Despite retellings, Karna never escapes his pre-meditated cinematic destiny

A character’s cautionary tale

Updated - November 11, 2017 05:21 pm IST

Published - November 11, 2017 04:22 pm IST

Prakash Jha missed a trick with Devgn’s Sooraj, in Raajneeti.

Prakash Jha missed a trick with Devgn’s Sooraj, in Raajneeti.

Prakash Jha’s ambitious Raajneeti owed much of its manufactured intrigue to the Mahabharata. In the first few reels itself, the Apollo-like political maverick played by Naseeruddin Shah (appropriately called Bhaskar or ‘The Shining One’) descends upon inspired ingenue Bharati (a stand-in for Kunti) for an act of impetuous coitus. They sire a politically inconvenient love child ‘Bharati’ who they must cast away — on a boat this time rather than the usual Moses basket.

Later, we are introduced to this relinquished first-born, now a strapping man with gold emblazoned on his chest, Sooraj Kumar (Ajay Devgn), who’s just delivered victory in a kabaddi match for his cheering cohorts. He rides the car his foster father is employed to drive through the crowded alleys of a beat-up tenement in a brazen victory lap, even as his supporters try to rein him in.

Mere foot-soldier

It is a heroic introduction to the myth of Karna, the so-called charioteer’s son. Jha foregrounds it as a central conflict over the film’s opening credits, before the narrative has a head-on collision with Coppola’s The Godfather and spectacularly squanders its initial promise.

The character of Karna never escapes its pre-meditated destiny. In Raajneeti , Sooraj is raised as a Dalit, a badge he wears with pride, even when he discovers he is a scion of the very hegemony he loathes. Jha and co-writer Anjum Rajabali seem to have missed a trick here.

Considering how hierarchies are being uprooted in India and vote banks are cultivated, Sooraj could well have acquired a formidable political stature of his own.

Instead, he is consigned to being just a foot-soldier to Manoj Bajpai’s Duryodhan proxy, rather than the full-fledged icon the film (and Devgn’s casting) promised to deliver. In a shoot-out in a warehouse, his car fails, and Arjuna (Ranbir Kapoor’s Samar) kills him at the behest of Krishna (Nana Patekar’s Machiavellian Brij Gopal). In contrast, Devgn’s brooding turn in Omkara delineated a Karna-like archetype simmering in the cauldron of caste politics with far greater nuance.

The chronicles of Karna have bestowed upon us their fair share of filmic tropes — unwed motherhood, immaculate conception, rich man’s son raised in a poor household, the eternal outsider, the ultimate sacrifice for family. Karna demonstrates how even a person of purportedly low status can rise up to become a king (although some classical-era ‘affirmative action’ is involved).

There is no denying his sun-kissed physical attributes, his proficiency in warcraft, his shimmering idealism — but all these qualities are credited to the accident of his birth. The fact that he is so immutably high-born is a regressive notion. Karna’s is the cautionary tale that has, for long, reinforced antiquated notions of caste, although the vengeful upper-caste players swarming around him don’t come out smelling of roses either.

On his sleeve

Shyam Benegal’s Kalyug gave us a stoic Karna for the ages in the person of a loyal lackey played by Shashi Kapoor. An orphan brought up in a business household and well-versed in corporate intrigue, he wears his conflicts on his sleeve.

In this version, he is mowed down by a vehicle while repairing a burst tyre. But the chip on his shoulder remains; loyalty towards suspect benefactors guides him rather than the dictates of his conscience. A reasonable man can be expected to question the creed of his associates from time to time, but Karna’s tunnel vision stunts his judgement irrevocably.

There have certainly been film vehicles that have attempted to catapult Karna into prominence — from the 1922 silent film Karna , featuring stunt actor Raja Sandow to 1965’s Daanveer Karna , which was made in three languages. Many of these have been produced south of the Vindhyas, where cultural attitudes have always veered towards revitalising the more marginalised of mythological icons. Yet, he remains a paragon that is always hard done by, still searching for the radical portrait that can redefine him.

The writer sought out cinema that came at least two generations before him, even as a child. That nostalgia tripping has persisted for a lifetime.

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