Caste is all pervasive in India. It is not endemic to any particular state, region, or religious community. One cannot run or hide from his caste identity. Neither would one be allowed to forget it. Like the surname glued to his first name, one bears a caste before his birth, and shall be saddled with one after he is dead. Burial grounds and crematoriums are caste-based (in villages, if not now in cities), and shraddha rituals are performed as per the respective castes. Marriages are strictly caste affairs, transgressions might invite honour killings. Even wells used to be caste-exclusive not long back. Temples used to be run and be opened along caste lines. Thankfully things have been gradually changing in the last seventy years. Situation is far from ideal, and one cannot be sure if caste is becoming more etched in the Indian mindset, or losing its hold.
Use of caste to rig the system by proclaiming primacy, establishing solidarity or claiming victimhood for petty benefits is still tolerable, and perhaps unavoidable, in this identity-obsessed world. But caste as a means and excuse to perpetrate violence and inflict humiliation upon the ‘other’ is what is actually disgusting about this whole business.
The dispute in ASURAN begins over a small parcel of land, but the central conflict is caste- a desire to shame, humiliate and show one his place in the social hierarchy. Big Landlords own all the land under the sky, but are always in dire need of some small strip belonging to the poorest of the poor who does not wish to sell. Sivasaami, played by Dhanush, is a simple, silent, subdued, peaceful patriarch, who is made to touch the feet of all male members of the landlord’s village. Sivasaami bears this humiliation to secure the release of his elder son, who is in custody, because he had thrashed the landlord’s son, who had insultingly hit Sivasaami’s wife. When he comes to know about this abject capitulation of his father, the elder son corners the landlord and thrashes him with slippers to get even. Burning with injured pride and desire for vengeance, the landlord gets the elder son beheaded. An year passes by yet Sivasaami does not seek revenge. But his wife, played by Manju Warrier, is not able to carry on or attend to her family. The younger son, burning in hellfire, and in a bid to rescue his family from the deep, dark pit of despair, hurls a bomb at the Landlord, and kills him.
To escape the wrath of the dead man’s kinsmen, Sivasaami and his son, flee into the jungle. His wife, daughter and brother-in-law run in a different direction. The family reunites in Tirunveli, and plan to surrender with the help of a Communist Lawyer, played by Prakash Raj. But Sivasaami realises that the police and the sons of the dead landlord plan to capture them before they get a chance to appear before the magistrate. It is during this flight for survival that the younger son gets to know about his father’s violent past, and explosive nature, and develops profound respect for him.
In his youth, Sivasaami had been witness to extreme violence in the name of land and caste. His lady love had once been forced to walk around the village with slippers on her head. Sivasaami had mercilessly beaten those who were responsible, but did it lessen her pain? During those days, communists were mobilizing Dalits to take back their ancestral Panchami lands, distributed by the British, but later illegally usurped by landlords. One night, the village was set ablze and many Dalits were charred to death. Sivasaami saw his family being immolated before his very eyes. He retaliated by killing many landlords, fled his native place, and left behind his past. Asuran is the story of this man who has seen how the vicious cycle of violence destroys everything- love, family, property, peace, humanity and prospects for the future.
“Study hard. Unlike land and money, they cannot snatch your education.” This is what Sivasaami tells his younger son before he finally enters the court to surrender, and face sentence on his son’s behalf. He does not mind giving up his land for the well-being of his family. He does not mind doing time for the sake of his son’s future. But he wants his kinsmen to understand that getting empowered though education is the real revenge, in the guise of reform.
Vetrimaaran is in top form, as is Dhanush, in this raw, rustic, riveting, rural revenge drama. Violence is Tarantinoesque, only the compulsion behind it is more real and urgent, and temptation for it more irresistible. Whether it is warding off pigs in a field, carrying bombs in waist-high water in a moonlit night or hurling bomb over the landlord, cinematography is lively and exquisite. Dhanush bottles it for the longest of time, but when he explodes, he does it like a volcano. Manju Warrier is at her fiery best, and provides ideal foil. Prakash Raj plays the cameo of Communist lawyer with finesse. Asuran is what a film on caste should be like- unapologetic about retribution, yet aware of the pitfalls of violence; ready for compromise, but always preparing for the future.
Asuran is based on Poomani’s novel, Vekkai. Like the novel, the film is told from the perspective of the younger son who embraces violence not just to heal his mothers’ heart, and to save his family from the powerful, evil landlord, but also to restore the honour of family. He does not much comprehend the power structures- the precarious balance which maintains peace, which when disturbed, always hurts the underprivileged more before it gets restored. He is disgusted with his father’s strategic restraint, and calculated capitulation, and opts for individual heroic action. It is his innocence which leads him to conclude that killing one landlord (or as the novel maintains, blowing off his right arm, his symbol of power) would solve all the problems. He is unprepared and not bothered about the risk to his own family. This is the point when the father rises like a phoenix, leads the son into the woods, awakens his own sleeping demons and unleashes unimaginable violence upon those who come to kill them. The son gradually comes to realize that his father was right in his own way, but it also dawns upon him that the idea and quantum of justice depends upon the seeker himself, and is not universal.
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