Karnan (2021)

On a recent lagniappe episode of the podcast, we returned to one of our collective favorite films of 2020: Bacurau, the ultimate “Fuck Around and Find Out” sci-fi parable.  I was happy to revisit the film to discuss it in greater detail, since it’s such a deceptively complex tale of political resistance and communal solidarity.  The patiently delayed payoffs to its “Most Dangerous Game” genre subversions, the total disinterest in raising one sole hero over the heroism of the community as a unit, and the truly liberated sexual & gender dynamics among the citizenry all feel purposeful and well considered in a way that only gets more impressive on rewatch and in post-credits discussion among friends.  Perversely, it’s the total absence of exactly those thoughtful, nuanced elements that makes Bacurau‘s mainstream Kollywood equivalent Karnan such a hoot.  Karnan‘s own tale of communal uprising against would-be outside oppressors starts with flashy music video pizazz, elevates a singular folk hero above the power of communal bravery, and is morally conservative to the point of censoring tobacco consumption and stick-figure graffiti of boobies in real time.  Karnan is the absurdly reductive, shamelessly melodramatic version of Bacurau, telling a very similar story without any of the nuance or restraint that made Bacurau so remarkable in the first place.  It’s also a delight.

While the fictional town of Bacurau stages its violent political rebellion in a near-future science fiction Brazil, the fictional town of Podiyankulam in Karnan stages its own in 1990s Southern India, loosely referring to actual historical uprisings of the era.  The titular Karnan is an explosively angry young man who feels hobbled by his remote, impoverished village’s status at the bottom of the regional food chain.  His journey is in learning to channel that anger into something useful, starting the film as an aimless hothead and ending it as a radical political advocate for the wellbeing of Podiyankulam at large.  First, he protests to establish a bus stop connecting Podiyankulam to the rest of the world (mostly so local women can travel to college).  When that demand is met with incredulous anger from the wealthier communities nearby—particularly their bully-staffed police departments—he then organizes his community in a literal battle against crooked cops.  And even though this is set in the 1990s, he rides into that battle on horseback wielding “the village sword” like a maniac, hunting down the vilest pig among his enemies for and old-fashioned smiting.  There’s also a spiritual component to the rebellion at hand, represented by dreamworld visits from the dead who whisper words of encouragement behind their painted plaster masks.  And because this is an Indian blockbuster, there’s also plenty of singing, dancing, and romancing to help fill out the three-hour runtime between all the ultraviolent bloodshed.

Of the two over-the-top Tamil-language action flicks I’ve seen so far this year, I slightly prefer the Dangerous Minds throwback Master, but Karnan is still 158 solidly entertaining minutes of cinematic excess.  Seeking out Kollywood & Tollywood action blockbusters over the past few years is the closest I’ve ever come to experiencing how video store nerds must’ve felt discovering Hong Kong martial arts flicks in the 1980s.  It’s outright baffling that these movies aren’t earning a more vocal, enthusiastic audience in the West, considering that they regularly exceed the supposed benchmark for modern delirious action in the Fast & Furious franchise.  Karnan may not launch any “streetracing” cars into outer space, but it’s the only movie I can remember where a populist folk hero earns his legacy by slicing down a cop with “the village sword”.  That’s not to say that its appeal is tied to its novelty as exported Indian pop culture.  It’s just genuinely badass to see someone kill cops with a giant sword, and it happens no other film industry is making mainstream action movies with that kind of climactic payoff right now.  The great thing about Kollywood action films is that their sprawling runtimes immerse you in their over-the-top, frenzied tones to the point where you stop gawking at the films’ audacity and simply become invested in their stories.  I really needed to see that sword slice into some cop flesh, and Karnan delivered.

The meditative, politically poignant vision of near-future communal rebellion in Bacurau is exquisitely realized.  By contrast, the brash, chaotic action movie version of that story template in Karnan is pure mayhem.  Watching both films in close proximity is like hearing a Philosophy lecture re-interpreted as a belligerent scream.  I found both experiences to be worthwhile, especially in tandem.

-Brandon Ledet

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