Director: Vetri Maaran
Cast: Dhanush, Manju Warrier, Ken Karunas
The overall arc of Vetri Maaran's Asuran is from Poomani's novel Vekkai (Heat). Somewhere in Tirunelveli (going by the dialect), a teenage boy from an impoverished farming family — Chidambaram (Ken Karunas) — ends up killing a local big shot, Narasimhan aka Vadakkooran (Aadukalam Naren). Pause at the name for a moment. The man is pure evil. How strange that this demon, this asuran, bears the name of a god. Chidambaram's father, Sivasamy (Dhanush), fears retribution, and he flees with the boy to a nearby forest. They remain in hiding, evading the trackers sent by Narasimhan's family who want them alive, so they can do to Chidambaram what the boy did to Narasimhan. The film opens with a tranquil shot of the moon, but as with the novel's title, it's all about heat — the heat inside people that makes the blood boil for violence. This includes Chidambaram, too — for the murder he committed was an act of revenge for the gruesome killing of his older brother, Murugan (Teejay Arunasalam). It's no accident that the film's title and the opening credits appear in red. This soil is steeped in spilt blood.
In short, it's a familiar story of haves and victimised have-nots, with genre toppings. It's a "chase" story, a "revenge" story — and a few minutes in, the main point of interest becomes what the director is going to do with this narrative. In other words, what are the specifics he is going to tease out from this broadly generic material? Is he going to make a "mass" movie, given that he has transformed the title of the novel (which evokes nature, both human and natural) into something that hints at a single, superheroic man? Or is the title just another thing that's red, a herring? Is it meant to make fans think they are in for a movie with Dhanush, the star, while the story is actually something that calls for Dhanush, the actor? After all, Sivasamy, for the most part, is the least superheroic man possible.
Even while fending off a boar, he strides so carefully that he feels a twig with his feet and avoids snapping it. (His impulsive son, on the other hand, does end up snapping a twig.) The first words we hear from Sivasamy are also a variation of "be careful". He and Chidambaram are wading through waist-deep water. He turns and tells the boy, "Vaa… keezha paathu…" This carefulness, we see, is that of a man who has hidden who he really is (cue, a "mass" Dhanush in the flashback), in order to protect his family — and yet, it's all in vain. His wife (a well-cast Manju Warrier) loves him, but she wishes it was her husband and not her younger son who'd avenged Murugan's murder. His sons love him, too, but they also see him as a contemptible creature. Despite his best efforts, the bloodlust he's carefully buried inside him has already been passed on to the next generation. It's not nurture. It's nature.
Manju Warrier, Prakash Raj, Dhanush and Pasupathi in Asuran
There's some expectedly brilliant writing. Chidambaram's actions are foregrounded by a line that appears a throwaway line when it appears. The family's dog dies. His mother consoles him by saying they have another dog. The boy asks how she'd feel if one of her boys dies. Will she be content that at least the other one is still alive? This single scene moulds Chidambaram after his brother's death. And note how Murugan defends (of all people) Narasimhan, who has had him beaten up by the police. I beat up his son. What kind of father is he if he doesn't return the favour? No wonder Sivasamy sighs: Namma veettu paiyanga-laam ippididhaan aambala aaganum nu irukku… Violence is practically a rite of passage.
The screenwriting is cyclical, too — whatever happened in one generation finds echoes in the next. (Cinematographer Velraj bakes both halves in the same pitiless sun.) The older Sivasamy may be able to buy his son a pair of chappals without a thought, unlike his younger version, in whose times footwear was forbidden for members of his caste and class. But the upper classes have upped their game, too. Their fences are now electrified. The divide has become deadlier — though deep down, little else has changed. Both Sivasamys find themselves fighting for land. Both Sivasamys end up on the wrong side of powerful (and privileged) men, and both end up seeking refuge under a Brahmin lawyer (Prakash Raj). Most importantly, both timelines feature a man on the run. Technically (and legally), he's guilty, yes, but did he start it all? In both cases, no!
The star-Dhanush of the second half is fine, but it's the actor-Dhanush — the senior Sivasamy — who gives this film its heat. Sivasamy looks older than his years, his brow constantly creased with worry. He rarely raises his voice. In a lighter moment, he tells Murugan that the way he will treat his wife will be a reflection of how much he respects his mother — it's a beautiful line, but he seems to be mumbling it to himself. He's so… contained that even his screams for a dead son stop rising after a certain decibel. We shouldn't be saying things like "no other actor would have done this role" — it's an actor's job to do all kinds of roles. And yet, in the current Kollywood scenario (and with the exception of Vijay Sethupathi), which other actor can you imagine consenting to be humiliated in front of an entire village and then walking away calmly? Sivasamy is so weak by the time he gets home that he collapses when his wife pushes him. A million macho clichés are shattered right here.
But the character's arc isn't convincingly etched out. One of the film's best editing transitions cuts from the fiery-faced younger Sivasamy to the tired, older man of the present day — but this transition needed more detailing. There's a rousing "mass" stretch at the interval point (further "mass"-ified by GV Prakash's score), where the older Sivasamy, surrounded by killers, picks up a stick and begins to show traces of the fighter he was — and I found myself with a question I wouldn't have during a regular "mass" movie: Would this weakened, middle-aged man really be able to single-handedly fight away so many virile thugs? That's the thing with "Vekkai" becoming "Asuran". When Poomani's "realistic" world is expanded to something as "cinematic" as this action stretch, it feels odd — not because a film has to do everything a novel does, but because Vetri Maaran is himself a fairly "realistic" filmmaker, who prefers understatement even when operating in quasi-masala mode. At the interval point, he seems to be saying, "Okay, so far I made the movie I want. Now I need to do something for fans."
None of the characters feel fully formed, because the timelines feel rushed. We don't feel time and lives weigh down on us the way it did in Vada Chennai or Visaranai. Maybe it's the on/off voiceovers, which feel like hastily applied band-aids over sore spots in the storytelling. But the bigger absence is the lack of set pieces. Vetri Maaran seems to be holding back almost deliberately, as though mirroring his leading man. The scene where Chidambaram lights a match and gives away their hiding place looks like it will lead to a tense stretch. But any sense of danger is snuffed out with an abrupt cut. Maybe it's a good thing that our auteurist filmmakers are trying to move away from convention. For instance, we don't get a full-fledged song between Murugan and his fiancée, which might have "humanised" the man a little more before he dies. (I wished for more scenes with Teejay Arunasalam. The actor has real screen presence.) But what's going to replace these conventions? Why have a lament play over a tired Sivasamy much after Murugan's death, only to cut away quickly from the song, before we've even registered its impact?
Even the messaging is more overt. What was shown in films like Visaranai is told here — but there's no denying the power of the material. Within the broadest of genre constructs, Vetri Maaran still manages to leave traces of a signature. Asuran is not in the league of his earlier films, but even on its own, it's a rare-enough beast in Tamil cinema: a character-driven action movie (or maybe we should call it an action-filled character drama). Films such as Thevar Magan have already asked the question: When will this cycle of escalating violence stop? But for all their strengths, those were glossier products. When Mariamma (Ammu Abirami, who's excellent) is humiliated in the older timeline in Asuran, it's a sharper whiplash. I'm still not convinced that "mass" and social messaging are a good mix, but this, probably, is about as well as it can be done.