Discussing Vetrimaaran’s latest film Asuran, many appreciated the intense and hard-hitting qualities of this piece of cinema that highlights the cruelties of a casteist society. Of course, Dhanush’s performance as a middle-aged man, Manju Warrier’s sheer screen presence and Prakash’s background score garnered enough attention. However, what escaped the discourse around this film was the similarity between the film’s narrative structure and Baasha’s. The tango between a man’s violent masculinity of the past and docile and peace-loving nature of the present. And, it also brings attention to how violence is the major presence in the expression of dissent.
David Fincher’s Fight Club is the ultimate reference point to talk about any movie that dwells on violence and masculinity. Fight Club is about men who had buried the violent side of their personality to meet the approval of modern civilization. These men may hide their real-self from society, but they never lost contact with the primitive aggression that had been stewing underneath their gentle demeanour. Not just in Hollywood, we can even find male characters that belong to the school of Fight Club in Indian cinema.
Take, for example, Amitabh Bachchan’s Hum (1991). It is about a man, who is running away from his violent self which had claimed a life in the past. But, eventually, he is forced to confront and embrace the “hunter” in him for the sake of his family. The film featured Superstar Rajinikanth in the supporting cast. And in the following years, Rajinikanth would go on to lead a film called Baasha, which was based on the plot of Hum. He played the role of a peace-loving auto-rickshaw driver living a content life with his family in Chennai. But, in the past, he was a gangster who dominated the underworld in Bombay. Now, he is the man running from his violent “other-self”.
Director Suresh Krissna and Rajinikanth perfected this violent “other-self” trope and delivered a cult mass movie without any embedded social messages. It was purely for entertainment. Since the release of the film in 1995, many have tried to make their own versions of Baasha down south. But, Baasha remains unmatched to date in the mass movie category.
Vetrimaaran employes the narrative template of Baasha. The film opens with Sivasami (Dhanush) guiding his son Chidambaram (Ken Karunas) through the challenges of a forest. Sivasami has taken his son into the woods to keep him safe from those who are hunting for him. And, from the opening moments, the filmmakers drop hints about Sivasami’s uncanny skills. “He is not just an alcoholic,” the chief of the hunters tells when he realises Sivasami has outsmarted him. A docile alcoholic is Sivasami’s secret identity, which he has assumed for years now to mask his real-self. It is the same breadcrumb technique that Suresh Krissna had more flamboyantly used to hint at Manikam’s (Rajinikanth) eventful past.
Sivasami is eventually forced to wake up the sleeping asuran (demon) in him to protect his family. And in the second half, we get a flashback, where we meet a younger Sivasami, who had a quick fuse and penchant for street fights. But, Vetrimaaran does something with this film that turns this rather overused trope on its head. He has taken a mass-hero template and fused it with a story about social evils. And his approach to the material is not over-the-top but relatively realistic.
Make no mistake, while there might be structural similarities between Baasha and Asuran, the DNA of both the films are very different. Baasha had men trying to dominate other men purely in the competition of masculinity. But, in Asuran, the context is different. Here, the conflict stems from class and caste domination. And, the men are left with no option but to turn to violence for a quick release of all the pent up anger.
When Manikam is flogged in public by a local rowdy, the questions are raised why he’s getting angry, a salient feature of manhood. The scene was staged for a shock value (What is happening? Why he isn’t doing anything?). But, when Sivasami is humiliated in front of an entire village, it evokes sympathy and not shock. We know that he is given such a punishment because of his social background. And it doesn’t shock the villagers either as for years they have looked down upon on him. But, what surprises everyone is when he revolts.
Asuran is easily the most effective adoption of the violent “other-self” trope since Baasha.
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Asuran is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
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