Described as a “glorious” and “thrilling” revenge drama and a “bloodied war against caste”, the recently released Tamil film Asuran (Demon) is unequivocally a hit, having entered the so-called Rs 100-crore club. Directed by National Award holder Vetrimaaran, and starring Dhanush and Manju Warrier, the film is based on the novel Vekkai (Heat) by Sahitya Akademi-winning author Poomani.
Set in a village in Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli district, it follows the life of a Dalit family and their struggle for survival and dignity. To avenge the death of his elder brother, Chidambaram (Ken Karunas) has killed a man belonging to a landed dominant caste.
Chidambaram’s father Sivasamy (Dhanush) takes his son into the forest in an attempt to protect him from not only the enraged dominant caste community but also the police force that sides with them.
The question now is, how did a film dealing with a marginalised community become such a mainstream hit? Earlier, when Pa Ranjith’s Kabali (2016) and Kaala (2018) spoke politics from the point of view of a Dalit protagonist, they created discomfort and saw a major backlash against the filmmaker.
However, Vetrimaaran’s movie has been easily embraced despite its assertive Dalit hero. And that’s likely because of the film’s entertainment value: it is racy and engaging. Unfortunately, Asuran suffers from the same problems that Spike Lee saw in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012).
According to Lee, slavery in America “was a holocaust” and that it was “disrespectful” to frame it as a “spaghetti western”. A similar criticism can be made of Asuran, where Vetrimaaran processes the lives and struggles of Dalits into a pulp-fictionalised revenge thriller.
The rise of the heroic Dalit
Until a few years ago, Tamil cinema very rarely had characters identified as Dalits. Even in those occasions, such characters were usually reduced to criminal rogues, helpless victims, submissive side-kicks or exoticised caricatures. More often than not, lead characters who could potentially be recognised as Dalit were rendered into impoverished but casteless identities. And even when a main protagonist was established clearly as Dalit, very rarely were they shown as assertive.