Readers Write In #115: The Reluctant Asuran

Posted on November 23, 2019


(by V Vamsi Viraj)

Note: This essay is full of spoilers so exercise caution. The movie is highly recommended; it is to 2019 what Pariyerum Perumal was to 2018 – a whiplash to the conscience of Tamil society.

Asuran was mesmerizing and I ended up watching it twice the same day. The whole setup was so brutal and tragic and unforgettable. The crime at the heart of the movie, the killing and beheading of Sivasaamy’s elder son, is not something the viewer forgets easily. It hangs over the movie, until being overtaken by a far more terrible tragedy in Sivasaamy’s flashback. The protagonist and his family crying helplessly over the body of their son, with the mother asking ‘mugam engey.. where is the head?’ shatters your senses. The actor playing Sivasaamy’s first son Murugan has charisma (those piercing eyes!) and I wish he had more scenes. The song that plays when he goes to see his bride-to-be could have been allowed to play in full. It’s among the few ‘soft’ parts of the movie. I was really dragged into the budding romance between Murugan and his fiance. If we had been given a few more scenes of them together, with the song playing, we would really be rooting for this man, over and above Sivasaamy (played by Dhanush) himself. His death would have been all the more powerful not just for the way he’s killed and mutilated but also because we are made to connect with him so much until then.

The only physical traces left of Murugan as seen in the movie are the framed photo of him as a baby, and a missing case filed by the police. His body isn’t released by the police for them to cremate. So it’s a tragic scene when all of Murugan’s possessions are ritually burned by Sivasaamy and family, literally erasing him. It’s a numbing feeling to realize that there’s no photo of Murugan as a young man. Watching the movie a second time, the scene where Pachaiyamma asks that they all go take a family photo breaks your heart. You remember the scene that comes later, where she’s afraid she might eventually forget how he looks, that they should have taken the family photo that day. Think of all the families who lost their dear ones to caste killings over the decades. Them slowly forgetting how their dead even looked. All they’re left with is some broken shards of a memory. These next generations would be passed down these stories of their faceless forefathers.

The movie’s posters featured Sivasaamy, Pachaiyamma, and their second son Chidambaram seemingly posing for photos, either as a couple or as a family of 3. But this is a false memory within the movie’s universe. All of them happily posing for a family pic could never have happened. If it did, it had to be taken before Murugan is killed, considering how happy they all look. And it should’ve had Murugan and their daughter in it. But it didn’t happen since Pachaiyamma laments they never took such a photo. Nor could it have happened after Murugan is killed, with the family engulfed in grief and then having to scatter after Chidambaram takes revenge. Maybe it’s taken when Sivasaamy is out of jail on furlough. Or maybe it’s from the imagination of Pachaiyamma, who might want such a photo even more strongly after nearly losing her second son. Only in her imagination could they all look so blissfully happy because, in real life, Murugan’s death and the punishments suffered by Sivasaamy hang heavy on the family.

Baradwaj Rangan argues that this particular story is generic, that it could have been any lower caste or oppressed family facing such trauma. But Murugan’s death, the way it’s brought about, and the way the body is left in the open as a terrible warning to anyone who dares raise their voice – this very sequence indicates that this can’t be happening to anyone but Dalits. There are other indications throughout – Sivasaamy falling at the feet of the entire village, his entire family being burnt (in an echo of the Keezhvenmani massacre), and the Panchami lands being the cause for that. There’s the feud about slippers too. These are definite markers of a Dalit story, even if the author of Vekkai claimed it isn’t. Unlike the claim that this violence rises from the ‘heat’ within men, thereby making it look natural, the movie shows how this is a reaction to the oppressive hierarchies of the place. We must base our theories on what happens within the movie rather than clarifications outside of it. The movie diverges from the novel in some ways. The scene where Sivasaamy falls at everyone’s feet or the issue about Panchami lands which leads to the fire massacre are absent from the novel. Take out these Dalit markers and the movie loses much of its power to provoke the audience, to make them squirm.

Contrast this with Rangasthalam,  a Telugu movie about an oppressed family (and an oppressed village) rising against upper caste men. Here, it’s quite clear that the hero’s family is from a lower caste but not Dalit. The size of their home with its inner courtyard, the hero’s elder brother (despite being a victim of honor killing) being educated and working abroad, and the hero himself proclaiming proudly in the beginning that his motor waters fields without seeing caste or community. Only non-Dalits assert proudly that they see no caste barriers, because they can afford to, no matter how poor they themselves are.

What could well be generic is the planned Telugu remake of Asuran. What gave Asuran that authentic feel was it being grounded in a tragedy that mirrored real life events in Keezhvenmani. These killings were an important landmark in the evolution of Tamil Nadu as a modern state. They have had parallels in other parts of the country. When Venkatesh reprises the titular role, there’s the Karamchedu massacre in Andhra Pradesh that could serve as a reference to ground his flashback. Incidentally, Venkatesh’s father hails from Karamchedu’s dominant Kamma caste. Venkatesh is great with comic timing and soft drama but it’s tough to imagine him playing the meek, psychologically broken, and undernourished Sivasaamy. If the elements that make Asuran such a hard-hitting movie are removed to somehow make it more palatable to Telugu audience, it would lose the magic that made it such a huge hit. Dhanush has set high standards for any actor in India. Only Nawazuddin  Siddiqui or a younger Irfan Khan could possibly recapture the anguish of Dhanush, and his anger. The payoffs in Asuran are so rewarding because of the deep trauma suffered by Sivasaamy’s family. If this is diluted, if the director and actor don’t feel they can capture the trauma of the original and end up compromising, we would be left with a generic movie with a generic premise. Instead of being about caste, it could be about factionism among dominant castes in Rayalaseema, a more common theme in Tollywood. This only blunts the narrative of Dalit oppression and retaliation

Sivasaamy lays out at the end to his second son about the predatory nature of the state in taking everything that’s theirs. This is something that is also reflected in the running feud between the families of Vadakooran and Sivasaamy. Any attempt to hit back by Sivasaamy’s sons is met with far more brutal punishment. The older Sivasaamy fights back when his son is in grave danger while the younger Sivasaamy fights or kills when his people are humiliated or killed. While this might be the template in most revenge films, this particular tale is unique because the protagonist has absolutely no legitimate means to fight his oppressor. The specificities make it much more than than being about revenge. The council of elders, while being less greedy and bloodthirsty than Vadakooran, give out a humiliating punishment for letting out Murugan from police lockup. The police refuse to file a case when Murugan disappears nor do they agree to recognize the headless body as his. In the Court, where Sivasaamy and his son come to surrender, they’re faced with certain violence against Vadakooran’s men. The social, legal, and executive forms of state authority fail them, giving them only two options – flight or fight. Violence ends up being the only way out for him and his sons. They could obviously shut up but that wouldn’t have made them any different from the rest of their people.

Asuran is the cinematic response on behalf all the nameless individuals and families who lost lives to a vicious social structure that purged them when they demanded a more dignified life. Their struggle is a reflection of a phenomenon that happens across India – the violence of OBCs and landed castes against Dalits who are seen to be rising in the socioeconomic ladder and demanding more. Other lower castes (EBCs and MBCs) also face violence but it isn’t as high and as inflected with the sense of self-righteousness and hatred of the Other displayed by dominant castes in their violence against Dalits. In such a scenario, the law or the state will not suffice, nor do they even help. The Asuran must rise up and revenge. This makes for compelling viewing. The second reason that makes for glorious drama is that throughout his arc as the older man, Sivasaamy is restrained and fearful to the core. This only makes the scenes where he unleashes himself even more dramatic and whistle-worthy. He’s the reluctant asuran unlike his sons. They haven’t known the pain of losing an entire family to the dominant castes, and then being punished for any retribution. As the older guy, Sivasasmy only fights twice in the movie. This makes me think of the epic asskicking he would have dished out in the scenes where they come to the Court to surrender. He asks his son not to throw the bombs away after seeing Vadakooran’s men. The tension ratchets up and I was looking forward to a bloody confrontation outside the Court itself. It could have been stark symbolism. Unable to get justice inside the Court, the Dalit gets it outside by his own doing. SS Rajamouli, who is unmatched when it comes to mass moments, would have relished the possibilities. Both the prime accused in the Keezhvenmani and Karamchedu killings escaped punishment from courts, but ended up getting murdered.

Mass movies have songs in glorifying the hero as he commits violence. Many such movies actually have Sanskritic references given the rich narratives and verse in our mythology around violence and payback. Prime example is Simhadri and Chatrapathi, two of Rajamouli’s massiest movies.  When NTR and Prabhas go on their rampage or need to be glorified, we hear Malayali or Sanskritic religious incantations in the background. And we totally get in the zone, transposing the hero with our violent gods who exact retribution and justice. But now the gaze is reversed, the god Vadakooran and his minions are the ones who must be hunted down. And new songs, disconnected from previous mythic and religious narratives, must be written to portray this new dynamic.

Kabali and Kaala succeed at this asskicking song-writing while 3 of the 6 Asuran songs (Ellu vaya pookalaye, Kannazhagu Rathiname, Polladha Boomi) succeed in capturing the pathos and tragedy of the Dalit condition. The theme song pumps up the adrenaline. As the chorus rises to sing ‘Va Asuran! let heads roll!’, you can’t but be completely rooting for Sivasaamy, for Dhansuh. It could well be that Sivasaamy is sentenced for life imprisonment, it could well be that there’s no trace of him either, except as a thumb print in the prison register, as part of the family photo in Pachaiyamma’s imagination. But his legend will ring in Thekkoor and Vadakkoor, his presence will permeate the place when Vadakooran’s and Vishwanathan’s families perform rituals remembering the men they lost to Sivasaamy and his family. In the deaths and narratives of the dominant castes, the voices of the dalits who rebelled will have an echo. Murugan might have been erased with almost no trace. But when people in the movie’s universe retell the saga, his rebellion would be spoken of first. His death will cease to be a footnote. It would be remembered as the spark, the warning to the gods from the Asuran.