Chidambaram, a young Dalit boy, is the protagonist of Vetrimaaran’s Asuran and unravels a disturbing history of Dalit children pushed into brutal acts of violence by the dominant forces.
In Asuran, the actual Asura is Chidambaram, the youngest male member of the family. Chidambaram dares to provoke every character he engages with. In a conversation with his father and his elder brother, while guarding their fields in the night, Chidambaram raises a critical question. He says to discern truth, age isn't a criterion, and shuns his father who thinks age matters to discern what is good and bad. Chidambaram discloses a world of possibility inherent in a child to speak against the hierarchy prevalent within the oppressed communities.
Vetrimaaran, having been inspired by Poomani’s novel Vekkai, which means heat or humidity, engages with the story by justifying violence. After all, what should one expect from the subjugated communities? Violence is available to both the oppressor and the oppressed.
Vetrimaaran's is an uncritical use of violence and the only gender which engages with violence for retaliation is the male member in the community. Does it mean Vetrimaaran approves patriarchy, in this case, Dalit patriarchy? Who is responsible for violence? Why is hardcore violence the only language of the male member? Does it mean the new age, anti-caste movement within the Tamil film industry is a patriarchy-justifying endeavour? Or is it a ploy of the privileged that wrongly influences the young minds?
The story is situated in the late 1970s and very early 1980s, a context where the Thevar, Naickers and other dominant caste communities are in vicious power over the Dalits in southern Tamil Nadu. The story is imagined in a Tamil Nadu after the Keezhvenmani massacre and the brutal murder of lmmanuel Shekaran. It would have been daring if Vetrimaaran had named the oppressor as Mukkulathor, which was his initial plot. Later, Vetrimaaran succumbed to Karnas's suggestion not to mention Mukkulathor. assuming that it might hurt the feelings of a particular community. This change gives us a hint of how the thevar community still controls the Tamil film industry and how hurt is assumed to be hurt only when it is directed to a dominant caste member or community and Dalits are immune to any sort of hurt or violation.
Though Chidambaram's mother is portrayed as a dissenting character, she is pulled down and controlled by Chidambaram while she gets ready for a physical fight along with her elder son on a water issue that threatens the agricultural possibilities in the village.
The youngest male member, though, engages with his father daringly irrespective of continuous slaps. The young lad is strong enough to subdue an elderly strong Dalit woman. Young or old, the man decides on who and how retaliations are to be. Vetrimaaran's anti-caste intentions are embedded with classical notions of male member as the great Hero. Anything revolutionary should be male. Sivasami (Dhanush) says that the fate of all the young male members becoming men is decided by their capacity brutal acts of violence. Chidambaram becomes a man through his vengeance. This is a male-centred imagination of Dalit resistance.
In the climax, Chidambaram's father advises him to hold on to education, over and against the land, which is as important as education itself. The land is the heartbed for any capitalistic economy. Tamil Nadu, especially in the delta region, evidences a brutal reality of how Dalit farmers, especially landless farmers, are subjected to alienation in their homeland.
Through history we understand how lands were stolen from the untouchables. Recently, the entire state boiled in their veins when Pa. Ranjith, a young Dalit director, accused the Chola kings for the present landlessness of Dalits. Pa. Ranjith was attacked as anti-Tamil, anti-Tamil nationalism and somebody without historical knowledge.
In a context where land rights of the Dalits are continuously assaulted and in a context where landless Dalit farmers plights are subdued by casteist land-owning farmers, to do away with land and only to hold on to education as the only way out is to do away with the history of Dalits' resistance against land-grabbing and it is a direct assault on Dalit communities’ abilities to own, cultivate and engage with land.
When Dhanush, as a father, before his trial in the court, says ‘They will take away our land,’ and as he concludes the dialogue with insisting on education, the movie uncritically acknowledges caste-bases land acquisition as a way of life within a society that is caste-biased, and Dalits should live by it.
However, education isn't as easy as it is used in the dialogue. Education and systems of education are still a mirage for many Dalits in the country. If education has to be a tool in the hands of the Dalits, then we as Dalits have to stage a war against the privatisation, commercialisation and communalisation of education. Without resisting and countering systems of domination that determine the pattern and progression of education, education as a tool will be a mere mirage.
This country as a whole and particularly Tamil Nadu, which stratifies students on the basis of caste came up with the stupid idea of a coloured wrist band, indicates what education is all about in this country. We have many educated Dalits who have progressed in life and have attained political power. Very seldom do we see Dalit politicians' willingness to eradicate casteism as a social evil, They have compromised their initial radical political liberative ideology to particular parties manifestos and its own whims and fancies. They have learnt nothing from their education.
I am a landless Dalit Christian, born and brought up in Bangalore. My parents, who never disclosed their Dalit identity, also always insisted on education as the only way forward, like most Dalit parents in the locality, did. As an urban Dalit, the land isn't an aspect that determines my living but for many Dalits who live in villages, land is the extension of their lives. Land and education are like freedom and dignity to any Dalit in this country. To do away with land in the rural or education in the urban contexts is to not understand Dalit realities.
Asuran, as much as it is celebrated, shows us the lacuna between liberative messages from privileged positions and hard Dalit realities. Films like it continuously fail to break the shackles of caste even as they intend and pretend to annihilate caste.
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