When you have a filmmaker as passionate about cinema as Vetri Maaran, even three seconds from a feature-length film of his can provide more room for reading than entire films that celebrate mediocrity. Asuran (streaming on Amazon Prime Video) is far from a perfect film, but quite important in terms of social criticism and how seamlessly the narrative blends commentary and craft.
We often hear viewers say, “It’s an average film, but has an important message”. For instance, films such as Raatchasi, Hero and Samuthirakani’s entire directorial filmography are modern-examples of message-over-craft. Not every important film can be great on cinematic terms, but with Asuran, Vetri Maaran surmounts this task with ease, crafting a film that’s important but which also scores high on cinematic merit.
Here are three shots from Asuran that elucidate how a filmmaker can masterfully set up a frame to talk in-depth about characters and narrative, while also using it to serve the message.
The scene is set by the young Sivasami’s voiceover from the scene preceding it, and this is the context: Sivasaami’s brother Murugan (Subramaniyan Siva), along with advocate Venugopal Seshadri (Prakash Raj), has come to the Collector’s office to claim rightful ownership of land. He belongs to a lower caste and represents the oppressed side. He accuses the higher caste, the oppressors led by Viswanathan, of forcibly seizing land. Venugopal is arguing on behalf of Murugan to reclaim ownership.
In the first shot, we see Seshadri gazing at the camera as he sits with the oppressed. It is clearly established that he is the core of this scene as their representative. The fact that Venugopal and Murugan chose to go the legal way with the support of the law is emphasised with the state emblem of India on their side towards the right. They want to fight the cause legally.
The most interesting shot among the three is the Collector’s viewpoint, a neutral perspective from where both the factions appear equal. It essentially suggests that everyone is equal in the eyes of law, and allows the audience to play the judge as the oppressors start a hate-filled argument, despising their counterparts. The difference between them is evident. The oppressed wear dark-coloured clothes while the oppressors are dressed mostly in lighter colours. This goes with the saying that the wealthy can afford to wear white as the risk of stains hardly matters to their privilege. Interestingly, Seshadri is wearing white, the color of the privileged, despite representing the underprivileged. This is because he is an educated person, who is held in high respect by both sides. His caste, though, is not explicitly mentioned throughout the film.
Sivasaami then appears and waits outside the office, keenly observing the proceedings. He stands outside, because at that point in the film, he is not actively involved in the movement that his brother and Seshadri are leading, and hence, he is an outsider. Further, it would have been obvious to place Sivasaami, the protagonist, at the center of these two groups. He walks in from the left side, the oppressors’ side, and is slightly towards the left. Staging the scene with Sivasami in the centre would have looked cooler, but his physical inclination towards the oppressor is attributed to that point of the narrative when Sivasaami is working for Viswanathan, the head of the oppressor clan. Hence, he is, in a way close to him, although his brother is fighting against Viswanathan. In this shot, when the conversation is between these two groups, there is no sign of law and order, because it’s a nasty fight that no system can tame.
The shot then reveals the IAS officer, who exists only to intervene in the heated argument. We then see the national emblem hanging on the center on the wall behind him and the emblem on the table that appeared in the previous shot. Two educated people, two emblems. One is behind and the other is minute; who cares for the law in this ruthless reality that Asuran is set in?
Three shots in three seconds invigorate the story. This is what we get when a filmmaker treats cinema as an art form and a visual medium to tell stories, not just to mint money.