One post often leads to another on this blog. When I posted my list of jewellery songs, blog reader Afsal posted a song from the 1965 Mahabharat—so I went and watched Mahabharat, and reviewed it. And, when I mentioned in that review that I found the reduced-to-almost-nothing character of Karna very disappointing (since I think of Karna as one of the most intriguing characters of the epic), another blog reader—kayyessee—recommended a film that might be of interest, since it focused on Karna. The 1964 Tamil film, Karnan, with Sivaji Ganesan in the lead role. Kayyessee reminded me, too, that it had been a long time since I’d reviewed a regional language film.
So here it is: what Karnan is about, and my thoughts on it.
The film begins with a young Kunti (KV Saroja) going down to the Ganga and placing her newborn son in an elaborate box, which also contains jewellery and a rich brocade sari. Kunti weeps as she pushes the box away into the current and sees it carried away. When a friend, hearing a baby’s cries from the fast-disappearing box, comes rushing up and asks questions, Kunti gives a tearful reply: this baby was bestowed on her as a result of a long period of devotion to Surya, the Sun God. Kunti is pure, but since no-one will believe that, she has had to let go of her baby.
…who is, soon after, found by a charioteer and his wife, who fish him out of the river and take him home. They are surprised to find the sari and the jewellery, and even more astonished to discover that the baby’s earrings and breastplate are affixed to his little body.
A sadhu to whom they take the baby is pleasantly surprised when the little tyke reaches up, takes off a heavy gold ornament from his own little mop of curls, and hands it over into the sadhu’s hands. This child will be very giving, very charitable, predicts the sadhu. Name him Karnan. [The baby, by the way, is one of the cuter ones I’ve seen in Indian cinema: an adorable little fellow].
Karnan, therefore, grows up as the only son of the charioteer and his wife, and does not realize—until his 25th birthday [rather, the 25th anniversary of their finding him in the river] that they are not his biological parents. On that momentous day, Karnan (Sivaji Ganesan)—arriving for the ritual pooja that marks this anniversary—overhears his parents talking of how they had found him. It comes as a shock to him, more so when they confess that they have no idea who his mother is. She must hate me; she must be ashamed of me, Karnan mourns. For which mother would willingly abandon her own child?
Things move on. The ruling Kauravs and Pandavs, in one of their many attempts to assert their right over the kingdom, hold a contest. This is a display of various skills, mainly archery, and Arjunan (R Muthuraman) has been acing them all. Sitting and watching the display are all the mightiest in the kingdom: King Dhritarashtra, Queen Gandhari, Kunti (now MV Rajamma), Dronacharya, etc. When Arjunan is proclaimed the greatest archer of them all, Karnan can’t stand it any more, and rises, protesting.
But he is stopped. Arjunan is a Kshatriya; a Kshatriya may only compete against another Kshatriya. Is Karnan a Kshatriya? No? Then who is he? The charioteer’s son? [And Karnan, of course, dare not reveal that his actual parentage is unknown].
Fortunately for Karnan, the Kaurav prince Duryodhan (SA Asokan) has been watching this with interest, and has come to the conclusion that Karnan is made of the sort of steel that will be useful for the Kauravs. This man, even if he is not a Kshatriya, is a worthy warrior. So Duryodhan springs up and announces that he bestows the kingship of Anga—which is part of his domain—on Karnan.
Karnan is taken aback, but also extremely grateful. After he’s shown the assembled crowd just how good an archer he is, he gladly goes along with Duryodhan, who takes Karnan to his own palace. There, Karnan is introduced to Duryodhan’s wife Bhanumati (Savithri, looking much more beautiful here than she did in the frightful Ganga ki Lehran), whose banter soon endears her to Karnan in a sibling-like way: they even call each other ‘brother’ and ‘sister’. Duryodhan and Karnan, just as quickly, become the best of friends.
Karnan, being king of Anga, now goes to his kingdom—and has soon won the hearts of all the populace with his generosity. He literally gives away platters loaded with gold coins, jewellery, brocade, and other goodies to his subjects at court. Nobody is turned away or sent away disappointed—not even a little orphan, who comes running into the court, chased by people who’re accusing him of burning down the school. ‘All I wanted to do was study,’ the boy pleads to Karnan. ‘But because I’m an orphan, they refuse me.’ And Karnan, who knows what it is to be an orphan, rootless and unwanted, grieves for the child—and makes amends.
Karnan’s generosity soon becomes so famous that one day, a poor old man arrives, begging an audience. Karnan is just completing his pooja of Surya when the old man’s arrival is announced. Just as Karnan is about to leave the pooja room, the idol of Surya calls out, cautioning him: This is no ordinary old man. This is Indra himself, in disguise. And he has come to ask Karnan for the earrings and breastplate which make Karnan invincible. Indra, after all, is the father of Arjunan; he wants to lessen Karnan’s power so that his own son may benefit from it.
Karnan listens, thanks Surya for the advice—and then goes out to meet the disguised Indra. Things play out just as Surya had predicted. But Karnan cannot give up his inherent generosity; even though he confronts the old man and compels him to reveal himself in his true form as Indra, Karnan also takes up a knife and personally cuts off the earrings and breastplate. He hands them over to Indra, who is so touched by this selflessness, he gives Karnan something in return: the wounds from the cutting are immediately healed, and in addition, Karnan gets a weapon called the nagastra. The latter, though, comes with a condition: it can be used only once.
Duryodhan, in the meantime, comes up with an idea to make Karnan even more indomitable a warrior. Go to Sage Parashuram, he advises Karnan, and learn the use of the brahmastra weapon from him. Karnan is doubtful; Parashuram never teaches a Kshatriya; he only teaches Brahmins.
But, egged on by Duryodhan—who convinces Karnan that this is all in a good cause—Karnan goes to Parashuram, posing as a Brahmin, and is taken under the wing of the warrior sage. Karnan soon becomes Parashuram’s favourite pupil; Parashuram teaches him, too, the use of the legendary brahmastra.
One day, though, while Parashuram is lying asleep out in the open, his head resting on Karnan’s thigh, a hornet comes buzzing by. Karnan tries to shoo it away as best as he can without moving about too much (he doesn’t want to disturb his guru’s sleep). He fails to drive it off, and the hornet burrows into his thigh. The pain is agonizing, but Karnan bears it without a twitch or a whimper of pain—even when the hornet finally emerges and flies off.
This, of course, has resulted in heavy bleeding: the blood pours out of Karnan’s thigh and onto Parashuram’s arm, waking him. When Parashuram finds out what had happened, the truth dawns on him: no-one but a Kshatriya could have borne so much pain and not complained! Karnan is an impostor; he has learnt the use of the brahmastra under false pretences. Parashuram therefore curses him: just when he needs to use the brahmastra most urgently, Karnan will forget its use.
We are now treated to a brief romantic interlude. Karnan, striding through the countryside one day, sees a runaway chariot, its horses racing madly along while the sole occupant—a beautiful woman (Devika)—screams helplessly. Karnan rescues her; there is instant chemistry; but before they can even introduce themselves to each other, the woman’s parents arrive and rush off with her. She only manages to make some odd gestures to Karnan…
… the meaning of which completely eludes him.
Duryodhan and Bhanumati, however, are very interested in this episode (and eager to see Karnan married), so when Bhanumati, told of the gestures, interprets them to mean that the woman is the princess of Chandrasailam, they know what to do. Duryodhan and Bhanumati take it upon themselves to visit the king of Chandrasailam with a proposal on behalf of Karnan.
Duryodhan being the powerful king he is, the king of Chandrasailam agrees to the match.
Karnan and his beloved, whose name is Subhangi, are married—but Subhangi’s father, who has suddenly realized who his new son-in-law is—refuses to let Karnan take his bride back to Anga. His daughter, married to a man whose parentage is unknown? Who knows what Karnan is, what his caste is, his birth is, who his parents are?
Fortunately for Karnan, Subhangi loves him enough to sneak away from her father’s house and come to Karnan. She reassures him that she loves him, and that his birth, his caste, whatever, makes not the slightest difference to her…
But this is an ever-throbbing wound in Karnan’s heart. His unknown parentage attracts one insult after the other, rendering everything else—his prowess as a warrior, his charitable nature, his generosity and kindness—null and void. And, when the animosity that’s beginning to surge between the Kauravs and Pandavs finally reaches its climax, Karnan—by virtue of his friendship with Duryodhan—will get pulled in, unaware until it’s too late that he’s going to be fighting against his own half-brothers.
What I liked about this film:
To begin with (because this is the briefest part of the ‘What I liked’ section): the music. Composed by MS Vishwanathan and TK Ramamoorthy to lyrics by Kannadasan, this film had several good songs. My favourites were En uyir thozhi, Iravum nilavum (which, by the way, is picturized amidst some beautiful ancient temples which reminded me of Belur and Halebidu) and the lovely Kannukku kulamedhu.
The script, by AS Nagarajan. While Karnan is based on a character from the Mahabharat, I hadn’t expected it to be so well-structured: Karnan remains, throughout the film, its focal character. The story of the Mahabharat does proceed in the background, but almost always, we come to know of what’s happening—the Pandavs losing their all in that mad gamble, the exile of the Pandavs, and so on—only through the viewpoint of Karnan. What he hears in Dhritrashtra’s court, what Duryodhan and Shakuni (TS Muthaiah) plot, and so on.
Unlike most derivations and retellings of the Mahabharat, this one isn’t from the point of view of the Pandavs. It does not sympathize with the Kauravs, either—but what it does, is show Karnan’s motivations for acting as he did throughout. His loyalty for Duryodhan and Duryodhan’s cause—no matter how flawed that cause—has a solid base: that Duryodhan was the man to accept him for what he is, to elevate him from a mere charioteer’s son to King of Anga. To give him his friendship.
And from this emerges some excellent characterization. Karnan is a tortured soul, a man who—despite his being an invincible warrior—nurses the most grievous of wounds: of knowing that he was unwanted, that his unknown (for most of the story) mother abandoned him. This pain of Karnan’s, and his anguish at being ostracized and insulted is emphasized now and then, and in different ways, both subtle and not. (One of the subtle ways that appealed to me was Karnan’s prayer to Surya, the Sun God: he prays to the ‘god who shines equally on all’: that sounded like such a cry of woe from someone who has rarely been at the receiving end of benevolence).
The other important aspect of Karnan’s personality that is emphasized is his generosity. This, like his shame over his birth, becomes an important factor in the way Karnan’s fate plays out. It is Karnan’s generosity that makes him give away his earrings and breastplate to Indra; it is, in a way, what reveals his true self—the stoic warrior—to Parashuram, resulting in Parashuram’s curse. Karnan’s generosity makes him forgive Kunti when she tells him who she really is—and grant her two boons that will literally mean giving up his own life for those of the Pandava. And, eventually, it is Karnan’s generosity to Krishna (played by another star—NT Rama Rao), as Karnan lies bleeding and close to death on the battlefield, that results in Karnan’s death.
What I didn’t like:
Some of the acting, especially Sivaji Ganesan’s, which goes over-the-top melodramatic at times. Occasionally, though, when there are silences, his eyes speak, and brilliantly. For example, there’s a poignant scene where the Kauravs, all assembled, are deciding who’s going to be leading their armies, and when Bheeshm is selected, Karnan looks humiliated. And his humiliation grows, sinking deeper into anguish, as Bheeshm names the people who will lead the assault on different fronts—and Karnan is relegated to a minor role, right in the middle. He says nothing, but the pain in his face is apparent.
But that is, sadly, one of the rarer instances of restrained acting on Sivaji Ganesan’s part; much of it was too theatrical for my liking.
Karnan was dubbed in Hindi as well (as Daanveer Karna), and is available on Youtube. Please do not watch this, though, because it’s a badly mutilated version. The original Tamil film clocks in almost at 3 hours; the Hindi version is so ruthlessly chopped up, it is an hour and 40 minutes. Plus, the dubbing is horrible—the artists who’ve done it have almost uniformly expressionless and flat voices that convey nothing.
The original Karnan itself was digitally restored and re-released in 2012, so a good version of it, subtitles and all, is easily available. Do watch if you are interested in the Mahabharat and in Karna in particular: it’s a refreshingly different, well-written and well-directed (by BR Panthulu) take on the story.