Kaadu. Forest. When I first encountered the interchangeable use of the term “Kaadu” for cultivable land in rural Tamil Nadu, I was surprised. It seemed an odd term for acre after acre of coconut trees and banana plantations. However, even as late as 2010, a stroll through the furrows and footpaths made it plain as day that the fauna of the forest never seemed to have left despite man’s encroachment. Snakes danced their trance inducing tango like they were monopods, fish swam upstream in irrigation channels, and a singular hawk glided seamlessly in the air above awaiting sight of its prey. And so it was, when a wild pig attacks Sivasami’s land early in Asuran we are reminded that humans are not so far removed from their ancestors who turned forest into farm. Any wonder then, that the local parlance still honors their memory by calling their lands “Kaadu”?
The ultra-urban dweller for whom every square mile is mapped may be lost many ways, but rarely spatially. In the forest however, this is a constant problem. The landmarks are few and far between. The light at night can be sparing and non-existent. (In fact, given the lack of indoor plumbing light can be an unwelcome intrusion). This is an existence predicated on having successfully scoured every inch of the land and understanding it in every sense. Asuran paints a portrait of the people who embody this existence through Sivasami, and his entire family in such economic fashion that you wished that this aspect of their lives had persisted through the entire film. As Sivasami, light of foot, can sense a twig before stepping on it when hunting the pig in the sequence referenced above, the sense of this film having truly absorbed the essence of the characters from a novel comes through. It’s in establishing these character portraits that are truly of a place (and maybe time) that Asuran really succeeds.
The Vantage Point
In Perumal Murugan’s Mathorubagan, there is a small section of Kali and his friends scaling craggy rocks on a hillock in Karattur and finding shaded spots to sit down and converse for hours. As Sivasami and Chidambaram scaled a hill to go into hiding one could imagine Sivasami scaling the mountain with his brother-in-law when he was younger. A happier, more carefree, time when he wasn’t protecting his son, and his wife’s land from the those who would take them both away. It’s probably these excursions that are now helping him protect his own.
Vetrimaaran provides us with several birds-eye-view shots of the terrain, almost as if to provide fleeting glimpses of Sivasami’s vantage point. His younger son, Chidambaram, probably visualizes the terrain as well, but without the Sivasami’s contextual or strategic intent. This extends even to their personal dynamic, where Chidambaram is unable to understand why he is unable to react in manner that is symmetric to the film’s antagonists; why the risks he faces outweigh the ones faced by Narasimhan’s (Vadakkooran’s) clan; why his father seems to be a glutton for punishment. All of life is understanding the difference between blind bravado and purposeful retaliation. It takes years of cumulative experience to become as astute as Sivasami does.
And yet, the advice he leaves Chidambaram with in the denouement still feels somewhat naïve. The idea that an education (this will be commonly interpreted as the rote, formal education available in our schools but we would be remiss in discounting the type of experiential learning Sivasami himself received) will set you free is an enchanting one, as is the goal of using said education to attain a position of power. However, urging Chidambaram to not use said power (athigaaram) like his oppressors would, betrays a sense of naivete about the very nature of power. But, what else can one expect from someone who has never experienced power? One can and must forgive Sivasami’s goal for Chidambaram to attain said power.
There are many deaths in Asuran, the carotid artery being a primary target of the various aruvals and thorattis wielded in the film. The film is about jungle terrain after all, so the violence is unsurprising. Yet the primary difference here is that only one set of killing happens in an effort to protect life, the others happen to maintain ill gotten gains and out of pure spite.
There is an old adage from the Civil Rights movement in America “In the South, the white man doesn’t care how close you get, as long as you don’t get too high. In the North, he doesn’t care how high you get, as long as you don’t get too close.” This seems to broadly apply in TN as well where in the north (vada maavattangaL as we call them) the way casteism manifests is vastly different than the way it does in the south (then maavattangaL). We’re provided a glimpse of the latter manifestation in how Sivasami is treated when he is an employee of the rice mill / liquor brewery owner versus how he is treated when he shifts allegiance to his brother’s resistance. We’re offered a glimpse into how the communist party tried to help (albeit through elitist dialogs where a reasonably well off lawyer tells daily wage laborers that they should be organizing civil protests after long day of manual labor). After Pariyerum Perumal, we finally have a second film that squarely places the blame for violence against Dalits at the feet of the landed castes – where it belongs. Those watching should question whether the social justice narrative that has been peddled by Dravidian ideologues has effected any change in the last 2 decades since the events of this film.
The answer in case you’re wondering, is no.