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Weekend Watch: Asuran

This has been a tough week. Considering everything that has been going on, I feel this week’s recommendation should actually address the regressive social structure that lies at the centre of the alleged rape in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh. Yes, I’m talking about caste. One of the challenges I’ve faced over the years has been to make people see caste – especially people who by virtue of birth are positioned higher up in the caste hierarchy. Most of the middle-class urban youth today is oblivious of caste even though it’s right there in front of our eyes. People do not see caste because it doesn’t affect them. Had they not been shielded by their caste or class privilege, they for sure would have noticed it. Often caste is shrugged off as an exclusively rural phenomenon, however that’s not true. The urban society is as casteist as the rural, it’s just that the dynamics are different.

What is caste but the dominance of one section of the population merely by virtue of birth? Look at your bureaucracy today, look at the faculty in your college. Go through their names and see for yourself which castes have an overwhelming representation. Since we are talking movies, look at the best filmmakers in the country and then check their castes as well. The result will be no different. If you look at every power structure in this country, you’ll see a clear domination of certain castes – the so called upper castes. But the upper castes only make up a fraction of the Indian population. So where are the rest? You see, this dominance is not by accident – it’s the result of a process of marginalisation and disenfranchisement of large chunks of our society over centuries. It’s a result of the deprivation of those people from their basic right to education and social capital. I can go on and on about this, but I also have to recommend a movie – after all that’s what this column is about. Anyway, if you’re still looking for evidence of the existence of caste, look at marriage – where caste does rear its ugly head and the caste fault-lines become all the more evident. Even, look at all the Prime Ministers or Cabinet Ministers of our country over the years, and see for yourself in it the representation of SCs and STs. The examples are countless, all you have to do is take off your blinders of privilege and look around.

So, how do we counter caste? Well, before we eradicate it, we must first acknowledge it. And for that, one must be educated in the true sense of the word – exposure to good literature can help. In film school, we are taught that cinema is also literature – stories are always a good way to start a conversation or some self-reflection among people. To converse thoughtfully is to come together as a society – it is the first step towards a progressive leap. So, naturally, if it hasn’t been obvious yet, today’s recommendation is about caste. Now, straight off the bat, some movies, both new and old come to mind. But, I’m pretty sure most of these wouldn’t be available on either Netflix or Amazon Prime Video. Now, it is quite tempting to recommend Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15 but truth be told, while it does try to start a conversation about caste while also being probably the only mainstream Hindi movie to talk about caste in recent times, it still doesn’t qualify as a true-blue Dalit movie – for despite being a movie about violence against Dalits, it found itself tempted to portray the Brahmin hero as the saviour. This just reinforces the very social phenomena where upper castes take centre-stage while Dalits are served bits and pieces. It’s a good movie nevertheless – an enlightening one indeed – just that it falls a little short in its political intentions.

So, my quest for movies about Dalits on streaming platforms led me to Tamil cinema – a movie called Asuran that I’d watched a little while back. Now, India is a diverse country with innumerable languages, and you’re already accustomed to watching English movies with subtitles on, so I guess watching a Tamil movie with subtitles wouldn’t be much of an ask. Asuran is a story set in rural South-India that captures caste dynamics in that society across generations. At the heart of it all – Asuran is the story of a small-time, lower caste peasant family in the face of caste atrocities and violence – more so a father and his sons and their struggle for survival and dignity in an inherently unequal society.

Dhanush plays the father who is visibly bruised and battered by the testing life he has led – his tired demeanour is testament to the toll that persistent oppression and violence can take on a person. This is the story of the resolve of a father who’ll do anything to protect his children from casteist predators. Once a fearless and rebellious young man, Sivasamy played by Dhanush has turned into a quiet and complacent man. His sons however don’t approve much of his nature and probably think of him as a coward – until eventually when they come to know what he has been through. I’ve always admired Dhanush though – right from the time I first saw him in Raanjhanaa. Despite his unintimidating and lanky physique, Dhanush can easily slip into the skin of both powerful and powerless characters. The ease with which he can play both subtle and over-the-top characters make him all the more admirable as an actor.

The story is testament to the fact that even as generations have passed, not much has changed. In fact, upper castes are even more appalled and angered now by how the lower castes no longer bow to their authority. So, caste violence becomes a tool for them to put Dalits in their place. Even something as ordinary and petty as wearing slippers leads lower caste women to being publicly humiliated and physically attacked. At the very core, caste is all about the powerful wanting to hold on to their undue privileges while the powerless struggle even for the most basic dignity of life – Asuran does the job of holding the mirror up.

Asuran is a film by Vetrimaaran, of Vada Chennai fame – I literally can’t wait for the sequel to that. If you’ve enjoyed Gangs of Wasseypur, you’ll definitely like Vada Chennai as well. Vetrimaaran has shot this film really well – the colours are high on contrast and the visuals are gritty – thus complimenting the mood of the story. There are scenes that might even make your stomach turn. But I really appreciate the fact that Vetrimaaran doesn’t shy away from showing things as they really are – he doesn’t succumb to the pressure of filtering reality to suit the audience’s sensibilities. Caste privilege and caste violence are both put up on screen with no holds barred. 

So, why should you watch this movie? Well, first and foremost, if you’re someone who believes that caste is long dead, this movie might actually help burst your bubble. Second, the movie isn’t one that tries to instil a sense of false hope – it stays grounded in reality and doesn’t try to paint a rosy picture, even in the end. Caste is one hard cycle to break – and this is the grim reality Asuran attempts to portray – that generations after generations have been stuck in the vicious cycle of caste oppression and it still hasn’t stopped. This movie might give one the impression however that caste is mostly a rural phenomenon, for Asuran is set in a village, but that again is testament to the dearth of Dalit voices in the film fraternity. If the Hathras rape has left you shook and you’re oblivious of the role that caste plays in such acts of violence, whether sexual or not – watch Asuran – now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

(You can follow the columnist on Instagram @digvijay_g)

About: If you’re looking for a review, this isn’t it. I do not believe in the entire act of reviewing cinema – I mean, is that even possible? Cinema can be analysed or even critiqued but not rated on a numerical scale. I mean, how do you quantify a feeling? Look, there’s two types of cinema – one where a shit-ton of effort is visibly put into audio-visual story-telling – and the other that’s just outright lazy. Now, I have no interest in watching or even talking about cinema that’s made with a petty retailer mind-set that blatantly disrespects the audience’s intellectual capabilities. But even beyond that, cinema that’s actually good can leave audiences divided. What might bore one to death could actually have profound meaning for another. Cinema is subjective, and many a times, can cater to niche factions within the larger audience. So, how do you tell which one suits your taste? Well, this is where this weekly column of mine comes in. My role here is basically to tell you what exactly is fit for watching for the week – especially on streaming and what to expect from it. Oh, by the way, the movies or shows I recommend won’t necessarily be latest releases.