Thursday, May 27, 2021

Sword and razor: thoughts on Karnan and Mandela

(Did this piece about two fine new Tamil films for Mint)


The first time we meet the protagonists of Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan and Madonne Ashwin’s Mandela, they are fast asleep. Both Karnan (Dhanush) and Mandela (known mainly as “Jackass” at this point, and played by the affable Yogi Babu) are about to be rudely woken for banal reasons. But more urgent awakenings are soon to follow.

Here are two films about lower-caste men faced with oppression and hegemony, attaining a form of political consciousness and emerging as village heroes. Their arcs are very different, though, as is the tone and emphasis of the narratives they inhabit. Karnan, inspired by a real-life police attack on a Dalit village in 1995, is a more overtly “serious” film, certainly edgier and angrier, about a whole community under threat. Mandela is a laidback, good-natured parable, with traces of dark satire, about an individual: a village barber who becomes important during a local election.

Depending on how you look at the films, there are as many similarities as differences. For instance, both have moments where papers are destroyed, or threatened with destruction, emphasising what these documents mean to people for whom this is a sole stamp of identity, a validation of existence. And in each story, there is an inspirational figure whose life serves as a palimpsest for the hero’s (though neither film underlines the connection too much, and a one-to-one mapping isn’t useful beyond a point).

In Karnan, this spiritual forebearer is from mythology – the Mahabharata’s Karna, denigrated as a low-caste man even after being gifted an elevated status. In Mandela, the connection is with a contemporary figure, Nelson Mandela, and is first presented in comical terms. When “Jackass” (also called “Smile” or “Bushy Hair” or “Dung Picker” – he never finds out his real name, he only knows his caste, which is the essential marker) applies for an Aadhaar card, a friendly postal officer gives him a few famous names to choose from. One of these is Mandela, who, she points out, fought for the identity of black people “just like you are fighting for your identity”.

Our man doesn’t care about that, he finds the South African leader appealing because “he has curly hair and dark skin like me”. Liberating his people, or himself, isn’t on his mind – his ambitions are small, he would be content if he were occasionally paid for the menial jobs he is ordered to do. But the voter’s ID card sets wheels in motion; as an election campaign reaches fever pitch, Mandela becomes a deadlock-breaker between warring factions, and now suddenly everyone is trying to pamper him. The people who once made him clean toilets and were incensed at the thought of him sitting in their car now use the vehicle to help him get down from a tree, and even clutch at his feet as he descends. All this adds up to a quietly humorous tale about upward mobility and politics of convenience.

Karnan is, structurally and tonally, more complex. It shifts between a mythical mode – riven with symbolism, rousing music, a few stylish setpieces – and a grounded narrative located in the here and now. The opening sequences have the texture of deep myth: a bird’s eye view of a girl dying on a road, passing vehicles ignoring her, until she is depicted as a supine figure with a goddess’s mask – followed by a vivid opening-credits song with a montage of people calling out to Karnan the saviour. All this might lead you to expect a larger-than-life story about a superhero’s journey, but this is a slow-burn film about a few incidents (mostly centred around the absence of a bus stop for a small village) that lead to a small revolt – which then becomes bigger when the local police respond with cruelty. And though Karnan himself performs a dramatically impressive “fish-cutting” feat with a sword early on, he isn’t a grand or distant figure: he is just one of the villagers – a boy of the soil, son, kid brother (often scolded by his big sister), friend, lover. Dhanush’s down-to-earth persona emphasises this, even after circumstances force Karnan into a proactive role.

This film is very aware of two contrasting approaches to societal change: the slow, incremental one (like Karnan painstakingly using a jagged rock to fray the rope binding a donkey’s feet in a key scene) and a decisive call to revolution, where sticks and swords may be brandished and bus windows and bones broken. Ultimately, it seems to cast its lot with the latter approach, and this results in a climactic sequence that could have come from a more conventional action film. But the recurring motif of the long-dead girl with the mask, stirring the villagers in their revolt, is reminiscent of the powerful ending of Pa. Ranjith’s Kaala, in which the appearance of many Kaalas (or Kaala masks) suggest a hero being alive in the spirit of those whom he inspired. Both sequences also evoke the underlying premise of Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta: that it doesn’t matter which face lies behind the revolutionary’s mask; individuals may be killed but the idea is imperishable.

In the Mahabharata, when Karna is offered a chance to broker peace by revealing his true identity, he rejects the offer partly because he knows that hostilities have already gone too far; that a cleansing war is needed, which requires that he remain a foot-servant to the larger cause. Karnan’s situation is different in the specifics, but there is a poetic similarity in his decisions: after passing a military test, he has the opportunity to join the establishment – perhaps positively representing his community in the process, and helping to improve their lot over time – but he opts for swifter, more decisive action.

Given its more modest canvas and very specific story (about an individual who has to figure out his own journey rather than be a leader or totem), Mandela doesn’t have to deal with such epic conflicts. It has some faith in the idea that slow change can work, that the system can be benevolent and supportive. There is a very droll moment where we see Mandela and his friend staring blankly at a wall for a few seconds; the payoff is that this is the back of the post-office building and they are wondering how to get in because there is no rear entrance for low-castes. You can come in from the front, says the smiling officer, a woman who is fighting her own small battles for a more egalitarian world. Given that this is an official space, there is an implication here that the authorities are trying to move past old discriminations. And the film’s final scene is an unapologetically idealistic, optimistic one that might discomfit those who believe there is no room for sugar-coating in depictions of the caste struggle.

This is eventually a key difference between the films: Mandela gets legitimacy and a bit of power through a government-issued document (which he doesn’t have to struggle too hard to obtain) while Karnan turns his back on a state offer. One man will continue to work patiently with his shaving razor, even in a final dramatic sequence where almost the entire village is gathered around him and the election results are trickling in; the other will take up a sword because a jagged stone isn’t enough when you have to hew right through a big fish – or a societal structure.


P.S. amusingly – and perhaps inevitably – one other thing these two films have in common is a Rajinikanth homage. The first time we are about to meet “Jackass”, the camera panning over the tools of his trade, there is an image of the superstar on the board that says Barber Shop; meanwhile Karnan wears a T-shirt with an image of the Rajinikanth of Thalapathi – another film about a contemporary Karna figure. (A post about it is here.)

Related posts: on Mari Selvaraj's Pariyerum Perumal; on Nagraj Manjule's Sairat; on Anubhav Sinha's Article 15

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