Directed by: Vetrimaaran || Produced by: Kalaippuli S. Thanu
Screenplay by: Vetrimaaran, Manimaran || Starring: Dhanush, Manju Warrier, Ken Karunas, Teejay Arunasalam
Music by: G. V. Prakash Kumar || Cinematography: Rajamani Velraj || Edited by: R. Ramar || Country: India || Language: Tamil
Running Time: 140 minutes
One of the more amusing aspects of the marketing leadup to the $200 million Russo Bros.’ Netflix blockbuster, The Gray Man (2022), starring Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, et al., was the incessant South Asian audience fawning over Dhanush’s (real name = Venkatesh Prabhu Kasthuri Raja) guest star performance. Search most any trailer of the film and you’ll see numerous upvoted comments about, “Dhanush, Dhanush, Dhanush!” to the point where I asked my wife and brother-in-law if I’d seen any of his films before (I’ve watched so many South Indian [Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada-language] movies in the past couple of years that most have blurred together), to which the latter reminded me of Asuran (“Demon” as a loose English translation), which we had watched earlier during the pandemic. This prompted me to then search my reviews on Express Elevator to Hell and realize the first South Indian film of any kind I had seen years ago, Maryan (2013), also starred Dhanush in the lead role.
More interesting than either Dhanush’s throwaway role in The Gray Man or the dull, longwinded Maryan, however, is Asuran, another rural drama about land disputes and extrajudicial violence in Indian villages (see also: Kantara ) that draws comparisons to various gangland conflicts depicted in other cinematic/cultural settings a la American Westerns in Hollywood (e.g. Taylor Sheridan’s neo-Western dramas, James Mangold’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma , classical Hollywood Westerns like The Searchers , Shane , etc.), samurai-jidaigeki “Oriental Westerns” from Japan (e.g. Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon , Seven Samurai , Yojimbo , etc.), as well as Italian “Spaghetti-Western” remixes (e.g. Sergio Leone’s Dollars [1964-1966] and Once Upon a Time [1968, 1971, 1984] trilogies). These universal sectarian conflicts, relatable to any audience yet endowed with the local filmmaking talent, screenwriting formulas, and directorial flourishes of different regional cinematic styles, are what most fascinate me as a cinephile.
Asuran is a quintessential South Indian take on this sort of material, much like how Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay (1975) remains the quintessential (204-minute, not 198-minute!) Hindi masala Western, a throwback style to places where sectarian, ethnic, or cultural conflicts take place largely outside the rule of law and entirely outside of urban metropolises. Somewhat “modest” in length for a high-profile, mid-budgeted (~₹35-40 crore = $4-5 million) Dravidian blockbuster at 140 minutes, this third collaboration between writer-director Vetrimaaran (what is it with South Indian filmmakers and mononyms?), star Dhanush, and composer G. V. Prakash Kumar, paints one of the more effective portraits of 20th century (1950s-1970s) Indian village life. Dhanush plays the head of a family of subsistence farmers who get drawn into a multi-generational feud with the wealthier local landlords, lead by main antagonist Aadukalam Naren. This Hatfield and McCoype-type rivalry is fascinating for its gritty, understated realism (we’ll cover the major stylistic exceptions to this in a moment) that unfolds across Vetrimaaran and co-writer Manimaran’s multi-flashback structured script. Ansuran’s in media res opening, set in the 1970s and knee-deep in the conflict, hooks the viewer immediately, and all flashback sequences thereafter, set in the 1950s, are paced well against the action-packed present day timeline. It’s difficult to understate how well this “meanwhile, back at the ranch“-narrative structure works against the aforementioned 2-hour, 20-minute running time, which is, again, short for most Indian genre movies but still lengthy for most screenplays of this type.
Much of Vetrimaaran’s direction gels with this grounded, classical premise given cinematographer Rajamani Velraj’s on-location photography and great use of Tamil Nadu scenery, as well as their believable lighting setups throughout both day and nighttime sequences. I didn’t notice a single digital composite-shot in the entire film, if there are any, so there are few opportunities for the large cast’s admirable performances to be overwhelmed by lazy directorial decisions.
I say “few opportunities” because there are still a handful of baffling creative choices made by either director Vetrimaaran or demanded by producer Kalaipuli S. Thanu, most of which involve the Dhanush-centric action sequences. Multiple over-the-top, slow-motion decorated fistfights between Dhanush and his upper caste tormentors spring out of nowhere in Acts Two and Three, showcasing laughable choreography where Dhanush leaps meters into the air and chucks staffs, machetes, and other farm tools at various thugs like he’s in Zack Snyder’s 300 (2007). The closest Hindi-language analogue that springs to mind is Aditya Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhania La Jayenge (DDLJ; 1995), which is a fun, heartfelt romantic drama for the whole family for 97% of its runtime, then tosses a violent, excessive beatdown of Shah Rukh Khan’s lead in the last five minutes for no reason at all. Dhanush’s superhero-transformations aren’t quite as distracting as that DDLJ-example, given the running theme of street justice that permeates throughout the whole movie, but Vetrimaaran’s method of shooting them is bizarre.
Aside from the bad action sequences, though, Asuran remains a Tamil-language hit characteristic of the type of “frontier justice”-dramas found throughout South Asian cinema. It’s a far stronger, more consistent picture than the recent Kannada-language hit, Kantara, and about as well written as most American, Italian, and Japanese dramas about land disputes, class/caste-inequality, and vigilantism in rural settings. It’s an easy recommendation for both veterans and newcomers to South Indian Cinema, in other words, whether you’re a diehard fan of Dhanush’s filmography or a borderline Dhanush-amnesiac like I am.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Dramatic, relatable, and entertaining, Vetrimaaran’s 2019 village fable utilizes Western genre tropes and memorable Tamil Nadu location-photography to paint a vivid portrait of sectarianism thanks to its strong narrative structure, memorable characters, and (mostly) realistic camerawork.
— However… inexplicable action-choreography undoes much of the tension wrought by Asuran’s powerful sociopolitical commentary, and will prompt unintentional laughter from most non-South Asian audiences.
—> Asuran comes RECOMMENDED, nonetheless.
? If Dhanush had six-shooters, would he be diving through the air with those in slow-motion, too?