An old epic makes it to screens in a new era, finding — possibly — a more enthusiastic audience than the one that greeted it upon initial release

Like the colourised, digitised, whateverised “Mughal-e-Azam” a few years ago, the “restored” version of BR Panthulu's “Karnan” seems to be attracting unexpected numbers of audiences. And this, despite the disappointing reality that the restoration effort itself isn't much to talk about. The print occasionally judders, leaving the impression of watching the movie on a screen mounted behind the driver's seat in an auto rickshaw. The sound, too, isn't much clearer than the prints we see on indifferently packaged DVDs. But that's not the point.

The point is that a film made in 1964, a box-office disappointment, a historical epic with little so-called relevance to contemporary life (unless you want to acknowledge the Duryodhana-Karna storyline as the granddaddy of today's bromances), filled with ripe dialogue and heavily raga-based songs, has generated enough curiosity that one of the city's biggest screens is witnessing the kind of crowds you find for a newly released film of a present-day star. What draws modern-day (and intensely ADD-ed) audiences to older films on the big screen? Is it simple nostalgia? (But how can 20-and 30-somethings wallow in nostalgia for a film made in the 1960s?) Is it the impulse that drives us to visit museums, the anthropological curiosity about how things were long, long ago? Is it the acting styles — of Dilip Kumar, of Sivaji Ganesan (though this portrayal, despite several showcase moments, isn't as all-consuming as his performance in, say, “Thiruvilayaadal”; The Mahabharata, after all, is a tale with an ensemble cast, unlike The Ramayana with its solo hero) — that seem overdone on the small screen but grab us by the throat inside a theatre, with every line of dialogue amplified to its utmost?

Or is it something in our blood, something we inherit, like light-brown eyes and diabetes, from our forefathers? Perhaps, deep inside and even without our knowing it, a tolerance for these movies is alive in us, rising to the surface only when ads begin to appear in the cinema pages of newspapers.

My interest in “Karnan” (apart from the critic's mandate that I see everything) was primarily the songs. I'm also endlessly fascinated by the kind of construction that went into these films, the “cut to” moments in the screenplay, for instance: the camera zooms in on a tear-stained Karna's face; cut; the camera zooms out of a close-up of Kunti's face. Modern directors dismiss this sort of nakedly manipulative storytelling, as if to employ them would label them as old-fashioned and out-of-touch.

Steven Spielberg is one of the few filmmakers, today, who doesn't shy away from these techniques, possibly because his aesthetic is unashamedly rooted in an older era. Even in a dazzlingly futuristic film such as “Minority Report”, he finds place for the zoom-in/cut/zoom-out. In the scene where Tom Cruise's character is left alone after a surgery, he thinks about the past. The camera zooms in on a wristwatch in the present day; cut; the camera zooms out of a close-up of a stopwatch in the ensuing flashback.

What surprised me, however, was that I responded less to Sivaji Ganesan's portrayal of Karna than to NT Rama Rao's sly, campy take on Krishna. When he made his appearance, in the second half, just as the prospect of war has begun to make itself felt, my first impulse was to giggle at his painted lips and fingers decorated with scarlet nail polish. But he is the beneficiary of a string of well-shaped one-liners, and he infuses much-needed relief into a story that has so far teetered between drama and romance, never caring for comedy.

And the character evolves profoundly towards that singular moment where he urges a Hamlet-ish Arjuna (“to kill or not to kill”) into battlefield action. Has there been a better encapsulation of the essence of the Gita than in the brief rendition, at this point, by Seergazhi Govindarajan? It's not just the content (by Kannadasan) but also the form. Seergazhi Govindarajan's liquid diction and brass-throated conviction makes today's male singers sound like tentative little boys in a parent's day recital.