In the midst of a festival season like Durga Puja and Dasara, where the killing of an Asura (meaning demon or devil) is celebrated, a movie named 'Asuran' has become a big box-office hit.

The success of Asuran and what it means for cinema with Dalit protagonists
Flix Opinion Monday, October 21, 2019 - 18:27

Asuran, a Tamil film starring Dhanush, released on October 4 and has become his biggest hit. It has also become the highest grossing Indian film at the Malaysian box-office this year, beating Bollywood’s multi-starrer War.

Asuran is the life story of Sivasamy (Dhanush), a Dalit man who avenges the death of his family members who are victims of caste-based violence. Based on Sahitya Akademi award winner Poomani’s novel Vekkai, the movie deals with panchami land rights — the land given by the British to Scheduled Castes, which cannot be transferred to others.

Clearly, Sivasamy is the protagonist of Asuran. The story is based on his struggle and is narrated from his point of view.

In a conventional narration, Sivasamy would be an aggressive young liquor baron who impulsively ‘defies’ social order. But, director Vetrimaaran takes you through the journey of Sivasamy’s life both as a young man and a father and makes an appealing emotional connect with the audience.

Asuran’s story, of the land rights of the Dalits and the atrocities inflicted on them in Tamil Nadu villages, appears real and can be related to the anti-Dalit atrocities across the country. Vetrimaaran dexterously uses the art of compelling storytelling, as the audience stands behind the protagonist Sivasamy and feels his agony and ecstasy.

Adapting Vekkai

In doing so, the director has also modified some portions of the novel to illustrate his point. Poomani had dismissed the notion that his novel portrays the victory of Dalits over their oppressors. Calling it as the director’s freedom to alter the script from a story about a family defending its honour to the idea of a Dalit revolt against the oppression, the writer commended Vetrimaran for handling the violence well.

In one of the moving scenes, Sivasamy’s fiancée Mariyammal (Ammu Abirami) is humiliated for wearing slippers to her school — a scene not part of the original novel (per the novelist) —but the director has taken it from real life examples of caste-discrimination.

In June 2013, a Dalit schoolboy in Vadugapatti in Usilampatti taluk was paraded and forced to carry his footwear on his head. The incident happened when he went to check his exam results wearing footwear, and ‘offended’ the upper caste for ‘breaking the tradition of Dalits remaining barefoot’.

In May 2011, when a Dalit youth G Thangapandian bought a bike, a luxury considered exclusive to the upper castes in Villur village in Madurai, his house was attacked. The 1200 household village had unwritten rules that forbade Dalits from wearing footwear while passing through upper caste localities.

Tamil Nadu, the land of anti-caste revolutionary Periyar, has ironically been mired in controversies relating to caste-based atrocities. As recent as August this year, a highly objectionable school circular on caste bands for students was circulated and met with much protest.

Caste-based stories on social injustice told from the point of view of Dalit protagonists have recently been gaining prominence in Tamil cinema, with Pa Ranjith successfully showcasing such narratives in Madras, Kaala, Kabali and Maari Selvaraj’s Pariyerum Perumal. Vetrimaaran’s Asuran is a marvelous addition to this new tradition.

The alternative perspective

Marathi filmmaker Nagraj Manjule, during the first Dalit Film Festival in New York, had said, “Movies are made out of perspectives. If a movie is made keeping Ram in mind, then Ravana automatically becomes a villain. But if someone makes a movie based on Ravana’s viewpoint then, Ravana may be a hero and Ram a villain.”

I believe this is precisely what Asuran does. It makes us connect with Sivasamy and makes him a hero. If the story did not come from Sivasamy’s viewpoint, traditional societal bias would have made the audience dismiss his family as criminals and murderers.

The movie’s title Asuran (meaning demons) isn’t a random pick but a carefully chosen, essential component of the story. It epitomizes how the people who are dismissed as demons have a humane side too.

For long, in Indian traditions, the Asuras have been characterised as wicked and evil. In his book Revolution and Counter Revolution in Ancient India Dr. Ambedkar writes: “It is believed that the Asuras were not a human species at all. They are held to have been ghosts and goblins who plagued the Aryans with their nocturnal visitations. The description of Asura given, in the Mahabharat and Ramayana make out as though they belonged to nonhuman world. An Asura is described to eat ten carts-load of food. They are monsters in size. They sleep for six months. They have ten mouths. Who is a Rakshas? He too is described as a non-human creature.”

Calling these beliefs as “unfounded”, Dr Ambedkar adds: “The word Asura is generic name given to various tribes known by their tribal names of Daityas, Danavas, Dasyus, Kalananjas, Kaleyyas, Kalins, Nagas, Nivata-Kavachas, Paulomas, Pishachas and Rakshasas…  Fortunately with the help of the Buddhist literature, Ancient Indian History can be dug out of the debris which the Brahmin writers have heaped upon in a fit of madness. The Buddhist literature shows that the Devas were the community of Human beings…and the Asuras again are not monsters. They too are Jan-Vishes Human beings.”

Asuran, to me, is simply a demonstration of Babasaheb’s assertion that Asuras were human who were wrongly dehumanized for long.  Sivasamy’s Asuran is human – one who has compassion, fear and anger —just like other humans.

Another striking aspect about Asuran is the timing is its release.  In the midst of a festival season like Durga Puja and Dasara, where the killing of an Asura (meaning demon or devil) is celebrated, a movie named Asuran has been released and has become a big box-office hit. This shows that orthodox notions can be convincingly overcome if the challenge is taken up.

One of the main reasons for our filmmakers to stick to traditional ways of storytelling is the apprehension regarding the box-office success of ‘alternative’ cinema. Asuran’s success affirms that telling a story from the Dalit point of view can be mainstreamed and become profitable as well.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

Ravikiran Shinde is an independent writer and columnist on social and political issues.