It’s a Mani Ratnam movie, so the directing is just all around excellent. But more importantly, Rajnikanth! It’s my first Rajnikanth movie (not counting Ra.ONE, because why would you?) and I have to say, he does impress!
Rajnikanth was really great. He took and held the screen the same way Amitabh did back in the day. Not with acting and characterization and dialogue delivery and all the little things like that, but with pure force of will. Which isn’t to say that he didn’t do a great job with the acting and character and dialogue as well, but all of that was secondary to the way he just took over the camera and forced you to look at him.
Which is brilliant as Karna! They leaned hard into the “son of the Sun” part of the story, naming him Surya. And that’s what he felt like, the Sun that the other characters revolved around. And they supported that with who was cast as his most frequent scene partners, Mammootty and Shobana.
Mammootty has a very different energy onscreen, he doesn’t take and hold the camera, he seduces it. It’s not immediate (unless he wants it to be), it sneaks up on you. Which is, again, perfect for the character. When he is first introduced, since the film has been so upfront about this being a Karna story, we all know he is supposed to be Duryodhana. And he seems like a “bad guy”. He terrorizes the community, his henchman/relative raped a woman, and he is given the classic low angle bad guy intro shot. Even when he goes to Rajnikanth and takes responsibility for his actions asks him to join him, I’m still doubtful.
But then he wins you over! The same way he wins over Rajnikanth. We see him with his wife, we see him happily celebrating the birth of a baby girl, we see him honestly excited about arranging Rajnikanth’s marriage, we see him using his voice, his hands, his posture to convey that he sincerely loves Rajnikanth, his wife, his community. This isn’t Duryodhana as he is usually seen, he’s not resentful and angry, he’s not filled with hatred, and most importantly, he isn’t just using friendship to trap Karna, it is a real friendship and love between them.
Shobana, Rajnikanth’s other common screen partner, has an equally powerful ability to take the camera. Their relationship is not a seduction, it is an immediate spark, just as she immediately sparks with the audience. However, while her face is a magnet onscreen, she doesn’t have that kind of force that Rajnikanth does. He wills you into watching him, paying attention to him, blocking out everything else like, well, the sun! But Shobana is quieter than that. She is still and gentle and precise in her movements and sort of hypnotises you into only wanting to watch her.
There are several scenes that play with their contrast, but it is especially notable in the confrontation they have after she sees him beating up a police officer. They are at one of those huge public wells/springs with stone steps along the side. She sits on the steps, graceful, but slightly unnatural, showing the small doubts in her mind by the small disunities in her posture. In contrast, Rajnikanth strides up and down and side to side on the steps around her, waving his arms and raising and lowering his voice, while she barely moves.
It’s similar to how she was used with Mohan Lal in Manichitrathazhu. In that, again, she was fragile and delicate while he was cheerful and loud and casual. Their energies were so different, it added to the slight sense of unease in all their scenes together, the clash of energies which would explode in the finale of that film. In this, it never turns into a clash, just a constant withering away at her personality and desires as she tries to change herself into someone who can understand him.
At first I thought it was to show how they were kind of an odd couple, but would grow together. But then they don’t come together, and then I remembered that Karna almost got Draupadi, and then lost her. That’s why they cast Shobana for this, someone with undeniable star power, but also a classical dancer’s grace and ability to project class and dignity in every gesture. She needed to be Draupadi, the woman who is slightly more, slightly greater than any other woman, who is destined to belong to the purest and best husbands in the world. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize this, all the way until her family rejects Rajnikanth’s proposal because he is casteless. Which of course is also why Draupadi slipped away from Karna and ended up with Arjun. And then I am also embarrassed to admit that I was all “whaaaaaaaaat?” when I saw that the husband we had been hearing about, the one her father picked out for her, was Arjun! That is, Rajnikanth’s character’s half-brother, Arjun! Just like in the Mahabharata.
I think my lack of memory for details is because unlike the usual Mahabharata story, the focus here is on Kunti and Karna and Duryodhana’s relationship. Arjun is removed from the center, he is extraneous. And Draupadi becomes extraneous as well, once she becomes part of Arjun’s life rather than Karna’s. Ratman is doing something similar to what he would do later in Raavan, taking the same story we all know, but making the villain our hero.
(Speaking of delicate and otherworldly actresses….)
Of course, part of this is because the original myths are so complex and varied in interpretations. Karna was always a complex character. And Duryodhana’s relationship with him was always the best and noblest thing Duryodhana did, while Arjun’s resentment and unfairness to him was the worst of the Pandavas. In this case, the film focuses in on the unfairness of Karna’s situation and the nobility in how he handles it, the broad-mindedness and sensitivity shown towards him by Duryodhana, and the pain and guilt of Kunti for having to abandon him.
In Raavan, Ratnam goes a step further and in addition to making the villain our hero, he makes the hero our villain. He doesn’t go quite that far here, Arjun is noble and believes himself to be in the right. He never displays pettiness or a desire to lower Karna’s status. Instead, that level of venality is set onto a third party, the police. The police are the ones who initially persecute Rajnikanth, trying to break him down, picking at his low-class status and unknown parentage. They are the ones who Duryodhana rescues him from, long before he even meets Arjun.
Everything we see of Arjun is above such actions. He is investigating and judging Rajnikanth and Mammoootty because he feels it is his proper place, as an administrator of the area, to provide the punishment and control, that Rajnikanth and Mammootty have usurped his role. I believe he actually uses the word, “usurped”, or at least the subtitles did. It’s Arjun’s role in the Mahabharata, but limited to the primary position of being the rightful heir to the power and authority. And, since the focus is on Karna in this, hovering over it even more than usual is the fact that he isn’t really the rightful heir. Just like Karna in the Mahabharata is Kunti’s eldest son, and therefore arguably the rightful heir, in this film, it is made clear that if Rajnikanth had been raised in the same household as Arjun, had the same opportunities and background, he would have been the position of power, married to Shobana, had everything that Arjun has.
The biggest difference is in the Kunti character, Kalyani. The film opens and closes with her, it is her choices that define the situation. She chooses to send her baby away in the beginning, she chooses to tell her husband the truth about her first pregnancy (apparently, from the beginning of their relationship, as he never seems surprised to hear about it), and in the end, she chooses to tell her legitimate son about his brother before the final battle, the one choice that changes everything.
Mani Ratnam is just so good with female characters! And Kalyani in this is handled magnificently. One choice that I respect so much, is that he never deals with who the father of Rajnikanth’s character was and how Kalyani became pregnant at such a young age. He leaves it that she was 13 or 14, she wasn’t able to keep the baby but couldn’t bring herself to abort it, and that she thought about it every day. The audience is left to fill in the blanks that this was clearly a child of rape, either by force or coercion, since a child of 14 can’t give true consent. That she and the baby would have been punished by her family and society if she had brought it home (we already saw the midwife refuse to help her since she had no husband). That she shared this part of her life with her husband, and he treated it as the blameless tragedy it was. It’s so much better than trying to explain and “excuse” her behavior, instead just assuming that the audience will join her husband and both sons in being immediately able to understand that what happened was, in no way, her fault.
Kalyani isn’t the only magnificent female character. I already talked about Shobana’s character, who is the perfect delicate spiritual and sensitive woman. But Rajnikanth’s eventual wife, Padma, is another fascinatingly complex female character. Oh! And I just looked up the actress, and she was in Chatrapathi, where she was the one playing the Kunti-ish role! Anyway, in this, she is first introduced as the widow of a rapist and enforcer that Rajnikanth had killed, who has just given birth and is being visited by Mammootty and Rajnikanth. She has almost no lines, but manages to convey a combination of joy and grief, and pain when she sees Rajinikanth hold her daughter. She disappears for a good hour of screen time after that, but she made enough of an impression, and her situation is unusual enough, that I kept thinking about her.
(Chatrapathi! The movie where Prabhas punches a shark!)
And when she came back an hour later, she immediately made a similarly strong impression, dignified and independent when she tells Mammootty that she will be leaving the area, as she feels unsafe. And she is equally impressive in the next few scenes, where she is in the background, listening as Rajnikanth works out his inner turmoil through monologues. While in similar scenes, Shobhana was a similarly sparkling presence, kept center frame as an equal with Rajnikanth, Padma’s actress is less striking and notable onscreen. But Ratnam works with that by making her stronger within the space. While Rajnikanth is still in the foreground talking, over and over we see her in the background, moving back and forth through the space, more comfortable and at home in it than Rajnikanth, who feels trapped and isolated, only able to allow himself the smallest right to her life.
Let’s see, what else? Oh! The songs! They were excellent, but also typically Ratnam in that he threw them in any old place because he knows he has to include them for markatability by he hates doing it. They are pretty and interesting, but also strangely inserted and kind of not necessary.
Also, this one made me want to watch that surprisingly romantic movie about Genghis Khan that came out a few years ago. What was that called? Right! Mongol.
And on that sort of odd note, I will end! You should all watch Thalapathi! And maybe also Mongol!