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Through Its Unlikely Hero, Asuran Explores Caste Discrimination With Nuance

Posted: October 7, 2019

Asuran may seem like a revenge saga. But it has several layers hidden behind it right from issues like the caste and class divide to exploring the nature of resistance.

Asuran, based on Tamil novel ‘Vekkai’ by Poomani, translates to ‘heat’ in English and on the face of it, can indeed seem like another revenge saga.

However, the movie examines certain pertinent issues relating to the caste and class divide, human nature and the dangers of machismo.

This review contains some spoilers.

Set in the 1970’s in a village near Tirunelveli, Asuran revolves around Sivasaamy, a farmer, (played by Dhanush), a man who values the peace of his family more than anything else.

Sivasaamy is a negotiator; he believes in settling things with dialogue. As politely as he can, he reasons with the powerful land owner of the village, Vadakkooran who coerces him to sell three acres of his land for a new cement factory.

Sivasaamy is not your conventional ‘angry hero’

Sivasaamy tries protecting his rights while staying within the accepted social boundaries and the village panchayat’s verdict. He bends when necessary, even if that means falling at the feet of an entire village, as atonement for a violent act by his son.

In the eyes of his family, and especially that of his second son Chidambaram, he is a coward and not fit to be the male head of the family. Chidambaram on the other hand worships his hot-headed and fearless brother, Murugan, who is killed in the process of avenging an insult. The same fiery rage is also found in Sivasaamy’s wife, Pachaiamma (played by Manju Warrier).

Pachiamma doesn’t hesitate putting sickle to a the neck of a man attempting to steal water from their well, an impulsive action that turns the lives of the family upside down.

It is in the second half of the movie that we understand Sivasaamy’s past and how he transitioned into a man who learns to value survival over his ego. Sivasaamy is not a coward, nor does he lack physical strength, but his experiences temper him to resort to violence only for defence and not for retribution.

This revelation transforms Chidambaram’s view of his father; in his son’s eyes, Sivasaamy takes on a new avatar as the hero he always wanted his father to be.

Asuran…the asura’s story

Asuran like the movie Kaala is the story of the underdogs and their rebellion. Their names are also similar – Kaala and Asura have negative connotation, and go together, against the ‘fair Devas’, symbolic of the caste and class divide between them.

The events spanning Sivasaamy’s life might have caught our eyes sometime as a small snippet in the middle pages of a daily. Different readers who read the news item might view the victims and the perpetrators differently depending on where their personal allegiances and compassions lie.

Asuran is a story from the Asura’s point of view and an effective one at that.

It also hints at the fact that human nature is the same across class and caste barriers – ultimately the differentiator between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ is not so much the power to commit atrocities, but the power to get away with them.

On more than one occasion Chidambaram ponders why the police dog them alone for the crimes they have committed, while being easy on Vadakkooran family. Every time Sivasaamy explains patiently that it is do with the power of money. Over time, Sivasaamy has internalised that the best way to deal with this fact is to make peace with it.

Asuran raises interesting questions on violence and its aftermath

The movie makes us dwell on the destructive force of anger and reflect on what could be safe outlets for righteous anger in the face of terrible injustice; whether a cure to injustices could be found at all without violence and whether the destruction that follows violence is worth it. The movie also has a neat messaging in this regard.

Sivasaamy advises his son, that their land could be grabbed, and money could be snatched but his education cannot be taken away, implying that the only way to transform his life would be to get himself educated.

Asuran though, a very alpha-male kind of title, offers an interesting contrast to the movie, Iraivi which takes a benevolent sexist approach of portraying all its women characters as emotionally strong and men as irrational and impulsive.

As against this, Sivasaamy is more emotionally stable and mature when compared to his wife. He swallows his hurt and anger when he sees more danger than resolution coming out of its expression, as against his wife, who takes pride in her son’s violent and careless anger.

Dhanush’s older characterisation is slightly reminiscent of Mohanlal from Drishyam, another movie where the male protagonist is the emotional anchor of the family and believes in doing what it takes to safeguard his family. Unlike other regular movie heroes, he is not bothered about correcting all that is wrong with the society.

Plus, excellent writing, casting and acting!

The movie has some excellently written scenes, ably aided by acting brilliance of Dhanush, who is one of the best actors in South India today. He portrays with incredible ease both the hot-headed young man filled with idealistic temper to set things right for his community and the older man in his forties who is tempered by all the grief he has suffered. Here, the movie caters more to fans of Dhanush, the actor than Dhanush, the star.

The movie’s casting is appropriate with all actors including Manju Warrier, and Pasupathy, who plays her brother, and Chidambaram played by Ken Karunas doing justice to their respective parts.

It is commendable that Vetrimaaran chose a woman in her forties to play a woman in her forties, which is good example to set in the face of the recent controversy relating to two younger women playing 60 year old women shooters in Saand ki Aankh.

On the whole, Asuran is shocking, disturbing and touching in equal parts. For people looking for some light hearted entertainment, this is not the movie. But for those who want to be haunted by a powerful drama for a while, this is the one.

Picture credits: YouTube

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Gnanapriya is a Bangalore based Banker, a passionate feminist with a keen interest in philosophy,

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