Dance me to the end of love
Mari Selvaraj has only two films as a director, but he has already developed a unique vocabulary, creating surprising and charged works about the dark workings of caste oppression in Tamil Nadu. His first, Pariyerum Perumal (2018), focused on the relationship between a young man from a backward caste and his upper classmate, and the systematic oppression he faces. His second, Karnan, published last week on Amazon Prime, concerns a village called Podiyankulam, historically discriminated against because of the caste of its inhabitants; they have to beg for government jobs and can’t even stop buses nearby.
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The film follows in the wake of critical caste works such as Sairat (2016) and Kaala (2018) using consumer devices to present the simmering resentment of its protagonist, Karnan (Dhanush). His song sequences are particularly interesting, with Selvaraj once again teaming up with Santhosh Narayanan, perhaps the most important Indian film composer today. Like with Pariyerum Perumal, the songs of Karnan are not interludes but small explosions of living narrative.
Kandaa Vara Sollunga
The film opens with a bird’s eye view of a young girl lying on a highway, vehicles passing on either side. We hear the high mute moans of folk artist Kidakkuzhi Mariyammal, which leads to a series of glowing images: women cradling babies at dusk, a man drawing on the wall with fire, flash zooms on silhouetted figures, close-ups of shriveled faces, hands, tattooed backs, animals, insects. If you see him, tell him to come. Someone will look for Karnan at once, Repeatedly asks Mariyammal, to the accompaniment of urgent drums. Every now and then Selvaraj shows the reason for his distress – a man in custody, blood streaming, his face covered. The song ends with the finished drawing of Dhanush’s face, although his real face remains hooded. Both provocative and desperate, it’s a stunning variation on a Tamil cinema staple: the hero entry number – minus the hero.
A singing love song in the mold of AR Rahman, Thattaan Thattaan begins as a rural counterpart of Pariyerum Perumalof Potta Kaatil Poovasam before a brilliant diversion from the romantic in the third verse. Temporarily putting aside the merry frolicking of Karnan and Draupadi (Rajisha Vijayan), Selvaraj focuses on an elderly woman listing the virtues and difficulties of the peasant clan. Our ancestors lost the highlands, our ancestors lost the farmlands, Sing Meenakshi Elayaraja. It reminded me of Arivu imitating his grandmother by Enjoy Enjaami, his recent hit single with Dhee. This track was also composed by Narayanan and shared with Thattaan Thattaan a common vision of rural pride and historical injustice (I planted five trees / Yet my throat remains dry, Arivu had sung on it).
A funeral in the village serves as the backdrop for this folklore number. As Karnan sulks after a fight with Draupadi, his older companion Yeman (Lal) sings about his wife, Manjanathi, who died of cholera. Here too, their societal status is invoked, almost in a neutral way (The miserable people of our castes / would come after us with swords). In Pariyerum Perumal, mourning prompted the haunted Karuppi. It’s a more upbeat track, performed beautifully by Lal and shot without his normal cutaways by Selvaraj, with a smooth movement of a take at the end of the song as Dhanush explodes into dance.
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As the title suggests, this instrumental track is where the movie turns both literally (this is where the gap would have been) and narrative, as Karnan and a few of his countrymen destroy a bus. The provocation is extreme, but Selvaraj knows how the destruction of public transport is usually driven by the dominant powers, and films it without triumph and with much trepidation. The music matches that: beating drums, electric guitar moans and dismal trumpet sounds. Even the liberation promised by the visual at the start of the scene – Karnan freeing a donkey with its feet tied – is dispelled by the final image: an eagle frozen in flight.
After Karnan and a few others free their fellow police officers, the village knows that retaliation is imminent. A classic montage of the night before the fight follows – plans drawn, weapons prepared, prayers said. Words are heavy (Come, stop these cyclic wheels that trample on us) but the choice of music is oddly light – not the kind of thrilling hymn one would expect, but a dance number with a bouncy beat, sung by the cold-voiced Dhee. The nature of the trail – a village preparing for a clash with a stronger enemy – cannot help but recall the Chale Chalo number of Lagaan (2001) .This fits well with Karnanthe thematic and stylistic similarities of the 2019 Brazilian film Bacurau, whose director, Kleber Mendonça Filho, mentioned Lagaan as a point of reference.