Karnan (1964)

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.

Sivaji Ganesan, in and as Karnan

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.

Kunti reveals her secret

…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 charioteer rescues a baby

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].

A sadhu names the baby

Little Karnan
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?

Karnan learns the bitter truth

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.

Karnan faces up against Arjunan

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.

Duryodhan bestows the kingdom of Anga 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 meets Duryodhan and Bhanumati

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 in his court

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, worshopping Surya

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.

Karnan rips out his earrings and breastplate to give to Indra

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.

Karnan poses as a Brahmin

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.

Parashuram curses Karnan

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…

An unknown beauty

… 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 and Bhanumati take it upon themselves to get Karnan married

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…

Subhangi assures Karnan of her love

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.

Krishna reveals himself at 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 faces Krishna


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.


50 thoughts on “Karnan (1964)

  1. A very interesting review, as usual. Is a subtitled version available on Youtube? And yes have you come across Iravati Karve’s ‘Yuganta’? Compulsory reading, I’d say, for those interested in the Mahabharata and its subtexts.


    • No, unfortunately the Tamil version available on Youtube doesn’t have any English subtitles. :-(

      Haven’t read Yuganta. A couple of years ago, someone raved to me about Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Palace of Illusions being a fantastic take on the Mahabharat, and I ended up feeling pretty underwhelmed by it (though, to be honest, part of that might have been due also to a couple of anachronisms I found in the book – and me being the finicky sort, they put me off!) But will keep this in mind.


  2. Karnan’s highlight was the music of the great MD duo Viswanathan-Ramamurthy who went their separate ways just one year later, thus bringing to an end the super melody of Tamil film music. I am certain that had a national award for music been there in 1965 (this film was released in 1964) this music would have run many others from the golden period of Hindi film music very close and may have won it too as just two or three years later a Carnatic music based composition by the other great South Indian film music director of that era, K V Mahadevan, won the national award for his score in “Kandan Karunai”, also – coincidentally – starring Sivaji Ganesan among many other stars of those days.


  3. Like you, Karna is my most favourite character from the Mahabharata. I haven’t watched this film; how did I miss it? :) Did you get a DVD of this, Madhu? Let me know where; I’ll pick up a copy when I come to India next.

    It is funny that you should be writing about Sivaji Ganesan and Karnan; on another blog, only a week or so ago, we were debating Sivaji Ganesan and another film where he played the eponymous character – Veerapandya Katta Bomman. It was one of his defining roles.

    Thanks for this review. It is nice to hear that at least one film gave the character the respect he deserves.


    • Yes, Anu – I got a DVD, off Amazon India. It’s probably also available on other online shopping sites like Flipkart or possibly Induna – though I’m not sure if Induna stocks Tamil films as well.

      If you like Karna, you really should watch this. I thought it was excellent characterization, and just generally a very good film (I could have done with a little less theatrical acting, but then, one can’t have everything). ;-)

      By the way, as Lalitha mentions in her comment: the film is available on Youtube, if you don’t need subtitles.


  4. Great review, Madhu (of course, I am biased in favor of this movie, ever since we studied Rashmi Rathi in school!) I am so glad to see one of my all time favorite movies with Sivaji Ganesan here. I agree about his OTT melodrama and oration, but this is among his better movies, notwithstanding the melodrama. Now I will re-watch this movie and post my comments after that.


    • I must confess my ignorance, Lalitha: who or what is Rashmi Rathi?

      I had to study – in two consecutive years at school, in Hindi – Sankshipt Ramayan and Sankshipt Mahabharat, and that was what really started my fascination for the Mahabharat.

      Yes, Sivaji Ganesan’s theatrical acting does get a but much at times, but at other times – those silences I mention – his eyes say a lot. do rewatch and tell me what you think! I am sure, since you don’t have to rely on subtitles, and you know far far more about Tamil cinema than I do, you’d have some interesting insights to offer.

      Thanks for reading, Lalitha!


      • Sorry, Madhu, but I thought you would be familiar with RashmiRathi, since your knowledge of Hindi is so extensive. RashmiRathi is an epic poem about Karna, written by Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, and it was one of the books we studied in our Hindi class in college, along with one on Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi, excerpts from Ramcharitmanas, and a lot of other texts, which have since faded from my memory. I was the kind who got bored whenever we were prescribed a whole book to study, such as Lord Macaulay’s memoirs (I still remember dozing through those classes!) or the one on Rani Laxmibai (all I knew were the first five chapters, the remaining 50+ I crammed by going through a study guide!), but RashmiRathi was different. I remember to this day one section where Karna talks of how all are created equal and then when the seeds are scattered on this earth, they fall into different furrows created by man, and then the classification begins (this doesn’t sound beautiful, but believe me, the poetry is beautiful in RashmiRathi). We had two lecturers for this book, the first was an excellent teacher, but the second used to put us to sleep in the Jhansi ki Rani classes, and yet, even she could not take away from the beauty of RashmiRathi, which I avidly followed in each and every class.
        I know I have been rambling, but now you will understand my fascination with Karna’s character.


        • Oh, that’s interesting. Though we read a lot of Ramdhari Singh Dinkar in school, I don’t think I ever came across this. It would certainly have stuck in my mind if I had. I do remember having to read a fairly boring biographical novel about Rani Lakshmibai in perhaps Class XII (or maybe XI; I’ve forgotten now), but not this.

          I have been making a conscious effort over the past year or so to read much more Hindi literature than I did before. So I should certainly try looking for Rashmi Rathi. Thank you for telling me about this, Lalitha!


  5. after a long time, a nice review of regional tamil cinema..
    great work. thankyou very much for a nice review.
    I would recommend you to make a review of tamil classic film ‘Thillana Mohanambal’ 1968. the film itself represent culture and tradition of tamil nadu. it is considered cult classic by cinegoers


    • Thank you, Afsal – I’m glad you liked the review! I have heard of Thillanna Mohanambal – other people have recommended it, too. Will look out for it.


  6. Madhu, (if I may call you that), your review is right on. The music is good, factoring in the novelty. The movie itself is meh. Even here it’s not quite a level playing field for the Pandavas and Kauravas. The Kauravas were given names such as Suyodhan , Sussaashan etc. In common parlance they were altered by replacing the complimentary su prefix to the uncomplimentary du prefix turning them into Duryodhan, Dussaashan etc. to denote their “bad character”; somewhat like changing sukh to dukh. It is rather unrealistic to portray all and sundry addressing the de facto king as Duryodhan.


    • I find it a little puzzling that you should call my review ‘right on’ when you consider the music good and the movie itself as meh – because my review is pretty much the opposite of that. As far as I am concerned (if you read my review), the music was good, but what made Karnan good for me were other factors – the script and the chaacterization in particular.

      I agree with you about the Suyodhan-Duryodhan thing, though. That way, the Hindi Mahabharat (which I’ve referred to at the start of this review) is a little ahead, since everybody there does refer to him as Suyodhan.


      • My bad. I glanced at your review of the Hindi Mahabharat when you first posted it and stopped reading as soon as I encountered Pradip Kumar’s name. As to the Suyodhan/Duryodhan thing, it’ll teach me to not rely on my memory and go on pontificating. If you believe the Wikipedia, either name is fine and the su/du implied insult is a misconception.


        • “I glanced at your review of the Hindi Mahabharat when you first posted it and stopped reading as soon as I encountered Pradip Kumar’s name.

          Heh. Not a fan, are you? Neither am I. But, like Biswajeet, Bharat Bhushan, and Rajendra Kumar, he seems to be one of those people who had some fabuious songs picturized on him.

          I’m always a bit wary of Wikipedia, but… oh, well, maybe the su/dur business does make no difference.


  7. Not much of a Sivaji Ganesan fan besides not much of a over-the-top, melodramatic mythological movie fan either, so I will not comment after all these things are subjective. However, I used to quite like Gemini Ganesh’s films, btw what is correct
    Gemini Ganesh or Gemini Ganeshan? His fantasy films were quite nice like ‘Devta’ and ‘Swapna Sundari. There was also the original Tamil version of Sanjog (Amitabh- Mala Sinha) which was quite nice.


    • I think it’s Gemini Ganesan, but maybe someone will correct me if I’m wrong. Have to confess I’ve not seen a single one of his films, though I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve recommended Miss Mary to me!


  8. Thanks Madhu! Have been busy after relocating from NCR to chennai.I did see this though and in fact wrote a comment but either it got moderated or I shut down my device or web conked off but my comment isn’t there.
    In that comment I did some stout defending of Sivaji … what you find OTT is what is very much needed for this mythological. But now I would suffice it to say that he would have played it differently had this been a modern rendition of mahabharat like Benegal’s kalyug..
    my naani refused to see this movie as she felt that Krisha was being mocked and she could not bear to see god in a lesser light :-) The general public too did not give it a thumbs up..
    But with years and rereleases the movies strature and music grew leaps and bounds.
    the production values, the fantastic dialogues and the lyrics were all top notch.
    Glad you had so much to love about this.


    • Arggh. It’s awful to have a comment disappear into cyperspace. May have gone into spam and just got chucked out through there, because it certainly didn’t come to me for moderation… thank you for taking the trouble to comment all over again. And thank you for recommending the film to me in the first place!

      You’re right about the production values of the film – certainly a far cry from the usual, tinsel-and-cardboard sort of stuff one saw in most Hindi mythologicals, at least. I had to rely on subtitles for dialogues, but did think they were – even translated – good. Which says a lot.

      I can understand someone who’s religious not wanting to see Krishna being depicted as less than perfect. ;-) He is shown as quite wily and – well, not really ethical – here. But then, that’s also the case, though to a lesser extent, with Mahabharat, I think (I’m referring to the Hindi movie, here).


      • may be you should take the leap to Dhana veera soora karna in telugu. The movie is no patch on this one but NTR played krishna, duriyodhana and karna. It also has certain interesting take on karna and even draupadi;s character.
        may be i have piqued your interest.


  9. “since I think of Karna as one of the most intriguing characters of the epic”

    Being a fan of unsung heroes, Karn is my top “unsung hero”, at least in the context of Mahabharat.

    Interesting review! It seems like I should watch it but without the subtitles it won’t be great since I don’t understand Tamil. Thanks for the warning on hindi version “Daanveer Karna” as at one point I was planning on watching it, because Karn is such a fascinating character!

    I am somehow unable to call him “Karna”.



    • “Karn is my top “unsung hero”, at least in the context of Mahabharat.

      Very true. I think I ‘fell in love’ (if you can call it that) with his character when I watched Mahabharat on Doordarshan – not because the actor who played him was good (though he was), but because the series did justice to the character – as does this film. Karn/a’s motivations, the turmoil he faces, his inner demons, his tussles between torn loyalties – all of these are brought forward very well.

      And yes, i repeat what you’ve already touched upon: do not watch Daanveer Karna! I was curious, since I noticed it on Youtube too, and was horrified by what it was.


      • The interesting part is that all so called gods (or otherwise decent people) chose to betray Karn including pandavs, his own mom and yet it made no dent on their overall image. How come?

        I don’t get it. How can anyone support:

        – Drona refusing to teach Karn because he was not Kshatriya.
        – Parshuram penalizing Karn for being a thoughtful human (long story)
        – Karn was disallowed to compete in Draupadi’s swaymwar and was insulted by pandavs (“Sut-putra”)
        – Indra (apparently on Krishn’s suggestion) asking Karn to donate his Kavach and Kundal. Those were for his protection (not weapon), effectively paving way for Arjun to be able to compete with him.
        – Kunti forcing Karn to promise not to kill pandavs except arjun and to not use Indrastra on Arjun (which he ended up using on Ghatotkach, Bheema’s son)
        – Arjun (on Krishna’s insistence) killing Karn when his charriot was stuck in mud, against war protocol.

        Perhaps no need to get carried away, it’s a mythological tale after all.



        • So very true. All of these (and some others I can think of, though they’re not related to Karna) are incidents that definitely reek of the underhand. I don’t know why they pass unnoticed – do people feel that just because the Pandavs were in the right (so to say), anything they did was all right (all’s fair in love and war?) or that Krishna, just because he was a god, could do whatever – even hit below the belt – and it was permissible because he was divine?

          Interestingly, that is similar to the Greek gods: not the ‘always fair, always just’ divinity one would expect of gods. ;-)


  10. I’m guessing this is your first Tamil-film review since Andha Naal.

    Karna is one such character who can even make us hate Krishna! Coming to SG, you’re right about those scenes where his eyes speak. The OTT histrionics were mainly due to the mythological background of the movie. We cannot expect someone to be highly restrained when they are playing a warrior like Karna. However, I agree, it can be a little irritating for those who are not used to it. :)


    • You’re right, after Andha Naal, this was my first Tamil-language film review (though I’ve got the DVD of Parasakthi lying around too, I’ve not got around to watching it yet).

      “Karna is one such character who can even make us hate Krishna!

      Well said! Yes, when told from the viewpoint of Karna, Krishna does come off as having been rather underhand in his dealings…

      As for the OTT histrionics, I agree, you probably have a point about the fact that it’s a mythological has something to do with it. Even Hindi mythologicals had actors being OTT as compared to when they were acting in ‘regular’ films.


  11. I somehow landed in your blog page and very impressed with your review of this tamil movie.

    Sivaji Ganesan was OTT in most of his roles.. so were many stars who migrated successfully from theatrical plays to movies..

    If you want to a very restrained acting by Sivaji Ganesan.. please watch – Mudal Mariyadhai..

    Also I feel you should have mentioned – ullathil nalla ullam.. song from Karna.. very soul stirring song.. of course one should know Tamil very well.. for appreciate this song…

    Keep reviewing more movies..

    You got one more fan for your blogs today.



  12. As a tamil-speaking person, i enjoyed reading your review of this movie. If possible, would you like to watch server sundaram or ethir neechal? Both of them are amazing movies that feature Nagesh, one of the best actors in Tamil cinema. Server Sundaram has no OTT or complicated, boring storyline. One more movie I would recommend is Shanti Nilayam (gemini ganesh and nagesh). However, it is a partial adaptation of Jane Eyre, I guess. All these were made before the seventies.


    • Yes, it’s been on my wishlist for a while now. But so many people have recommended it to me that now I’m a bit nervous about watching it: what if I don’t like it? I shall probably be hung, drawn and quartered by dozens of irate fans. ;-)


  13. (WARNING – This ended up becoming a very long post)
    There were so many comments above that I wanted to respond to, that I finally gave up an decided to post a separate comment. I have not seen “Karnan” myself. The character is one of my favorites in the Mahabharata (along with Abhimanyu, Gandhari and Draupadi). Each time I want to see the film, I am scared away by the prospect of putting up with Sivaji’s over-the-top acting. I know many that are die-hard fans of his that would probably skewer me for that statement. But that is just how I feel.
    So this is more about various topics that came up in the comments about related areas. With once exception – the music in Karnan. What a fantastic soundtrack. There are so many lovely songs, but there is one song that in my opinion dwarfs all the others – primarily for the lyrics and then the singing. It is the song “ULLathhil nalla uLLam” sung by Sirgazhi Govindarajan. That is a song whose lyrics never fail to move me to tears – almost every single time I hear the song. It is when Karna is dying and Krishna succintly describes the complexity of Karna’s life and asks for forgiveness for his own part in it. I am not sure if the copy you saw had decent subtitles – this song really requires them to appreciate it – and even then, a lot of the lyricist Kannadasan’s genius is lost in translation (Madhu, I believe you are a fan of Sahir’s – think of this in the same ilk as “Yeh mahloN yeh takhtoN …” from Pyaasa – capturing the essence of the film in one climactic song). This link does a fairly nice job of translating it with context: http://www.lyricaldelights.com/2011/11/06/karnan-ullathil-nalla-ullam-urangadhenbadhu/

    About Sivaji, somebody already mentioned the film “Mudhal mariyaadhai”. I watched the film only after major assurances from my wife that this is not the usual Sivaji that I know and hate. And since she likes him as much as I do :-), I trusted her judgement. And it was sooooooooooooooo worth it. Sivaji is brilliantly understated – and his relationship with Radha’s character (who is a much younger woman) is done wonderfully well. If you can get a copy of the film with english subtitles, I HIGHLY recommend it.

    Finally, about “Palace of Illusions” by Chitra Divakaruni. Somebody told me about the concept behind the book – the Mahabharata told from Draupadi’s POV – and I was thrilled – what a great idea. The book started off very well for me and I was very excited; but about a third way in, it quickly devolved into a traditional retelling of the epic with a soap-operaesque angle about Draupadi’s attraction to Karna. I was extremely disappointed at the lost opportunity. There are so many opportunities in the story to have her view be seen – her rage when she is humiliated in the court, perhaps something about how exactly she lived a life with 5 husbands, her grief upon the death of her children by Aswathama, maybe something about her relationship with her mother-in-law Kunti, etc etc. I think the book does do a decent job of her relationship with Krishna – it has been a while since I read it. But all in all, it was quite blah.

    Okay, I have rambled on long enough – shall stop now.


    • Thank you so much for the link to the translation of that song – that actually brought tears to my eyes (yes, I know that sounds idiotic, but that’s how it was). I agree that the depth of emotion there, the nuances are similar to those of a calibre of Sahir (or Shailendra, for that matter). Beautiful.

      I agree about Palace of Illusions. I bought it only because someone praised it very highly to me (on discovering that I wrote historical fiction). I went it to it with little idea of what to expect – beyond what was written in the blurb on the back cover. Oh, what a squandered opportunity that turned out to be. I didn’t like the book a bit, except – as even you mention – the relationship between Draupadi and Krishna. Plus, me being what I am, the odd anachronism here and there riled me.

      Worst of all, ever since I gave away my own copy of the book, I’ve been gifted two more! The irony of fate.


  14. It was a very good review for a regional movie released 5 decades back .I watched this movie when i was 7 years old (1964). The songs written by great Kannadasan in two days and superb music by the music duo .I always felt Karna was not projected in mythology properly .This movie did justice .I have seen Shivaji’s all the movies .He does lot of home work even for songs .Karna an abandoned child ,not recognised by learned people and the king though he was great warrior and a man of virtues .His psychology will be of frustration and arrogance .And i feel thats exactly what shivaji potrayed making it little over acting.People in 60s and 70 s like melodramatic actions .
    Shivaji-kannadasan-musio duo- a great combination .


    • Thank you, glad you liked the review. Yes, this was an excellent film. I agree that mythology does not do justice to Karna’s character – and much popular writing (or cinema) tends to follow the same path and relegate Karna to the sidelines. I really liked that this film focussed on him, and did such a good job of it.


  15. I saw this movie a while ago, and I must say that once NTR came on to the scene, that’s when I started to take the movie even more seriously. He really does have great screen presence.


  16. Jc, since the 70s was known for multistarrers, who would you cast for the 70s Bollywood version of Mahabharata. Here’s my version (both 60s and 70s).

    Karna: Sunil Dutt (The only actor who could nail this)
    Krishna: Shammi Kapoor (The most charismatic or radiant and of course was a real life Krishna :) )
    Bhanumathi: Waheeda Rehman
    Subhangi: Sharmila Tagore
    Kunti: Achala Sachdev
    Duryodhana: Rajendra Kumar
    Arjuna: Manoj Kumar

    Karna: Amitabh Bachchan
    Krishna: Shashi Kapoor
    Bhanumathi: Hema Malini
    Subhangi: Rekha
    Kunti: Nirupa Roy
    Duryodhana: Sanjeev Kumar
    Arjuna: Rishi Kapoor


  17. I came across this blog while randomly searching for stuff about Karnan, and I was thrilled by your review of the screenwriting. Karnan is one of my favourite films of all time, and I have watched it many, many times.

    I, of course, agree wholeheartedly with your take on the masterful screenplay, but then I’m biased. You see, A.S. Nagarajan is my late grandfather, and the man whose bedtime stories taught me the basics of both mythology and storytelling.

    Your review of his most famous work truly moved me. Thank you for reminding me of how wonderful a storyteller he was.


    • You have made my day with that comment. Thank you! It is such a privilege to ‘meet’ you. I don’t know if I’ve seen any other films of your grandfather’s (unfortunately, getting hold of subtitled films from that era is a real problem), but this one really impressed me.


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