Trigger Warning: mention of sexual harassment
The legend of King Edward is known by all: it talks about a boy who takes out a sword from a fountain and gets the sovereignty of England. Mari Selvaraj in his film Karna (2021) revisited the same story in an Indian setting, but with a twist.
Podiyakulam is a remote village situated in Tamil Nadu . A bunch of people from the lower strata of the society have stayed there for generations. Their only dream is to see their successors having a government service job and living a true human life unlike them.
However, they have to face immense adversity in every field. They do not even have a bus stop. They have to go to the nearby village bus stop in order to catch a bus, and the neighbouring villages being inhabited by upper castes never leave a chance to humiliate Podiyakulam’s people. They even molest their daughters.
Karnan is a youngster from this village who dared to win the Holy Sword, making him the saviour of the village. Karnan is free from any fear and has very good possibilities. However, he has anger, as a result of being oppressed for generations. There is also a donkey in this film who lives with his front two legs tied, which actually symbolises the same oppression which breaks when Karna sets him free.
Karna had a sister who died in the middle of the street, ten years ago. She was young and the locals believed that she turned into a goddess who protects the village, through Karnan. Karnan is the depiction of the character Karna from Mahabharata. However, unlike the original story, he wins the sword that symbolises the throne and also Draupadi’s love. In the original story, Draupadi rejected Karna because he was a charioteer’s son, but here Draupadi desires Karna for his deeds, not for his identity.
Symbols play a very important role throughout the entire story, from the opening song, to the donkey, the goddess, and the horse. Everything takes the story to a new level. The songs are immensely beautiful with a folk touch in it. The dialogue that Karna says at end, “Our needs, our problems do not bother you! What bothers you is why we have a king’s name, how we are addressing you, and how we are standing in front of you!”
This sums up the entire story that from time immemorial, upper castes have been exploiting the lower castes. When they dream of setting up a new life, these upper caste people take away their opportunities because of their ego and try to bring them down in every way possible. Dhanush is fantastic in the character of Karnan. Other actors have also played their role beautifully. The film is actually a saga of fight for human rights with the song and the attributes of folklore.