Released last month, Karnan (2021) has earned universal acclaim in Tamil Nadu.
The movie is a fictionalised retelling of the violence that rocked the southern districts of Tamil Nadu in the 1990s.
Made with superlative technical expertise, Karnan is essentially a hero-centric, violence-glorifying flick where the violence of the protagonist is justified in inhuman ways.
The group identity here is, of course, caste. And no rewards for guessing against whom the injustice has been institutionalised in the movie.
To its credit though, the movie brings alive the village life of Tamil Nadu without the unnecessary vulgarity and humour that usually characterise commercial Tamil movies.
The film is set in a village that is fighting against the corrupt and casteist police and state machinery. The hero is the epicenter of this resistance. He rejects the central paramilitary job he gets and comes back to fight for his village.
The names of the characters in the movie seem to have undergone a generational change. So, we have in the same village the hero Karnan and a Duryodanan and a Draupadi.
A tyrannical police officer, whose throat is ultimately slit by Karnan in the climax, is revealed to have the name ‘Kannapiran’ (a name of Krishna).
A girl who is shown dying on the road while none of the passersby bothers to help, becomes a goddess. She becomes a force ever permeating the ambience of the village — even exhorting them to fight.
(The reduction of the worship of the village goddesses to the worship of women who have lost their lives is an academic sleight of hand propagated by the Marxist and missionary schools of folklore studies. While it is true that women and girls lost to a family or village are worshipped as goddesses, that is not the only way the tradition of goddess worship emerges in villages and clans.)
Moving on, Dravidian propaganda now seems to have moved on from targeting the Ramayana to going after the Mahabharata.
There have been a few attempts in Tamil Nadu — without much success — to read into the Mahabharata as a clash between a patriarchal and matriarchal clans, as also a saga of caste atrocity where the lands of the victims are taken away by the Kshatriyas.
Here, in Karnan, there is indeed a character named Draupadi. The hero is Karnan, and another 'good guy' is Duryodanan.
It is while watching Karnan slicing a fish that Draupadi falls in love with him.
The fight between the two communities happens with cattle around.
Finally, as pointed out earlier, the casteist police officer Kannapiran tries to destroy the entire village, humiliates, and violently attacks Duryodanan, but is eventually killed by Karnan.
In the end, Karnan, of course, marries Draupadi.
Towards the end, Karnan makes a fiery speech, even as he violently confronts his casteist adversary. The hero states that these law enforcement officers do not care about what the people need, but rather about how they stand, and whether they wear turbans.
Now let us get back to the history and see what events actually unfolded in Tamil Nadu in the 1990s.
During the early 1990s, the AIADMK was in power in the state. The close aide of the then chief minister Jayalalithaa belonged to a dominant community of the southern part of the state.
This led to a change of perception. The AIADMK, which was earlier seen as a party beyond caste identities, was now perceived as a party partial to a particular community.
In southern Tamil Nadu, the Thevar and the Devendrakula Vellalar communities were caught in a cycle of violence.
The trigger was an an attack on a bus driver and conductor by an aggressive group of students.
Soon, the violence spread throughout Thirunelveli district.
Casteist slurs were made against the Devendrakula Vellalars and posters with slurs were put up on buses. This made the hate travel through the heartlands of the district.
In the same cycle, statues of Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Devar were vandalised.
Both Thevars and Devendrakula Vellalrs were killed. Properties of both were damaged and destroyed.
The police was accused by both sides of having sided with the other, while the bias of the police was clearly against the Devendrakula Vellalars.
Kodiyankulam, a village with a majority of Devendrakula Vellalars, had become the target of police action. The police conducted a ‘search operation’ here.
The entire village was ransacked, its property destroyed, menfolk attacked, and even women and children were not spared.
The Jayalalithaa government appointed a judicial inquiry into the atrocities. The commission, however, justified the police action even as its report was not tabled.
In 1996, the AIADMK lost power and the DMK replaced it. However, the Devendrakula Vellalar community continued to face discrimination and attacks even under the DMK regime.
In 1999 (during the DMK reign), 17 tea state workers (mostly belonging to Devendrakula Vellalar community) lost their lives following a brutal police attack on a procession taken out in support of a labour struggle.
The victims, which included two women and a child, were drowned when they, along with scores of others, ran into the Thamiraparani river to escape the lathi blows of the policemen who descended on them from all directions.
With antagonism rising between the DMK and the Devendrakula Vellalars, Karunanidhi tabled the report of the commission set up by Jayalalithaa in the legislative assembly in 1999. That was like rubbing salt into the wounds.
In Karnan, the violence of the hero is shown as the ultimate solution.
In reality, the events saw the emergence of Dr Krishnaswamy as a vibrant, democratic leader of the Devendrakula Vellalars.
He led the community not through violent means but through democratic channels.
Dr Krishnaswamy fought on the ground and faced lathis and bullets. To this day, he fights for the rights and self-respect of his people.
His politics may change. His alliances may change. But his purpose has been the upliftment of his community.
Dr Krishnaswamy has always been a strong Hindu, and when at one stage conversion to Islam was under the consideration of the harassed community, he was the one who stopped it.
Dr Krishnaswamy may be a leader of only the Devendrakula Vellalar community, but for this decision of his, the entire Hindu society owes him gratitude.
Depicting a life of a democratic warrior who did not propagate hate politics and violence is always tough. Instead, showing a violent hero is easy and is an easy way to national and international awards.
In fact, Karnan shows what is wrong with Tamil Nadu. Kollywood brought Thevar Magan that made the educated Thevar youths of the day casteist. There was technical expertise and superb music, but the social impact was negative.
Now, Karnan caters to a dominant political ideology of hate and violence. But in reality, the real hero did not pick up a sword nor slit throats. He worked through rallies, faced lathi charges and bullets, fought in the legislative assembly, and demanded true commissions.
His name is not Karnan but Krishnaswamy.
That sums up all that is wrong with Karnan.
Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.
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