Cast: M Sasikumar, Vasumitra
Asuravadham, directed by Chennai Ungalai Anbudan Varaverkirathu director Maruthupandian, begins with what looks like a prank. A small-town provisions store owner named Samayan (a very effective Vasumitra) gets a call. The person at the other end disconnects as soon as Samayan picks up. And this happens over and over. The cat-and-mouse choreography is superb — and cinematographer SR Kathir covers the repetitive action so dynamically, it begins to resemble a demented mind game: think a two-player version of kabaddi, with both players tripping on LSD. But it isn’t just fun. Note what Samayan was doing before the game began. He was arguing with his father-in-law that he wasn’t cheating on his wife. And then, he stopped before a mirror, to trim his luxuriant moustache. He fools around, and he’s macho. In some parts, this is all it takes to be a man. And it’s this manhood that’s systematically stripped away when this mystery caller begins to toy with him, reducing him to a nervous wreck.
The opening stretch serves as prologue and establishes a pattern — this is what the rest of the film will be like. The threats continue, and after a point, Samayan is terrified to even take a leak by himself. As the mystery man (M Sasikumar, in a strong and silent part that fits him perfectly) keeps hounding Samayan, the title, slowly, turns into a joke. It sounds macho as hell: the slaying of a demon. But by the time of his slaying, Samayan is more of an insect. Ever since the terribly underappreciated Nedunchalai came and went, I’ve been looking out for a violent (wait till you see a character pinned down, like a paper is tacked to a notice board), well-crafted B-movie, and Asuravadham comes satisfyingly close. I practically jumped with delight when I saw the python. The black humour is abundant, and one of the jokes is how the Sasikumar character always pulls out the most suitable weapon (yes, like that snake) for the given situation. If a man is hanging over a deep drop, clutching on with the tips of his fingers, Sasikumar will pull out a hammer and begin pounding away at those fingers.
It’s the typical revenge story, with a Shankar-style flashback in the second half that (disappointingly) “softens” the hero. I wished for this unnamed man to be like the unseen truck driver in Steven Spielberg’s Duel, out to get the poor protagonist: no motive, only murderous rage. But maybe that might not play too well with the general audience? What makes this film atypical is the treatment — the writing, the craft. The distant skies and the deep backgrounds of Vadipatti are lit in a way that suggests an eeriness in the air. When Samayan heads towards us on a motorcycle in a wide shot that’s held for a while, he appears to be emerging from a cave of light. While the director chases the thriller-action beats, the cinematographer imbues the frames with mythical-horror dimensions.
I loved the film’s underlying philosophy (warning: do not try this at home) about how evil-doers don’t deserve answers, only escalating punishment. The writing brilliantly emasculates Samayan. In a terrific stretch, he spends the better part of a day on the phone, apologising to the people he may have wronged. (The dissolve on the clock shows us just how many people he has wronged.) When a cop asks him money for protection, and then asks for more money, we get a sense of Samayan’s miserliness. Note, also, the scene where Samayan kicks his wife, begins to leave, and turns when he hears her moaning in pain — this is solid character writing. And when the Sasikumar character answers Samayan’s frustrated question (“Who are you?”), we sense it’s a kick in the balls, but it isn’t until the flashback that we see how well-aimed, how deserving this kick is. The reply is this: “Naa yaaru nu on pondattiya kelu. Ava solluva.” (Ask your wife who I am. She’ll tell you.)
The action blocks are all effective, starting with an early chase on foot, but a one-versus-many set piece in a corridor is especially well done. Govind Menon’s score seems to be playing on guitars strung with Samayan’s shredded nerves — it’s pitch-perfect B-movie accompaniment. Problems? The sex worker character could have been written better, and maybe the proceedings could have used a little more electricity — but my only real issue with Asuravadham was the flashback. Maruthupandian isn’t as sure-footed with softer emotions, and he resorts to cutesy clichés that feel out of place. It also seems a tad too convenient, the way things known only to Samayan (like how he got rid of a body) are revealed to the audience as though Sasikumar were present at the scene. But at the end of this narration, again, the director pulls off a nifty trick. That’s the thing with a hard-working filmmaker — even the clichés seem less clichéd.