing the casteist mindset which blocks the communication channels that should be available to the oppressed.

The crude mindset and behaviours of the caste patrons have been spotlighted in the scenes wherein the police officer gets annoyance after hearing the Dalit village headman holds a name from the character of Mahabharatam and charges the village people.  Even holding names from the epics would irritate and make the Caste Hindus uncomfortable.  

Another side of the coin – Mari’s mythical women

The female characters in Ranjith’s films are very brave, arrogant, and the plot will be set around a woman. For example, in his films, he keeps long and informative verses that are spoken by women. Moreover, the woman is even portrayed as a rebel who goes down and fight. In short, his heroines are politically savvy. Instead of portraying women as powerful like his friend, Pa Ranjith, Mari Selvaraj took a different direction that is portraying women as the weaker sex. It is similar to other patriarchal films that portray female characters as mythical ideals. 

Both of his films are born out of patriarchal ideas and designed exclusively for men as in other Tamil films. The heroine of his debut film Pariyerum Perumal has been portrayed as a beautiful childish woman who knows nothing about society and politics. She is portrayed as one who does not understand the caste atrocities that have been done to his friend (the male protagonist) until the very end. In this age, where even small children think intelligently, won’t a woman understand the torture that happens to her friend? I would have been happy if she had realized the injustices that happen to his friend and had a verse where she says that “this community will definitely change one day.”

Instead, Mari gave such verses to her father in the climax and ended the film by showing her as a child who knew nothing. Throughout the film Pariyerum Perumal, the male protagonist calls many women ‘angels’ – kind of mythical women, and at the end of the film the camera is zooming a jasmine flower (the heroine) who stuck between the two different teacups, that is, the milk mixed tea and dark black tea (her father and Pariyen, respectively), discloses the notion that being an angel (one who knows nothing) is enough for women. 

Similarly in Karnan, his elder sister warns him by beating him after hearing that he is having a relationship with a girl, but she keeps quiet without fighting when her village is in danger. Those who visited the rural villages would know that women, especially rural Dalit women, would go down and fight aggressively during the quarrels. 

Here, too, a man only comes forward to sacrifice his life to save his hometown. And another man, who comes as a typical Tamil hero that could fight single-handedly and save the whole village. But, history says that there were many women who have sacrificed their lives to safeguard their town and people. Thus, such a heroic portrayal of Karnan didn’t touch the realistic lens in the context of gender.

Emotions – Reserved for Women

The majority of the films portrays women as very sacred and emotional. Motherhood is projected as the ultimate pride available to women and is more willing to achieve it than anything else in their life. Dialogues like “A woman’s life is complete only when she has attained marital status and motherhood” are all come out of Manu’s psychology. In the bus breaking scene, a little boy gets angry and throws a stone on the bus for not stopping at the Dalit village and fights to save his pregnant mother. His film is based on the idea that women as the pettiest beings and men are meant to protect them in times of chaos wherein being a pregnant woman, she is calm and waiting for men to come and protect her. Here, the scene may have been set as if the woman had broken an arm or leg, but portraying her as a pregnant woman could enhance the emotion of the narrative. Even the character of the ‘Kaattupeatchi’, a girl who dies in the middle of the road at the beginning scene, has been used for emotional touches. 

Women are connected with emotions, not as rebellious is also a Manu informed psychology. As like what Manusmiriti says that “In childhood, a girl should be under her father’s control, in youth under her husband’s, and when her husband is dead, under her sons” (9.2 & 9.3). Manu Psychology lives in almost every cinema, and his films are not an exception. 

Let’s imagine. How Ranjith would have taken the same scene? Undoubtedly he would have turned the camera towards the pregnant woman who would have broken the bus instead of the small boy. Here is where Mari’s gender stereotyping is revealed. 

The women in the film are portrayed as sinful humans. Firstly, Kaattupeatchi died; then Karnan’s elder sister who remains unmarried and become the reason for the family’s sorrow; pregnant woman; the girl who stops her higher studies because of the sexual molestation that happened to her and the heroine who knows nothing other than loving the hero. It can be seen that all the majestic characters in the film have been reserved for the male. Most of the problems are centred on women and the men are fighting to save them – that reflects the sexist society as it is rather than challenging the norms revolutionarily. 

Since women are being oppressed in our society; the cinema as a mass entertainer should at least take a role to convey to its audience that how women should be treated. On the contrary, it is not wise and useless to take films by literally presenting how they are being oppressed in this society.

Author, Arthi Baskaran is a PhD research scholar at Bharathidasan University, Tamil Nadu. Her areas of research are Caste, Cinema, Dalit History, Gender and Feminism. 

2 Comments

  1. Out standing of articles have induce me to eradicate communalism in india not only that this world. I am really proud of this article s Author and her detailed in formation.
    I wish you and all the best. Go further …I wish all the success.

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