Asuran and Vada Chennai – Movies: Over the years, Vetrimaaran has established himself as one of our country’s best filmmakers. He has portrayed various social issues sensitively in his films while not comprising on quality and ensuring that they are entertaining and not preachy – something that is hard to achieve. He is unafraid to get political – the topics that he has tackled are not easy, whether it be police brutality, casteism, gentrification, etc. He has spoken out about the importance of representation and has said that “cinema has always been a tool of political proclamation and liberation” – a statement that his filmmaking clearly reflects. In this article, we shall be looking at Asuran and Vada Chennai, two of Vetrimaaran’s most recent films.
Asuran – An Unflinching Portrayal of Caste Conflict:
Asuran, released in 2019 is an action-drama that was both written and directed by Vetrimaaran. The movie takes inspiration from the novel Vekkai, which was written by Tamil novelist Poomani and also from the Kilvenmani caste atrocity which occurred in 1968. The film is set in a rural background and begins in medias res – i.e., in the middle of the plot, with audiences being filled in through flashbacks.
The film’s protagonists are Sivasamy and his family, consisting of his two children, his wife, and his wife’s brother. They are a Dalit family comprised entirely of farmers, tilling the small bit of land that Sivasamy’s brother-in-law has been able to purchase. However, their lives get disrupted by the film’s antagonists – the big landowning upper-caste family, who want to take over their land to build a cement factory despite already owning all the shops and textiles in the surrounding area. In the beginning, it appears that the film has all the marks of a classic, simple revenge drama -as the main event here is Sivasamy’s son, Chidambaram avenging his older brother’s murder by the landowning Narasimhan family by killing Narasimhan himself, and the ensuing events. However, we also come to learn of Sivasamy’s past, and how casteism had destroyed his family and uprooted his life years ago, post which he made a new life here.
Asuran’s narrative is detailed and engaging – it is not linear but moves back and forth between the past and the present, and the cinematographer’s skilled lens provides us with visually rich descriptive shots. The film is unflinching in its depiction of the social realities and evils that plague our world even today – namely, casteism. Vetrimaaran’s effort to transport audiences into the world of Sivasamy and his community is present in the movie’s tiny details- from the slang used, the surroundings, and the inhumane practices that occur. It portrays in excruciating detail the level of violence and humiliation that every Dalit person undergoes in this country at the hands of upper caste people. It is the most explicit in scenes such as the one involving Sivasamy’s betrothed, Mariyamma, and her humiliation by Pandi, the very person Sivasamy himself had hired just because she dared to wear chappals. At times, the violence feels too much, but then it only serves to make me think about how if it is this disturbing to us through a screen, then we cannot even fathom how it feels for those who have undergone this for generations.
Asuran is an extremely important film that is both disturbing and a much-needed watch for all of us, as there are very few filmmakers out there today that are brave and willing enough to make anti-caste films. Despite Sivasaami killing most of his oppressors, the film ends on a somber note. The family has lost almost everything – including its land and members of their own, and the final scenes involve Sivasamy passing onto his son the message that education and representation are the ways through which their condition can improve. Despite the themes of vengeance and revenge, the takeaway should not be that it portrays a victory over their oppressors, as the author Poomani rightfully pointed out. The film’s detailed and realistic portrayal serves as a wake-up call that casteism in both violently overt and covert forms is well and thriving in our society, and a reminder that it is up to us to take on the work of not only being anti-casteist ourselves but also work towards dismantling these oppressive systems.
Vada Chennai – An Engaging and Immersive Deep-Dive:
Vada Chennai (North Chennai), released a year previous to Asuran is a film that is markedly different from the latter. However, audiences can recognize the distinctive stamp of the director’s style along with the presence of many of the cast, who also appears in Asuran – with Dhanush portraying the protagonist in both. Set in an urban setting, it has been described as an epic rather than a film and explores the life of gangsters in the fishermen community and a certain carrom player who somehow gets caught up in their world. An extremely layered film, with Vada Chennai Vetrimaaran, has managed to create a detailed universe and immerse the audience in the various ways in which these characters’ lives become entangled and the events, sometimes seemingly inconsequential, that go on to shape their lives.
This film too begins in medias res, and the plot unfolds in a non-linear fashion – a recurring concept in Vetrimaaran’s movies. Split into various chapters that distinguish themselves with names of characters; the movie is chock full of various details and events. At times, it is a struggle to keep up with the numerous characters who dip in and out of the frames and the multiple storylines from different points of time threaded throughout the film. The movie’s setting is split between the gullies and neighbourhoods of North Chennai and the various blocks of the Chennai prison, where many of the film’s characters spend a lot of time. The setting plays an extremely important role in the film as the community of Vada Chennai and the settlements there prove to be a focal point.
The first half of the film mostly unfolds within the prison and follows the protagonist, Anbu around while also showing us the workings of the two main gangs – headed by Guna and Senthil. Once again, Vetrimaaran does not shy away from being as real as possible and portraying the nitty-gritties of prison life and the corruption that takes place there. At first glance, Vada Chennai might seem to be just an entertaining gangster saga film, however, after a point it becomes clear that like his other films, this one too is politically charged and serves to make the audiences aware of and keen to important social issues such as corruption and gentrification. The prison scenes show us the smuggling, bribery and muscle power that is present inside those spaces and how the system itself is corrupt from the inside with everyone from the officers, the constables, the doctors, etc involved. While throughout Vada Chennai politics is an oft-discussed subject with some of the gangsters having political inspirations and so on, it is in the second half that it comes to focus.
Vetrimaaran stresses the importance of community, the solidarity that is present, especially in such ghettoised spaces, and showcases how entire communities are often displaced and erased in the process of gentrification. The gangster Rajan, despite his criminal activities, is someone who cares for his people and draws the line at the politician wanting to uproot settlements. Similarly, many years later, Anbu stands up to the local politician and both the gangsters involved even though he owes his life to Guna because he knows that the project they are backing will displace the fishermen’s livelihoods and homes. The scenes where he questions those who are presenting the project and the local politician are powerful as it presents to the audience the reality of how those appointed to represent us often further oppress us and that it is in the hands of the community to look after itself. Thus, Vada Chennai is a must-watch film not only for its engaging and immersive plot but also for its authentic portrayal of the lives of those on the margins of the city.
Thanu, K. S. (Producer), & Vetrimaaran (Director). (2019). Asuran [film]. V Creations.
Subaskaran, A., Dhanush, & Vetrimaaran (Producers), & Vetrimaaran (Director). (2018). Vada Chennai. Wunderbar Films.