Asuran Movie Review: A moderately rewarding film, but Vetri Maaran has done better
In another person’s filmography, Asuran would be a reasonable achievement, but in Vetri Maaran’s, it is not
Despite provocation, a man resists taking to violence — to the point that even his loved ones begin feeling annoyed about his meekness. He prefers pleading oppressors for mercy to taking up arms. And then, when he realises peace doesn’t stand a chance, you get a rousing interval fight sequence in which he unleashes the full power of his rage. This is followed by a flashback that shows why he is the way he is. No, I’m not talking about Baasha. I’m talking about Asuran. But these broad structural similarities aside, both films are worlds apart. It’s still fascinating to see how Vetri Maaran looks to be discussing the sort of issues you’d expect to see in a Pa Ranjith film, but in a way that the people — not the politics — take centrestage. The story of Asuran, an adaptation of Poomani's award-winning novel Vekkai, is so rooted (Tirunelveli) and real, it’s quite fascinating to observe how he manages to sneak in the hero-beating-up-evil-men idea not once but thrice. On the evidence of Asuran, I don’t think this ungainly marriage is yielding terrific results yet.
Director: Vetri Maaran
Cast: Dhanush, Manju Warrier
In Asuran, as in Vada Chennai, though the setting is rife with social problems, the focus is more on people than on their ideologies. For instance, there’s a communist character who means well, but the film’s trying to shade the character, not try and sell you communism. Asuran, for all the social issues in it, is a personal film first, with a protagonist who trades off exercising his inner asuran — going by conventional definitions of the term — in return for familial security.
Among Vetri Maaran’s recurrent themes is loyalty to a teacher figure and consequent betrayal from either party. We have seen this in Polladhavan, Aadukalam, Vada Chennai, and now, in the flashback sequence of Asuran as well. Vetri Maaran’s heroes are usually those whose lives spiral out of control from a single event. Asuran is more of the Visaaranai mould. This isn’t about a man whose life is irrevocably altered by a single event. This is about the effects of a system that thrives in oppression. It’s set in a time, at a place, where people are dehumanised, almost literally, given how the oppressors talk of murder as ‘vettai’. When Sivasamy (Dhanush) and his son are being pursued by murderous men, they do so armed with dogs. At one point, they are examining footprints, almost like they are out to hunt an animal. While on animals, a dog is shown to die quite early in the film, and it’s impossible not to think of Pariyerum Perumal, especially when you notice how little remorse the responsible parties show. While Asuran may not be able to match Pariyerum Perumal’s singleminded focus on caste conflict, it does do a great job in establishing the reality of the setting. The vast empty lands, the fields that serve as cover, the rocky hills that provide an eagle’s eye view, the thick forest… Nature is a mute observer of the unspeakable evil thriving in these lands. In a poignant scene, Sivasamy’s son reminisces a beautiful time he had had at a location, observing how the place remained the same while his life had not.
In Asuran’s setting — as in parts of our country — something as innocuous and straightforward as walking in footwear is enough to incur the wrath of the oppressors. It’s a recurring idea in this film. Right at the beginning, Sivasamy recognises a person simply by the sound the slippers make on the ground. In another scene, his younger son suffers from not wearing them. Sivasamy’s older son beating up someone with his footwear is a pivotal moment in the story. Even in Sivasamy’s flashback, he gifts footwear to a girl he likes, and things spiral down from there. All these incidents lend so much heft to that scene when Sivasamy’s younger son, towards the end, asks for slippers, and despite being in such a tearing hurry, Sivasamy stops to do this. But moments like this work better in your head — like when the younger son is asked to deal with the loss of one pet by focusing on another, and he incisively asks if they would do the same should either of their children were to pass away. It’s an eerie scene that talks of the losses suffered by the oppressed, and how time, while comforting, also tends to make people forgetful of the hurt inflicted by the oppressors. But as I said, these scenes feel better after the film experience, as you dwell on them.
Like Vada Chennai, Asuran too talks about land grabbing, and how important it is for the powerful to gather property of the powerless. Much like in that film, the narrator steps in occasionally to make things clearer. Like when he helpfully explains that Chidambaram (Sivasamy’s younger son) has come to understand his father better. I’m not at all sure the help was necessary. Also, like in Vada Chennai, there’s a fleeting recommendation that only education can truly help the oppressed rise. After a film with graphic fight sequences that are underscored by heroic music, the education advice does ring a tad cursory here. That, however, is not to take away from the imaginative choreography of the violence in this film that leaves you squirming. A man trying to reattach his chopped arm, dogs and flies feasting on a body, sickles sinking into human flesh, a boy beaten up bloody, a close-up of a woman’s face with first degree burns… (How did this film NOT get an adult certificate?) While the slow-mo shots do get a tad indulgent, the stunt choreography is quite wonderful in this film. Take that pre-interval fight block, for instance. It’s one man versus many, but look at the slugging, the dirt, the adrenaline, all the tentative footwork, the survival instincts of everyone concerned… I also liked that Sivasamy’s violence is reluctant for the most part. In a film as mindful of such details, it’s a big disappointment that the lip sync is often a problem. Many main actors mouth something, but the dialogue is something else. It’s an astonishingly fundamental problem in the film.
I totally bought Dhanush as the older character. He really sells the frailty of age and the rage of a protective parent. I bought it that he puts familial safety over personal humiliation. In the words of Sivasamy’s older son, “Aakka dhaan neram aagum. Azhikka aagaadhu.” Sivasamy understands this and steers clear of the damaging effects of pride. It’s a different sort of pride, after all — of caste — that is at the centre of so much suffering.
My most favourite aspect of this film is those small moments of great depth that nobody makes a big deal about. Like when Sivasamy, after the loss of a closed one, suddenly realises that he doesn’t have a photo of them, and expresses dejection that their face will likely get forgotten. Like when Sivasamy’s wife (the excellent Manju Warrier) goes through the different stages of grief. Like when Sivasamy quietly indicates that the police generally take the side of the powerful. These are all quietly done, but let it also be said that such understated profundity here isn’t quite as powerful as, say, in a Visaaranai. In another person’s filmography, Asuran would be a reasonable achievement, but in Vetri Maaran’s, it is not. This is less an insult to this film and more a compliment to his career.