Asuran (2019)

Vetrimaaran’s latest film Asuran is a graphic and violent tale of oppression and intimidation of a small landowner and his family, but it’s also a story of revenge, survival and of the fight for justice in an unjust world. Dhanush is in his element, playing both Sivasaamy, an ageing and broken-down small freehold farmer and also his younger self in a flashback that explains how he ended up as a pacifist. The rest of the cast are just as good, including Ken Karnuas as Sivasaamy’s son and Manju Warrier as Sivasaamy’s wife. Asuran seems set to be another Vetrimaaran classic as yet again he has captured the flavour of rural Tamil Nadu while telling a rousing story, this time adapted from Poomani’s novel, Vekkai.

The story starts quietly, with Sivasaamy (Dhanush) and his youngest son Chidambaram (Ken Karunas) wading through a river in the middle of the night. Sivasaamy urges caution, explaining to his reluctant son why they are walking in the river, rather than on the road (it’s to hide their tracks). At one point as the water is gradually getting higher, Chidamabaram complains that his bombs will get wet. I thought this was likely a euphemism for something else, but surprisingly, as clearly demonstrated later, what he’s carrying are indeed explosive devices! As the father and son slowly make their way deeper into the forest, Vetrimaran shows the searchers, hunters and police who are on their trail, while in the other direction, Sivasaamy’s wife Pachaiamma (Manju Warrier) and daughter are also running to hide. At this point Sivasaamy seems confident and capable – he knows how to hide their trail and how to keep silent, unlike Chidambaram who seems to be singularly clueless, wandering off, lighting fires and generally making himself far too visible.

Gradually we discover why the family are in flight as, in flashback, the film shows the family’s struggle against the rich Vadakkoran Narasimha (Aadukalam Naren) who wants their small plot of land. This leads to clashes between Vadakkoran’s men and Sivasaamy’s older son Murugan (Teejay Arunasalam) who wants to fight back and cannot understand his father’s servile attitude. Even Pachaiamma grabs up a sickle to defend herself, but Sivasaamy urges caution and tries to ignore the provocations, including the death of one of the family dogs. Murugan is frustrated by his father’s faintheartedness and responds by aggression and violence, although mostly as a result of threats and taunts from Vadakkoran’s men. It’s obvious that neither Sivasaamy’s approach, not his son’s aggressiveness will work against the upper class Vadakkoran who has the law and the power of his money on his side, and this futility underpins all of the action in the film. The violence escalates until Murugan is murdered in a particularly gruesome and bloody manner which starts to tear the family apart. Chidambaram is only 16 and cannot understand the class politics that make his father unable to act, but instead regards him as a coward. As a result, to try and alleviate his mother’s grief, Chidambaram attacks Vadakkoran, leading to the family’s midnight flight.

Dhanush is simply amazing as the older and broken Sivasaamy. His subjugation at every turn is perfectly nuanced to make us feel his pain and despair as Sivasaamy struggles to keep his family safe. His alcoholism is part of the whole picture of a deeply flawed man, while the contempt of his sons and stoicism of his wife is shown to cut deeply. Murugan and Chidambaram deride their father for his cowardice but Pachaiamma and her brother (Pasupathy) have a much better idea of the situation, and although they don’t always approve, they tend to support Sivasaamy’s approach. However, when Murugan is killed, Pachaiamma can no longer support her husband’s viewpoint with matters coming to a head when Chidambaram seeks his revenge. The family drama is beautifully written with the emotions raw and realistic, while the relentless persecution from Vadakkoran seems unnecessarily harsh but also very plausible.

Despite Chidambaram’s low opinion of his father, he’s still young enough to rely on him during their flight. But when they are cornered at the end of the first half, it’s Chidambaram who is shocked when his father finally picks up a stick and fights back in spectacular style. It’s massy, but loads of fun and the fight scene is well staged to make Sivasaamy’s sudden prowess believable.

The second half starts with a flashback to Sivasaamy’s youth, and once again his subjugation by a rich local landlord which ends with the death of his family including his activist brother (Subramaniam Siva) and his fiancée Mariyammal (Ammu Abhirami). This time the divide is more about caste but the outcome is the same despite having lawyer Venugopal Seshadri (Prakash Raj) on their side. While the story is compelling and a bitter statement on the realities of being poor in rural India, it’s the characterisations that stand out in Asuran. Ken Karnuas is fantastic in a role which requires him to be naïve, passionate and impulsive but then have to grow up really fast. Manju Warrier is a rock steady presence beside her husband, until her son is murdered and her world comes crashing down. Her grief roils off the screen in waves of pain in the distressingly realistic scene where Muruguan’s body is discovered. The visuals hit hard, and the acting is simply superb throughout. Although his time onscreen is short, Teejay Arunasalam makes an impact in a powerful performance of a young man determined to defend his family at all costs.

 

The film looks amazing as Velraj captures the stunning scenery around Tirunevelli. The cinematography emphasises the isolation when Sivasaamy and Chidambaram flee into the forest, but also captures the heart of rural India and the wonderful colours associated with different crops. The film soundtrack from GV Prakash Kumar is also excellent while the songs are perfectly matched to the action on screen. There is also clever use of sound, where during an action scene, all the music stops and there is just the sound of breathing, which works very well to focus attention on the protagonist and let us wonder what is going on in his mind, right at that very second.  Vetrimaaran keeps the romance sections short and the fight scenes bloody and violent, but it all fits snugly into the narrative despite a somewhat rushed feeling of the ending. Thanks are also due to the subtitler for using yellow font and being clear and concise – sorry I didn’t catch who was responsible for these.

Asuran combines father and son relationships with village power politics and the result is a powerful societal film that also has the warmth and intimacy of a more personal story. The performances are all amazing and as always I am stunned by how Dhanush can transform between a feisty young man in his early twenties to an older fifty-plus worn down farmer and be totally convincing in both roles. Wonderful actors, a compelling story and stunning scenery all combine to make this one of the best Tamil movies so far this year. Don’t miss it!

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Pa Paandi (aka Power Paandi)

Pa Paandi

I watched Dhanush’s directorial debut in Mumbai which meant no subtitles, but the story came across clearly despite a few dialogue heavy scenes. It’s a sweet tale about an older man and his quest for meaning in his life after his non-conventional ways annoy his son one too many times. There are a few overly sentimental moments, but the film succeeds thanks to excellent performances from all involved, a better than average soundtrack and the novel premise of a sexagenarian hero who still packs a punch!

Rajkiran is Paandian Pazhanisami aka Power Paandi, a retired film stuntmaster who has a shelf full of memories after working with the great heroes of Tamil cinema. I love that he is introduced in true filmi style and throughout the film his characterisation is similar to a typical modern day hero – this in spite of the fact that he is in his sixties and retired.

Paandi lives with his son, daughter-in-law and their two children, but unintentionally creates tension in their house with his activities in the neighbourhood. Paandi is a born meddler, whether it’s helping his young neighbours find true love or facing off with the local drug dealers, he can’t seem to help but get into trouble. His son Raghavan (Prasanna) prefers a quiet life and is constantly at odds with his father, prompting Paandi to remember similar incidents from Raghavan’s childhood. It’s a good illustration of how the power in their relationship has shifted over the years and how Raghavan now looks at his father as more irresponsible than his own children. However, for the most part Raghavan is tolerant of his busybody father although it’s clear he resents the extra work caused by his father’s attempts to ‘help’, while his wife does her best to keep the peace. The conflict between the generations is at times clichéd and overdone, but for all that there is a simple sincerity to the relationship, helped by the contrast in Paandi’s friendship with his young neighbour that bolsters the story in the first half.

For his part, Paandi is aware of how he frustrates his son and attempts to keep out of his hair by getting a job. His previous experience in the film industry leads him to try his hand at acting, with Gautham Menon providing a cameo as the exasperated film director trying to make Paandi to deliver his lines. Paandi then goes back to what he knows best and his success in an action scene allows him to relive the past glories of his youth. This is beautifully written to show just how much being appreciated, even in such a small way, means to Paandi. Here is an older man with plenty of experience and much to offer the world, but he has been made to feel irrelevant and unwanted by his family. When Paandi completes his sequence in one take, the accolades of the other stuntmen and the praise of the director (Stunt Silva) are all balm to Paandi’s ears and reaffirm his worth, despite his advanced years. Suddenly he has reason and meaning to his life again and the years drop away.

However, this success is short-lived, as Paandi cannot resist a fight with drug dealers that results in yet another trip to the police station and a more serious argument with Raghavan and Prema (Chaya Singh).  In the aftermath Paandi decides to leave on his treasured bike to search for something to bring meaning back into his life. A chance encounter with a group of similarly aged bikers on the road solidifies his quest into a search for his first love Poonthendral (Revathi).

Naturally there is the obligatory flashback to Paandi’s past – but despite the clichés the romance adds to the story and gives deeper dimension to the character of Paandi. Madonna Sebastian is charming as the young Poonthendral, while Dhanush’s young Paandi does seem exactly the sort of youth who will grow up to be the ageing hero of the first half. The romance is simply told, and it works well with good performances from all of the support cast including Vidyullekha Raman as Poonthendral’s cousin.

When the film moves back into the present day Dhanush seems to hit his stride as director, and the final scenes are well written and effectively filmed to ensure empathy with Paandi and Poonthendral. Revathi is wonderful here and gives her character poise and respectability with just a smidge of mischievousness that makes her instantly likeable. It’s inevitable that we want Paandi to succeed with his romance and there is only one ineptly placed fight in a car park that mars the final half of the film.

The best part of the film for me is the tongue-in-cheek approach to Paandi’s character as a modern-day hero. The usual filmi standards apply, so that Paandi is as quick to get into a fight as any other hero, and similarly with just one blow of his fist he can effortlessly knock the villains into the middle of next week. Rajkiran is excellent in the role and has plenty of charm and enthusiasm, making Paandi a likeable character despite his tendency to solve problems with his fists and his occasional naiveté. The mix of kind-hearted grandfather, lonely retiree, soul-searching wanderer and rejuvenated suitor is well blended with a natural progression that works well as the story develops. One of my favourite moments is after the reunion when Paandi messages Poonthendral on his phone while hiding under the bedclothes. The young man of the flashback is re-captured in that instant, but it’s the experienced older man who turns up on Poonthendral’s doorstep asking why she hasn’t replied.

There are some dips into obvious sentimentality as Dhanush pushes the lack of appreciation for elders by the younger generation, but for the most part he lets the characters just get on with the story. There is also a tendency for the first half to resemble a TV series rather than a movie, but these wrinkles are smoothly ironed out in the second half of the film and overall Dhanush has produced a good directorial début. Perhaps it’s a consequence of working with experienced actors, or possibly as an actor himself Dhanush knows how to get the best from his performers, but everyone here seems perfectly cast and the performances are all excellent. Even the two young actors Chavi and Raghavan are good in their roles and Rinson Simon is superb as Paandi’s young neighbour. The music is good too with Sean Roldan’s background score and songs fitting both the modern and the flashback sequences well.

Writing with Subramaniam Siva, Dhanush has produced a good masala blend with plenty of feel-good vibes for his first film. While technically the film has a few issues, the story works well and the choice of an older hero makes the film individual enough to rise above other romances. Worth watching for Rajkiran, Revathi and the premise that even at the age of 64 it is still possible to find your true-love.