Asuran [Demon] is Tamil filmmaker Vetrimaaran’s fifth film to hit the theaters (released on October 4, 2019). Despite being screened in only one theatre in cities such as Tirunelveli, its box office success can be seen in the way the number of screens was increased to three by the fourth day.
Through Asuran, Vetrimaaran presents the voice of an oppressed people and their demand for land rights. He portrays their oppression by the upper castes, and shows us how the state administration, including the police force, aid them. Since the film focuses on issues of land and caste, the struggle against oppression and the hopes of oppressed people, Asuran can be termed a political film, more specifically, a film about the political identity of the oppressed.
Vetrimaaran’s first film, Pollathavan (2007) was followed by Aadukalam (2011), Visaranai (2016), Vada Chennai (2018). He is also a film producer. His four films before Asuran have received Tamil Nadu State Film Awards. Aadukalam and Visaaranai received recognition at India’s National Film Awards. Asuran is now touted to be an award-winning film as well. Asuran is loosely inspired by Vekkai [Scorching Heat], the second novel written by Poomani, a Tamil writer who won the Sahitya Akademi award for his novel Agnaadi.
Despite being an adaptation of a novel published twenty eight years ago, Asuran continues to be the subject of heated debates, because the issues it speaks of remain current. Is it right to distort the aesthetics and the central theme of a novel when adapting it into a film? Can bravado and education truly be tools of liberation for the oppressed as proposed by Vetrimaran’s film? These questions keep cropping up.
Considering the first question, the negative connotation that accompanies the words ‘is it right’ must be avoided. How the words of a novel transform into a feature film depends on the screenplay. Changes are inevitable; a novel cannot become cinema otherwise. A novel stands on a foundation of the storyteller’s use of language. On the other hand, a film stands on a foundation of visuals, the sequence of events that unfold in time, and the sensory responses generated from their arrangement. It is for this reason that Vetrimaran has deviated from Poomani’s novel.
Before we delve into the deviations, here is a summary of Poomani’s Vekkai:
The novel begins with the murder of Vadakkooraan, who is a symbol of power, and chronicles how fifteen-year-old Chidambaram (addressed as Selambaram in the novel) and his father Sivasamy stay in hiding for the next eight days to escape the police. A dilapidated well in a desolate forest, a crevice in the mountains, a sugarcane plantation resounding with grunts of pigs, a hillock in the middle of a lake and another in a farm, a deserted temple and a tree nearby—they keep wandering from one hideout to another until they decide to surrender in court. The novel shows father and son reminiscing and discussing their family history as they wander. These eight days make up the novel’s timeline. But anyone who reads the novel gets to know the intimate story of three generations of Chidambaram’s family. Poomani’s writing conveys to us that Chidambaram’s actions do not stand alone, they are a result of the scorching heat [vekkai] and violence that form a part of both the family and the landscape.
The novel begins with a scene recounted by fifteen-year-old Chidambaram, who has stabbed Vadakkooraan to death. He mentions that he actually wanted to chop off Vadakkooraan’s hand, but the machete got stuck in his rib cage. He recalls how Vadakkooraan writhed and groaned like a sheep being slaughtered. He also talks about hurling hand grenades to create a smokescreen, so as to flee the villagers who chase after him. Despite having ample opportunity to vividly describe a gruesome murder, we notice right away that Poomani does not indulge in gratuitous violence. This cautious approach is a warning to the readers, to avoid getting emotionally aroused. The author’s intention is to enable readers to empathise with the character’s thoughts, and the process of his rationalization.
The hallmark of good writing is to encourage readers to delve into a character’s thought process rather than appealing directly to their emotions. The rage in Chidambaram’s heart that instigated him to murder Vadakkooraan, who caused his brother’s death, may be interpreted by some as a violent thirst for revenge. But Poomani takes care to tell us that many years ago, Chidambaram’s father Sivasamy killed a person in a land dispute and underwent life imprisonment, implying that lives and their realities are often cyclical.
Vetrimaran’s screenplay contains some sequences that are not present in Poomani’s novel. In addition, the film focuses on the topic of Panchami lands (land intended for distribution to oppressed castes, first put forth during British rule). While the novel placed the son at its centre, the movie makes the father the protagonist. Vetrimaran may have had his reasons for these changes—he might have felt this change was necessary to communicate the legitimacy and necessity of such violence, and establish their relevance to current political developments.
By stringing together the issue of Panchami lands, the struggle to attain them, and incidental contact with political activists and an advocate in a series of events, the film makes a drastic shift from the tone of the novel. Vetrimaran portrays the burning down of the entire village as the culmination of the struggle for Panchami lands. This scene is staged in a manner reminiscent of the Kilvenmani massacre that happened in 1968 in a village in Tamil Nadu, when labourers demanding higher wages were burnt alive. This attempt to arouse public conscience by portraying a real incident may have had two objectives. Justifying present-day awareness and protests against caste-based oppression by showing us the continued violence inflicted by the oppressor-castes could be the first objective. The second objective could be to arouse guilt in the hearts of those who call themselves the ‘ruling caste’ by showing them that they are the progeny of inhumane murderers.
Among these two objectives, the first is more likely to be fulfilled, while the second has triggered a negative reaction. The dominant castes are yet to abandon their feeling of superiority and their violent ways. This indicates the complete collapse of India’s democratic system built on a principle of social justice, which guarantees that all the people of India are equal by law. Those who called up Vetrimaran and threatened him to remove dialogues criticising the dominant castes from Asuran have shown us the stark reality.
Fifteen-year-old Chidambaram is the protagonist of Poomani’s novel. He wanted to punish those who killed his brother. Poomani’s political perspectives are depicted in the novel from this point of view.
Chidambaram’s elder brother was killed by Vadakkooraan under the pretext that their goat grazed in the latter’s farm. However, Chidambaram’s father knew the real reason—he refused to sell his tiny piece of land tucked in the middle of Vadakkooraan’s properties. Vadakkooraan butchered Sivasamy’s eldest son, discarded him in the bushes and went about the village justifying his actions. Just as Sivasamy decides to murder him, Chidambaram decides to chop off Vadakkooraan’s hand, the hand that killed his elder brother. But he misses his aim and ends up killing Vadakkooraan. This is followed by wandering and undercover life as Vadakkooraan’s power and influence becomes a threat to Chidambaram’s family. However, instead of portraying this as a personal vendetta, Poomani conveys through Chidambaram’s memories that Vadakkooraan’s presence caused distress not only to them but to the entire town.
We are told Vadakkooraan shot down an innocent carriageman who was not even directly involved in a peasant struggle. He is not just a greedy landlord, he wants to amass power by creating fear, and he abuses his power. Through the conversations between Chidambaram, his father, mother, uncle and aunt, we get to know that Vadakkooraan is evil, he intends to disrupt all kinds of public organizations and turn them in his favour. The essence of Vekkai is the scorching heat within Chidambaram and his father, as they live undercover in the aftermath of Vadakkooraan’s murder. While it is inevitable that Vadakkooraan, who seeded the rage and set it to boil, will be seen as the novel’s antagonist, Poomani has taken care to reveal in his writing that Vadakkooraan is not only against Chidambaram’s family but is an enemy of social justice, he is part of a system that works to keep power in the hands of very few. This care is evident in the details which indicate that people like Vadakkooraan are against the working class and create a dangerous environment in which the state institutions that are supposed to protect them are transformed to pursue their vested interests. Vadakkooraan is an archetype: he is a danger to those who work for him, he sees to it that state institutions that are designed to protect people serve his vested interests instead, he treats human beings with contempt. Through his novel, Poomani embarks on an inquiry into the question—what is the right way to handle such humans other than violent punishment?
When this inquiry made through the son’s actions in the novel, is transposed to the father in the film, the character of Sivasamy played by Dhanush is given a larger than life treatment. And keeping with the theme of films being made to cater to the cult of celebrity, Sivasamy is shown to be a man of many talents and a doer of extraordinary things. Although he is loyal to his employer, he doesn’t hesitate to revolt. He fights not only for himself, but for the disgrace meted out to his community. Lurking within him is a demon, waiting to be unleashed. The film becomes the story of this demon who wants to seize power by educating future generations.
The novel makes two passing references—Chidambaram’s brother is killed when his land is demanded for building a factory and he refuses to sell it; Chidambaram’s father underwent a life imprisonment term due to a land dispute. Vetrimaran has expanded these references on screen, perhaps with an eye on commercial success. The brotherly affection between the sons of Sivasamy and the marriage arrangements for the eldest son have been portrayed well. It is necessary to show that such a person was brutally murdered and burned in an open field. It is inevitable that such scenes will find place in a film, to make way for emotional logic. Vetrimaran has done exactly that, with the help of screenwriter Manimaran. Emotions rise and fall as the film progresses.
In Asuran’s second half, director Vetrimaran and screenwriter Manimaran have modelled the character of Sivasamy along the lines of the heroes of many commercial successes (Godfather, Baasha). In the first half of the film, there are absolutely no hints as to Sivasamy’s past. He talks about it only after his younger son derides him. This characterisation does not fit well with the Sivasamy of the novel, who is an ordinary man with too many burdens. This transformation comes off as pandering, a way to placate audiences used to larger than life heroes, giving them the fight sequences they came to see.
In his previous films, Vetrimaran has shown us that he is capable of writing screenplays with conflicts built into them, even if they do not have the typical commercially viable hero-villain combinations. The characters he chooses to depict always tend to be brutal, and they come bearing grudges. The spaces that these characters inhabit tend to be the backdrop of his stories. He has used the same strategy in Asuran, with some help from a novel that talks about caste conflicts and violent punishments.
The film’s cinematographer has captured rural life honestly, with its landscape and mountain views, the differences between night and day, and visual emphasis on vast landscapes and long streets.
The casting is appropriate as well. Sivasamy, played by Dhanush as a seething man, channels the angst of the oppressed. The scenes showing Sivasamy to be an expert in the art of brewing illicit liqour, his love life, family life, and the influence he has on his employer are very apt. A man who falls at the feet of villagers to save his son’s life had once protested to gain the right to wear slippers. The person who stops Sivasamy when he falls at everyone’s feet and offers him water is shown to be wearing a black shirt. The lawyer who helps them out after Vadakkooraan’s murder to escape from being murdered and surrender in court, had earlier helped with the Panchami land protests. These portrayals have been crafted with great care with full awareness of present-day political developments. At the same time, a question sticks out—how does a person involved in the self-respect movement, in protest for the right to wear slippers, and in the struggle for Panchami lands, accept the demand to resolve his land dispute as a personal problem between two families?
The British believed that ownership of land would liberate people and boost their self-respect. With that in mind, they gave away Panchami lands to people of scheduled castes, with the condition that the land could not be sold or re-classified. The people who received these lands have no clue how ownership slipped from their hands after India’s independence. None of the political parties that used them as vote banks stepped up either. Social and political movements for the oppressed speak of abandoning the politics of land and moving towards political empowerment through education. They turn public attention towards ways that help to fully attain the rights and reservation guaranteed by law. Can education, higher studies and degrees be instruments of power amidst the current political upheaval that aims to destabilize the reservation system? Overlooking this present circumstance, Asuran recommends education as a weapon for the oppressed. This is a pertinent political topic to be discussed and debated in depth. In that respect, Asuran is a much-needed film today.
About the author
A.Ramasamy writes serious articles on visual and print media that determine contemporary Tamil culture. His articles have appeared in many journals since the nineties. Find his work here:
About the translators
K.Subhashini is a poet, subtitler, translator and teacher.
Ramchander is a freelance writer who’s written on cinema for Film Companion. Depending on his mood, he oscillates between Medium and Tumblr for blogging. On his desk you might find photos of Steve Jobs, Buddha, Isaac Asimov and Satyajit Ray.
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