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Embodying Resistance: Body as Site of Collective Resistance against Caste-Based Atrocities in Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan

Mr Dipro Roy and Ms Prashanthie V.

Postgraduate Students, Department of English, University of Hyderabad, Telangana, India


Told as a truly “powerful tale of defiance” against intergenerational caste oppression, Mari Selvaraj’s critically acclaimed Karnan (2021) revolves around the themes of solidarity and kinship within the rural community of Podiyankulam. In the film, communal solidarity among the people of Podiyankulam village is instrumentalised and it is with this sense of unity that they fight for a history of resistance rewriting the history of oppression that they were forced to claim as their own. On the one hand, the villagers maintain a profound sense of solidarity amongst themselves; the younger generation observe a strong moral code of conduct towards the elders expressed through a profound sense of reverence, admiration and care. They also express the same concern towards the domesticated by maintaining a harmonious state of co-existence with the natural environment. The film, thus, depicts a conspicuous disruption of the human/non-human as well as the nature/culture binary. Employing Pablo Mukerjee’s theoretical framework of eco-materialism, it can be argued that in the Podiyankulam village, the natural environment interacts with the material environment through the connection established by human labour. Additionally, through sustainable agricultural practices, the villagers have successfully transformed what was once a wasteland into a civilization. Here, the human is an intrinsic part of the environment and is not considered as an entity separate from the natural ecology of the village. The human body, thus, becomes the site of resistance against caste-based atrocities perpetrated upon them by the police as a repressive state apparatus.

A prominent scene in the film includes Karnan, the protagonist, jumping out of a moving bus in order to force the bus to come to a halt at his village Podiyankulam instead of the neighbouring village, Melur. Karnan and Grandpa Yeman’s individual acts of resistance, over the course of the film, gradually translate into a collective mode of struggle in which the whole community of Podiyankulam participate in unison. They rightfully demand that the authorities pay attention to their daily struggles and bring recourse to the injustices they face. The strongest of all their demands is to have a bus stop at their village from where they could board the buses without walking all the way to the condescending and abusive neighbouring rural community of Melur. The bureaucrats essentially entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring the safety of the people become the primary oppressors in the narrative of the film. In this context, it is important to note that the police, as well as the well-to-do people of Melur village, hail from the upper-caste sections of the society while the Podiyankulam village is entirely comprised of a Dalit community. Institutionalised discriminations based on caste differences plays a central role in the perpetration of violent atrocities upon the marginalized people of the Podiyankulam village. The paper focuses on a close reading of the film to examine the role of the body as a material site of caste-based atrocities as well as collective resistance against the same.

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