Asur review: Arshad Warsi, Barun Sobti's Voot Select thriller is an audacious take on how corrosive religion can be
Asur is a cat-and-mouse thriller where a team of CBI forensic experts tries to hunt down a gifted serial killer with a penchant for religious fanaticism.
Note: This review contains *some* spoilers
Language: Hindi and English
"Arrey main already jail mein hoon, aur kitna andar daalenge" (Lage Raho Munna Bhai, 2006)
In a tense scene in the latter part of Asur, Arshad Warsi's cantankerous protagonist nonchalantly spits out these same words his slurry mouth once uttered (as part of his film) to elicit thunderous applause from a room full of optimistic audience.
Asur: Welcome To Your Dark Side, the eight-part Voot Select Original is precisely this — a misleadingly unassuming whodunit which creeps under your skin, and rattles you to your bone before you have even realised.
The coronavirus lockdown has thrown the entire country into a hidden-gems-discovering spree, with cinephiles digging out yet-unexplored content from every available platform.
With slim promotions and unsufficient buzz around it, Asur may take its sweet time to find its patrons, but once it does, it will possibly upend one's understanding of religion, philosophy, and ethics to underscore the innately diabolical nature of mankind.
Conceptualised and written by Gaurav Shukla, and directed by Oni Sen, Asur is a tale of a serial killer. Every episode begins with a cold-open sequence teasing a few stray moments from the killer's formative years in the ghats of Varanasi, hinting at the possible circumstances that may have led him to become the violent murderer he has come to be.
In the present, Nikhil Nair (Barun Sobti), a professor at the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) training institute, has been sporadically receiving encoded messages revealing the coordinates of places across India. The coordinates are of the spots where the killer leaves the dismembered bodies of his victims. A former forensics expert at the Central Bureau of Investigation, Nikhil is summoned to the CBI to crack the impossible case of an unhinged killer on the loose.
The CBI forensics team, meanwhile, locates yet-another corpse — burnt to the ground, mutilated by dogs, face completely disfigured, with an index finger missing. The body is found exhibited like a scarecrow on a deserted stretch. The only clue the killer leaves behind is the mask of Asura stuck to the victim's face.
The gruesomeness of the murder sends shockwaves throughout the country, as Dhananjay Rajpoot (Arshad Warsi) and his team of brilliant forensic scientists, comprising Nusrat Saeed (Ridhi Dogra), Lolark Dubey (Sharib Hashmi), and Rasool Shaikh (Amey Wagh), scramble to keep up with the piling bodies.
But it would be a disservice to director Oni Sen's masterpiece to reduce Asur to just a serial killer thriller. Sure, the cat-and-mouse chase between a set of genius minds and a gifted killer will keep you on tenterhooks at almost all times, but the purpose of the show is more incisive than giving viewers the occasional chills and thrills of watching a criminal mastermind flex his muscles.
It is about dharma, and how spirituality has, through centuries, provided fodder for communal upheaval and grimacing acts of violence. It is about systemic parental abuse, so casually dismissed as 'just-Indian-parent-things' otherwise, and how it impacts impressionable minds.
But the most profound theme of Asur is the dichotomy of good-versus-evil. Early on in the show, Nikhil's wife Naina (Anupriya Goenka) teaches their daughter Riya how there are "no good or bad people. just bad circumstances." Asur toys with a similar hypothesis — evil is human, evil is nature.
Philosophical and ruminative in nature, the characters of Asur assume symbolic stature. Nikhil and Dhananjay are pitted against each other as two opposing functionals. Where Dhananjay embodies logic and reason, Nikhil represents emotion and instinct. Perennially at loggerheads with each other, Nikhil is disapproving of Dhananjay's cold and calculative disposition.
*Spoiler begins* But all hell breaks loose when Dhananjay realises the charred body he has been examining for over three days is that of his estranged wife, Sandhya. When all clues point towards him murdering his own wife, he is sent to jail.*spoiler ends*
With each passing episode, the concept of heroism corrodes to reveal the frailty and malleability of our protagonists. In an age of ultra-heroism of the police (the Rohit Shetty extended cop universe), where heroes are positioned as serial do-gooders, it is refreshing to see a narrative that questions the very basis of morality.
Warsi, who essays the role of the pragmatic head of his department, is as good as one would expect him to be. The actor has time and again proven he has the acting chops to make memorable moments out of insignificant trifles. Here, too, the actor is unwavering as a curmudgeonly middle-aged detective.
But it is the supporting cast, including Sobti, Dogra, Hashmi, Wagh, and Goenka, who saturate the series with optimum drama. Whether it be Nushrat's romantic history with Nikhil, Nikhil's relationship with his wife Naina and daughter Riya or the Constable Katekar-esque (from Netflix's Sacred Games) Lolark Dubey, each character and their interpersonal relationship is holistically realised.
This is probably why, beyond everything, Asur is a human story. It is about frustrations and doubts, pain and loss, anger and non-resolutions and failure. After all, art imitates life, right?
Asur is currently streaming on Voot Select.
All images from YouTube
Ajeeb Daastaans, The Big Bull, Without Remorse: What's streaming on Netflix, Amazon, Disney+ Hotstar in April
The April streaming calendar includes Fahadh Faasil's Irul, Karan Johar's anthology Ajeeb Daastaans on Netflix, Abhishek Bachchan's The Big Bull on Disney+Hotstar and Michael B Jordan-starrer Without Remorse on Amazon Prime Video among others.
Apples keeps it light and avoids being overwhelmed by its film-awareness.
"Milestone is an illustration of an individual’s struggle to find relevance," says Ivan Ayr.