Karnan is a 1964 Indian Tamil language epic-historical drama film produced and directed by B. R. Panthulu. It features Sivaji Ganesan leading an ensemble cast consisting of N. T. Rama Rao, S. A. Ashokan, R. Muthuraman, Devika, Savitri and M. V. Rajamma. The film is based on the story of Karna, a character from the Hindu epic Mahabharata. He is born to an unmarried mother Kunti who abandons him in the Ganges to avoid embarrassment. The child is discovered and adopted by a charioteer. Karnan does not want to follow his foster father’s profession, and instead, becomes a warrior. He then befriends Duryodhana, the Kaurava prince, eventually setting the initial grounds of the Kurukshetra War, where he will join Duryodhana to fight against his own half-brothers, the Pandavas.
Karnan, which was officially launched in 1963, was Ganesan’s costliest production. It was the first Tamil film to be shot in the palaces of Jaipur and the war sequences were filmed in Kurukshetra, which featured several soldiers from the Indian Army. The film’s original soundtrack was composed by M. S. Viswanathan and T. K. Ramamoorthy, while the lyrics were written by Kannadasan. The dialogues were written by Sakthi T. K. Krishnasamy, and the screenplay by A. S. Nagarajan. Karnan was considered a milestone in Tamil cinema as it brought together the then leading actors of South Indian cinema, Ganesan and Rama Rao.
The film was dubbed in Telugu as Karna, and also in Hindi as Dhaan Veer Karna. Karnan was released on 14 January 1964, during the festival occasion of Pongal, and received critical acclaim, with Ganesan and Rama Rao’s performances being widely lauded. Despite this, it became a commercial failure, but ran for over 100 days in some theatres. The film also won the Certificate of Merit for the Third Best Feature Film at the 11th National Film Awards. A digitised version of Karnan was released in March 2012 to critical and commercial success, eventually establishing a trend of re-releasing digitised versions of old films in Tamil cinema.
Unmarried princess Kunti is blessed by the Sun god with a baby boy, which she abandons in the Ganges to avoid embarrassment. The boy is rescued and adopted by charioteer Athirathan, and is named Karnan. Years later, the now-grown up Karnan realises that Athirathan is only his adoptive father and feels heartbroken. He does not want to become a charioteer like Athirathan, and instead chooses to become a warrior. He masters archery and challenges the Pandava prince Arjuna in a contest. Karnan is insulted on account of his lowly birth, but the Kaurava prince and cousin of the Pandavas, Duryodhana, saves his pride, and gives him the kingdom of Anga. Karnan thus becomes the close friend of Duryodhana and his wife Bhanumati.
One day, Indra, the king of the Devas (celestial deities), disguised as a Brahmin, approaches Karnan and asks for his armour and ear rings in donation to weaken and stop him from overpowering Arjuna. Aware of Indra’s intention, Karnan yet donates both the items he was born with and which would make him invincible. Pleased with Karnan’s generosity, Indra gives him a powerful weapon, Nagastra, but states that he can use it only once. Karnan, disguised as a Brahmin, becomes the student of the sage Parasurama to acquire the Brahmastra; one day, however, Parasurama realises that Karnan is a Kshatriya, a tribe he opposes. Enraged, he renders Karnan incapable of using the Brahmastra when most needed, and banishes him.
Karnan later saves princess Subhangi from an uncontrolled chariot, and they fall in love. Subhangi’s parents initially disapprove of their romance, but eventually they accept, and the couple get married. A few years later, Krishna, a supporter of the Pandavas, learns about Karnan’s true background. He tells Kunti that Karnan is her first son whom she abandoned. Karnan gets to know about his birth later. Kunti meets Karnan and gets two wishes from him, one that he will not attack any of her sons (the Pandavas) except Arjuna during the impending Kurukshetra War, and that he will attack Arjuna with the Nagastra weapon only once. Karnan refuses to join his brothers, the Pandavas and remains the friend of their enemy Duryodhana.
Before the start of the Kurukshetra war, Duryodhana’s ministry assembles to appoint the generals of the army. Bhishma is appointed the Commander and he starts nominating generals for different battalions. Karnan is insulted on account of his lowly birth and given the command of a low rank infantry. The war begins and in the early days, Bhishma retires and Karnan replaces him. The following day, Karnan goes to war accompanied by his son Vrishasena who fights bravely, but is killed by Arjuna afterwards.
The next day, the vengeful Karnan uses the Nagastra to try killing Arjuna, but Krishna saves Arjuna by preventing the arrow from hurting him. Since Karnan cannot use the Nagastra more than once, he is unable to kill Arjuna. A wheel of his chariot gets stuck in a big hole, and he steps down to relieve it. At that time, Arjuna, under the direction of Krishna, shoots many arrows at Karnan that severely wound him. Krishna tells Arjuna that the Dharma (noble charity) that Karnan performed during his lifetime was protecting his life. Krishna disguises as a Brahmin, goes to Karnan and asks him his virtues as donation. Out of generosity, Karnan donates all his virtues to the “Brahmin”. At this juncture, Arjuna shoots a few more arrows at Karnan that kill him. The Pandavas, who realise that Karnan was their eldest brother mourn his death. His mother Kunti also mourns his death, while Subhangi dies due to the trauma of her husband’s death in the war. Arjuna remorses killing Karnan, until Krishna reveals that the curses by Indra and Parasurama were also responsible for his death. The film ends with Karnan meeting his father — the Sun in the other world.
Directed by B. R. Panthulu
Produced by B. R. Panthulu
Screenplay by A. S. Nagarajan
Starring Sivaji Ganesan, N. T. Rama Rao, Savitri, Devika, M. V. Rajamma, S. A. Ashokan, R. Muthuraman
Music by Viswanathan–Ramamoorthy
Cinematography V. Ramamurthy
Edited by R. Devarajan
Production Padmini Pictures
Release dates 14 January 1964
Running time 180 minutes