‘Asuran’ review: Of Land Grabbing and Oppression

If there’s any one pointer to understand what a privilege it is to be reading this piece (as much as it was to write it), and living the life most of us have in this lottery of life, one has to only look at Sivasaami (Dhanush) as he trudges cautiously in the river, the still waters as black as the night that envelopes the forest. That’s the opening shot in Asuran (Demon) writer-director Vetrimaaran‘s take on Vekkai, a novel by Sahitya Academy winning novelist, Poomani. With cinematographer Velraj‘s hushed captures, it’s also the most gripping openings of all movies I’ve seen in 2019. Following Sivasaami is his son Chidambaram (Ken Karunas), chided by his father for not holding the bags they’re carrying up above the water level. You could be forgiven for thinking the bags contain food or clothing items, but the contents are far more deadlier than you’d guess.

And it’s not because Sivasaami’s wife Pachaiyammal (a superb Manju Warrier) is a bad cook that the bag’s deadly. As director Vetrimaaran cuts to her and her daughter, and they’re escorted out the village to another place by her brother Murugesan (Pasupathy), the breathless intrigue and ominous atmosphere rises sharply and you realize that the family’s being hunted and that bag could be the father-son’s only way out. In swift flashbacks, you’re told that Sivasaami and family are farmers in the Thekkoor (southern) village, and a feudal landlord, Vadakooran Narasimhan (Aadukalam Naren) from the northern part (Vadakoor) has his eyes on the lands of the south. There’s some gripping, dusty action at the land intersections  between Narasimhan’s family and Sivasaami’s elder son Murugan (Teejay Arunasalam) that results in the village council intervening and Sivasaami carrying out a humiliating ritual of begging for forgiveness.

Ken Karunas and Manju Warrier stride tall.

This sets off a violent cycle of gruesome incidents that circle back into the family on the lam. The director, writing with M.S. Manimaran, skewers his cinematic lens—and iron rod—deep into the feudal system of exploitation and systemic manipulation of the men in power in far-flung villages such as these. And perhaps unbeknownst to us, that’s how the entire system actually functions, and it’s just that some of us are damned lucky that it doesn’t affect or determine the quality of our lives or where and how the next meal’s coming to the family table. For the others, multiply this uncertainty and ragged living across generations and you have a societal volcano bubbling with anger that’s looking for the nearest fault for a full-blown explosion.

Dhanush has intense moments. Mostly only intense.

Layering this study with some stunning action sequences, Vetrimaaran looks at the conflict and anger between Sivasaami and son Chidambram, their mutual angst and whiplash of disconnect that exacerbates with their struggle to stay ahead—and alive. It’s only when the director chooses to explain Sivasaami’s benign and softly calibrated ways to life’s curveballs and goes into another flashback—that also lays the way of the wild land—that the movie stalls and loses some steam. There’s some serenading here, a song there, and you wonder if this is Vetrimaaran bowing to the unflinching demands of box-office returns. And that sense continues post this longish digression—that also involves a heart-of-gold lawyer (Prakash Raj) and Sivasaami’s brother (Subramaniam Siva) fighting for farmer’s rights—and suddenly Asuran feels as if a distant relative of landlord exploitation movies that plagued the 80s. That uneasy feeling hangs like the odor of an unwanted burnt crop all through, right until the freeze frame close-up shot at the end.

Cinematographer Velraj stuns with his work.

And yet, director Vetrimaaran makes a powerful case for the huge layer of down-the-caste rung who have no agency for so many of life’s facets that we take for granted. And that finally it’s only education that’ll enable this layer to break out of the vicious and unyielding cycle of being oppressed and suppressed. He’s aided by a superb cast: Ken Karunas especially, as Chidambram is all that his character’s age feels and is angered by; his anger at his father’s helplessness and disdain towards him is matched hormone by hormone by the horrors that throw him into a path of seemingly no return. But Asuran belongs to the magnificent Dhanush.

When Dhanush gets sick(le) of it all.

With an act that’s bent by life’s hard knocks and a voice that’s part protest and part weariness, but always hushed and rasped as if nagged by a constant thirst, he unassumingly and quietly steals the show, even in the sometimes exaggerated action scenes. Even if the justice that he seeks is eventually skewed, his powerful performance spotlights how when a down-and-out and seemingly insignificant cog amidst us finally has had enough, the demonic force they unleash will have irreversible consequences for all of us.  

Asuran (2019) on IMDb Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers.

Asuran is rated U/A (Parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years) Unsettling scenes of violence and the effects thereafter.

Director Vetrimaaran Time 2h 21min
Writers  Vetrimaaran, M.S. Manimaran
Stars Dhanush, Manju Warrier, Prakash Raj