Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Karnan Revisited!

It was well and truly a case of ‘yesterday once more’! ‘Karnan’ brought out the kid in me. Barely past kindergarten I do vividly recall swaying to the song ‘singaara kanne’ from ‘Veerapandia Kattabbomman’ at the Kamadhenu theatre which sadly is today a marriage hall. Two and a half decades on, an encore at the plush Escape multiplex. But the Sivaji magic hasn’t waned. Not one bit. Not if the young, old and doddering cross section were to be observed hooting away to glory. Not if you didn’t miss many a grey – yet evergreen (!) couple reliving a heady cocktail of romance and nostalgia. A digitised ‘Karnan’ on the big screen despite the jumping frames was a trip down memory lane. While watching the restored version of ‘Karnan’, a lot of questions popped up in my mind. From doubts surfacing out of superficial knowledge of our epic and mythology and the beauty of the Tamil language to technical comparisons to Hollywood films and concerns of film preservation.

Mahabaratha and Ramayana have and will always be the source of themes and story lines for films. But despite the serialised version of the epics, I still feel I don’t know my/our epics quite well. How is Krishnan the ‘maithunan’ of Duryodanan? How is Kunthi the ‘atthai’ of Krishnan? These may probably be trivial doubts but I had to google it to figure out the family tree. Which god(s) did people in Mahabaratha worship? Because they belonged to a period where god in human form was living with them and they knew that he was god. In ‘Karnan’, I think I saw an idol of Radha Krishna behind Kunthi during her conversation with Krishna. In the ‘Iravum Nilavum’ song, (shot at the Konark Sun temple built during the 13th century AD!) there is a Ganapathy stone structure in the foreground. Karnan was seen (idol) worshipping Sooryan...Did he really worship Sooryan or was it the filmmakers interpretation of son worshipping sun? And if the former was true what were the worshippers of Sooryan called on the lines of Vaishnavites and Saivites? And how did the Hindu triumvirate trickle down to Siva and Vishnu and why no temple (to my knowledge) for Brahma? As I type my brain is churning out more questions but I wish to stop here.

I’ve always had a great love for my language. Still maintain a grudge against my mom (despite being a Tamil writer!) for not choosing Tamil as my second language at school. However, my endearing love for my mother tongue made me learn to read and write the classical language. One wouldn’t need that skill to watch a Tamil film though. Understanding and interpreting pun and play of words in film dialogues and lyrics are quite a thrilling task for me. (It’s sad this tradition today is referred to as double meaning dialogues with a bad connotation owing to the dirty jokes prevailing.) I am not going to get into the discussion of how Dravidian ideology was replete in film dialogues and their interpretation, but just the simple play of words. I was reminded of my skill at deciphering different meanings (only) on watching ‘Karnan today’. The scene when Karnan realises he is an orphan through his foster parents in conversation...he enters and says “ennai valarthathaai koorumpothu vanthen” the word valarthathaai has two meanings. When split as two words valartha + thaai, it means foster mother. “I came when my foster mother was talking”. Another meaning surfaces when you look at valarthathaai with respect to tense. “I came when you were talking about raising me”. Let me give you an easier illustration from a song in the film ‘Unnal Mudiyum Thambi’. The famous culinary song ‘samaithu kaatuvom’ has a lot of play of words. While many obvious ones are there this is a clever one. The song has these swaras – a prodigious composition by the maestro – .....sa...tha...ma...ga...tha...ma..tha...ma.... They are actually words split as swaras meaning ‘saatham aaga thaamathama?’ ‘...is there a delay in cooking rice?’ This is just a sample and a teaser. There are loads of such gems in our films (I am not including literature here).

‘Karnan’ may not be a landmark film from a technical standpoint. Not passing judgement as a consumer of advanced digital effects today, but making a plain comparison to a Hollywood film made about 5 years prior to ‘Karnan’. ‘Ben Hur’ with its 11 Academy awards and its famous 9 minute chariot scene was released in 1959 and ‘Karnan’ in 1964. One would agree there is no scope for comparison. (However I did get impressed with a few good techniques...the seamless spilt screen after the ‘iravum nilavum’ song.) Though there are reports that the battle scenes were actually shot in Kurukshetra with real Indian army men acting as warriors, the film lacks technical finesse that existed during that period. Not just technical deprivation but pro-filmic mistakes which Hollywood films would not do. It is ridiculous to see Karnan romancing (unless his dream was futuristic) at a temple built in 13th century AD. I remember reading Akira Kurosawa mention about the choice of a specific shot in his period film ‘Ran’ if framed any other way would have revealed the skyscrapers. Are money and budget the fulcrum of our pitfalls? I doubt. Just one wish with a sigh....‘Marudhanayagam’ on celluloid.

I went to watch ‘Karnan’ with a lot of expectation. The digitised version did not live up to its hype. I am definitely not criticising the effort here. I am rather shocked at the way the film was preserved in the first place. If it’s restored digital version is of this standard, just imagine what would have been the state before the digitisation. Like how we have poets and writers whose works are nationalised, I think our government should take film preservation under its wings more seriously and make that film archive the nation’s property. If this is not taken seriously, like our Kohinoor we would lose our precious films and knock at the doors of foreign film museums for a copy of our masterpieces. Recently Austrian film Museum took a directors copy of ‘Raavan’ into its rich collection, while we are still in the process of adjudging the film.

What the ‘Karnan’ effect did was to whet my appetite for more old classics. And topping that wishlist are Maya Bazaar, Veerapandiya Kattabomman and Thiruvilaiyadal. As an ecstatic senior citizen in the row behind me exclaimed at the end of ‘Karnan’ “ennamo endhiran chandirannu solreenga...engalukku karnanthan.” A sure shot barometer of box office success?

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