Karnan and Sarpatta Parambarai: Exciting Tamil cinema – from the fringes

Only Tamil cinema can claim to have its A-list stars doing an alternative movie without any hang-ups. Two recent OTT viewings confirmed, yet again, this tweet-sized thesis of mine.

starrer-Karnan and Sarpatta Parambarai, with Arya in the lead, are two alternative movies that left a deep impact on me in the recent past. These meditative movies prove that “straight-to-OTT” needn’t be a pejorative phrase at a time when we don’t really know when we’ll be visiting a cinema again.

Both of them have violence as a default setting but there’s a zen-like calmness that descends over you as the narrative unfolds. Karnan is a bigger oddity considering took it upon himself to be a lower caste youth in rural Tamil Nadu in late 90s who strives for parity for his village that is a virtual pariah where not even a local bus stops.

Props to Mari Selvaraj for not resorting to theatrics with a larger-than-life actor at his disposal for his sophomore venture, after his gritty 2018 debut Pariyerum Perumal.

Selvaraj hates to tell and would rather show and takes the viewer into the Karunanidhi-Jayalalithaa milieu without ever wearing his politics on his sleeve. Dhanush, fresh from his Asuran resurgence, digs his teeth deep into the titular character who would brook no injustice. The action clatters along in the movie and yet I never felt insouciant towards the characters because Selvaraj’s empathy shines through.

There’s a whole sequence in the latter half of the movie where a policeman, mystified by the villagers’ gumption to take on authorities, canes a bunch of old men mercilessly only to invite Dhanush’s wrath. This had the frisson of the rawness that one felt in Mani Ratnam’s cult hit Nayakan.

Selvaraj’s steadfast refusal to conform to the winning formula for a Tamil movie starring a huge hero really reassembled my synapses and one wouldn’t want to miss even if he makes a movie of someone reciting a dictionary from start to finish.

Sarpatta Parambarai is a more accessible movie but not before one acknowledges Pa. Ranjith’s subversive politics. Here’s a film-maker who managed to convince Rajinikanth for two movies at the twilight of the massive actor’s career. However, the cinephile in me yearned for the gorgeously unsappy melancholy of his first two movies (Attakathi and Madras) and I got to witness boatloads of that in his latest boxing drama.

The movie is about Kabilan (Arya), a Dalit laborer who rises through the ranks in the Emergency-era Madras to be a winning boxer of a clan who defeats the supposedly invincible one in the opposite clan. The movie is as bloomingly obvious as it can get of who will come trumps despite the insurmountable odds but its Ranjith’s mischief that keeps one glued to the proceedings.

Pasupathy is his natural self as the irascible boxing coach Rangan who depends on Kabilan to redeem his clan’s honour. Arya is oddly hypnotic, even lovable as the boxer who has greatness thrust upon him. The climactic episodes where he beefs up again for the all-important bout reminded me of his intensity that I last saw in Naan Kadavul.

There are sly references to Indira Gandhi and Tamil politics of the yore that are intricately enmeshed in this lavishly mounted movie.

Santhosh Narayanan’s music adds the verve to the proceedings and Murali G’s masterful camera work during the boxing matches, and there quite a few of them, is replete with wonderful long, whirly-slow tracking shots.

Both Karnan and Sarpatta Parambarai have a fair amount of hamming that one associates with such rooted Tamil cinema but, for once, even that doesn’t feel out of place in these movies.

Both these movies gloriously pass the Bechdel test by giving solidly etched roles for women. Karnan opens with an evocatively dark image of a girl dying an agonisingly slow death on the road while no bus stops for her and this is the impetus for the movie from start to finish. Lakshmi Priyaa Chandramouli as Karnan’s sister gets a hefty role and she’s irrepressibly good as the moral compass of her hot headed brother.

Sarpatta Parambarai gives Dushara Vijayan ample scope as Kabilan’s wife to push her alcoholic husband to make a return to the boxing ring.

Making cinema with Ambedkarite values while keeping the audience engaged, sadly, is a massive ask but both of these talented film-makers show how it can be done without diluting the message.

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