Director: Oni Sen
Producer: Tanveer Bookwala
Writer: Gaurav Shukla, Niren Bhatt, Vinay Chhawal
Cast: Arshad Warsi, Barun Sobti, Ridhi Dogra, Anupriya Goenka, Sharib Hashmi, Amey Wagh
Streaming Platform: Voot
First, the good stuff. All the men in Asur have great hair. Either lost or stuck-up, the men seem to take after their mane as they traverse the convoluted landscape of this series from Washington DC to Nagaland, Delhi, Mumbai, Bali, and Varanasi. The two men- Dhananjay (a laboured Arshad Warsi) and Nikhil (a brooding and believable Barun Sobti), find themselves on the same Forensics Team at the CBI, but with clouds of antagonism that will spiral and then clear out as the show progresses.
Nikhil has an unresolved past, not just professionally, but personally too. He is now married with a daughter, but the tension lingers, simmering under the storyline as it moves from one murder to another. The murderer initially seems rudderless and save for the Balinese mask on the murdered, there is nothing that seems to connect them all.
One of the first murders makes use of an oven. (Sylvia Plath!) What starts off as an excuse to be gruesome ends up as an excuse to spout knowledge of chemistry. I can almost hear the discussions in the writer’s room morphing from the first episode (How do we make this murder more sexy?) onwards (How do we make this murder more cerebral and difficult to explain?) It mirrors the archetype of a perfect webshow: Come for the looks, stay for the hooks.
If something can be said in one sentence, Asur takes three sentences, two metaphors, and one folk tale to make the same point. Brevity is not one of this show’s priorities.
This web-show, 8 episodes, about 40 minutes each, touted as a psychological thriller, tries to ask really potent questions: Do we become psychopaths or are we born psychopaths? Does the mind belong to the body, or is the mind its own entity?
But here is where my broader issue with the show comes up- the series seems to have an answer to these questions. And it is rather upfront about it.
At one point when Nikhil asks for cigarettes, the villain pronounces “Cigarette tumhe nahin, tumhare mann ko chahiye.” At another time, “Dekha jaye toh hum qaidi hain, par hamare soch aazad hai.” The body-mind distinction, something philosophers have grappled with, and still do- the Cartesian Dualism- is treated as solved. There’s a smugness to this show that I found quite annoying.
Logic is replaced with intuition. Intuition cannot be explained, and so as the murders get solved with a sudden ease, you lose interest. Think of the messy intersection of human incompetence, bureaucratic hurdles, and personal gumption in Delhi Crime. There is a believability to it that makes for engaging viewing. Here, you sort of give up on trying to connect the dots, or even understand more deeply how the murders were concocted. (Intuition in thrillers is often a result of lazy writing.)
Then, there is the convenient use of Indian mythology that has space for both gore and lore. I had the same issue with Sacred Games. Using mythology to make something sound sexier, edgier almost, is similar if not the same as using Urdu to make damp squib moments sound romantic. (Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, Kalank) It is quite easy to spot the pointlessness of the exchange. If something can be said in one sentence, you take three sentences, two metaphors, and one folk tale to make the same point. Brevity is not one of Asur’s priorities.
But what happens as a result is that the performances suffer. You cannot create fluid performances from laboured writing. Sobti’s standout performance is not just about his acting chops, which are admirable, but also the writing for him, which is cleaner, bereft of mythological mumbo-jumbo that means less than it ought to mean. Warsi, who is a standout performer otherwise, looks and sounds silly here. At one point he screams “Why don’t you understand?” and slams the table but he really has no explanation to give, only an intuition. To get clarity he writes with chalk on the walls words like “Mythology” “Expert With Toxins” (The “s” from the previous word flows into the Expert, I first read it as “Sexpert with Toxins”) “Motive” “Murder” “Drama”- I mean, it’s just silly.
But that being said, Asur is an immensely well shot series. (Sayak Bhattacharya is the cinematographer, also shot Laila Majnu) There is a visual grammar that is quite arresting. And when Asur briefly sparks to life, it is quite engrossing. When it lets go of its pretense, it is quite commendable. When the characters be, and don’t act, the collective talent shines through. But these are mere silver linings. The black cloud looms large while I had wished for a sunnier day.