Indian cinema and the Dalit identity: In Dhanush's 2019 film Asuran, the rise of a new national hero 

Asuran is a story of a Dalit, Sivasamy (played by Dhanush), and his family. It is an unusual story in that it doesn’t succumb to violence or revenge, but rises about it.

Yogesh Maitreya September 04, 2020 09:25:34 IST
Indian cinema and the Dalit identity: In Dhanush's 2019 film Asuran, the rise of a new national hero 

Historically, Indian cinema exploited the labour of Dalits in its making, whilst erasing or appropriating their stories. This was not an accidental practice. When their stories were told on screen, it would be by savarnas who also played their characters with patriarchal, sexist and casteist undertones.

The scenario has slowly changed, and the identity of Dalit characters in cinema — directed by a Dalit (and a few non-Dalit) filmmakers — has become explicit, transcending boundaries of caste and class. These filmmakers have helped shape visual storytelling that combines “justice with aesthetics”.

“Justice with aesthetics” was rarely present in cinema made by savarnas, or it was seldom honest. Dalit-Bahujan filmmakers have filled this gap, while creating a new wave of cinema that is more appealing to a Dalit-Bahujan audience.

In this series, we examine 10 Indian films that count not only among the finest cinema the country has produced, but are also intertwined with justice, politics, and aesthetic.

***

Drawn by its trailer and the presence of Dhanush, I found myself seated in a theatre in October 2019, watching Asuran. I was possibly among the few non-Tamil audience members, but confident I’d be able to follow the film with the help of subtitles, I settled in. The lights dimmed and the film came on. The subtitles, however, didn’t.

I decided to attempt to follow the story nonetheless. I did not understand the language, the words, but I understood the story. Yes, a story is more than the language in which it is told — I was convinced of it that day. A story told trough cinema is altogether different because it is incorporates sound, colour, expression and exhibition of touch, with its context. In this sense, a story of cinema exists beyond language, or sometimes without language as well.

When you share the sounds, colours, expressions and context of touch from the movie in your life, you converge into that story. You become a part of it, ceasing to be a mere viewer. The reason this needs to be understood is because the viewership in India that comprises Dalit-Bahujan people rarely finds this convergence when watching mainstream cinema, produced by savarnas. Further, the language of Bollywood cinema — Hindi — may be understood by most of northern, western and central India, but it cannot be said that everyone who understands the language, relates to it.

In this light, it might become easier to see why Asuran, a Tamil movie, can be perfectly understood by Dalit-Bahujan masses across northern-western-central India. This attests to the universality of the stories of Dalits, which transcends the boundaries of language.

Asuran provides us a new national hero, who in his vision is fundamentally democratic and upholds the principles of equality, liberty and fraternity. Asuran is the hero we need, long invisible-ised (and in due course erased) by mainstream cinema and Bollywood.

***

Asuran is a story of a Dalit, Sivasamy (played by Dhanush), and his family. It is an unusual story in that it doesn’t succumb to violence or revenge, but rises about it.

Sivasamy and his younger son Chidambaram are on the run after the latter slays an upper caste landlord Narasimhan, responsible for the brutal murder of Velmurugan, Sivasamy’s older son. Chidambaram is now being sought by Narasimhan’s vengeful brother.

We see flashbacks to Sivasamy’s past, when he was a young man employed by a liquor brewer and landlord. When Sivasamy’s lover and her family, and his brother are all killed, he avenges them all. He leaves the village and starts life anew elsewhere, working on a farm and raising a family with Pachaiyamma (Manju Warier). When violence returns to his life, Sivasamy wants to surrender before the court on behalf of Chidambaram. But their way to court is dogged by Narasimhan’s brother at every step, with their lives in jeopardy.

In a previous essay, I examined how Asuran’s climax and Sivasamy’s dialogue in it showcased the maker’s vision. “The movie creates a strong impact because it dares to go, in its climax scene, beyond the revenge of its protagonist, Sivasamy. He moves past his history of assertion, of violence and bloodshed. As someone prone to humiliation but resisting it from time to time, in the last scene of the movie, he tells Chidambaran, ‘If we own farmland, they will seize it. If we carry money they will snatch it. But if we have education they can never take it from us.’ And smiles. Sivasami’s smile symbolises the arrival and the acquisition of meaning in the life of this rebel, who fights landlords and their casteism, and stands up for a dignified life.”

As I concluded then, Asuran is not a revenge drama; “it is the rebel biopic of an entire community, who from being called untouchables have recently shed their victimhood; who’ve adapted democratic means and asserted that with education a world with justice, fraternity and liberty is possible.” Where revenge dramas end with the killing of the enemy, Asuran tells the story of “how Dalits live, each day in their own way, fighting, resisting, trying to make sense of what comes from Ambedkar: educate, organise, agitate.”

Indeed, Asuran’s climax is phenomenal in the context of the history of Dalit characters in Indian cinema. Since Dalits were assumed and portrayed in movies out of savarna fantasies largely, none of whom have social engagement with Dalits’ emotional world, these characters remained agency-less. Savarna society hailed Dalits as the lowest of the low and the same belief has been replicated into their movies. Asuran breaks this stereotype, and challenges the ideological locations of savarna heroes.

It captures the entire Dalit community’s realisation over the years that they have no better way to liberate themselves than education. Such a large community, whose perceptions, aesthetics, dreams were never captured honestly by movies in India… Asuran is the film that changes this.  It is rise of the Dalit hero in the national imagination.

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Yogesh Maitreya is a poet, translator and founder of Panther's Paw Publication, an anti-caste publishing house. He is pursuing a PhD at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

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