Is it me or is it getting crazier out there?
|Oct 12|| 1|
I recently watched two movies named after human archetypes - Joker and Asuran (Demon in tamil). There is no reason for me to review these two movies together, except for the fact that I saw them back to back over two days.
Joker (the movie) is all Hollywood. This Todd Philips fare is a cinematic portrayal of a loner’s descent into becoming one of the iconic comic book antagonist. Asuran is Vetrimaran placing yet another brick in the monument of good cinema he’s building. It is a gritty tale of a poor family torn apart by violence.
Going in, I was a bigger fan of Vetrimaran than I was of Todd Philips. Todd Philips did bring us the iconic Hangover movies (at least the first one) but Vetrimaran’s Visaranai was the one that gave me at least one sleepless night. Both have the capability to unsettle and draw you in. Todd Philips does this with cinematic flamboyance while Vetrimaran uses gritty verisimilitude.
Violence underpins the work of both directors and in a sense these movies too. Right off the bat, Joker gets into the "let's start bruising Arthur Fleck" project (metaphorically and literally) to force the impending transformation. Asuran begins with Dhanush luring us into a violent world where things have already gone bad.
But, the movies couldn’t be more divergent in how they handle their stories.
** Some vague spoilers. But, neither of these movies are likely to be significantly ruined by spoilers so read at your own whim.
In Joker, Gotham City breaks in with intensity and becomes a character on par with the Joker. It is atmospheric, borrowing inspiration from New York of the 70s. Arthur Fleck is constantly crashing against the teeming place and its system. Asuran on the other hand goes for frugality of stimulation, as you spend most of the time in thorny forests, shacks and in plantations.
But the weight of the location doesn’t end there. In Joker, Gotham mimics Arthur Fleck’s descent into mayhem. “Is it me or is it getting crazier out there,” says Arthur. The idea, that Joker is the fruit of his environment, is punched into us with as much nuance as using a mallet to shove acupuncture needles. What happens when a very obviously deranged, abused child of a mentally unstable mother is loose a city that’s descending steadily into a restless boil?
While the forests aren’t a allegory (maybe if you stretch the meaning - a wild, joyless place where the family is lost) in Asuran, it is pivotal to the story as Sivasamy and his family spread into it, running for their lives.
This carries over into how both directors treat cinematography too. Joker is flamboyant. Asuran is simple to the point of being sparse. Todd Philips uses vibrant hues and dramatic shots to convey an almost operatic feel. Vetrimaran isn’t afraid to shoot large parts of the movie in the night, with little in the way of dramatic lighting. The color and vibrancy of Joker is striking - in fact, as Arthur descends further into becoming the Joker, the hues spread further, almost like a cinematographic liberation of the character. In the scrublands of Tirunelveli, the colors are muted (unlike the hyper-saturated hues of joker) and you are rooted in the dusty, brown earth and thorny bushes. This is a hard, joyless life.
The caste and class discrimination and violence that is still a hard reality in many parts of the country propels the tension in Asuran although the movie tells a very personal story of Sivasamy and his family. There is a divide to begin with - Vadakkur and Thekkur. The rich and the powerful landowners from Vadakkur use any means necessary to take away land from the poor trying to sustain. When Sivasamy and family resist, there is an inevitability to the gory events that follow.
Joker plays on class division too although at a more impersonal level. And perhaps with little nuance. While Asuran’s caste and class portrayal feels real and makes you squirm (especially the scene involving slippers), in Joker it feels like a contrivance (almost comical in nature). Gotham’s descent into chaos almost feels like a function of the fact that it’s Gotham rather than the implied class divide or joblessness. Notwithstanding the well-groomed, suited Thomas Wayne (Bruce Wayne’s father) playing a caricature - a quintessential elite with unbridled condescension toward the ‘lower’ class.
But think about Todd Philips’ challenge. Batman (and family) is iconic and loved. He’s had many, many movies and a huge fan base. How do you then make a movie with one of his arch nemesis as the protagonist? Not just that - how do you paint him as the hero of the story you’re making? Todd Philips does exactly that. In the span of the movie, Philips makes the saviors of Gotham (the Batman family) look like elite pricks and proves that everyone is the hero of their own story, even if they turn out to be mass murdering psychos in the end.
Talking of contrived, Joker’s rejection and bruising at the hands of Gotham also feels like it’s been set up for the story’s convenience. There isn’t a single redeeming moment for Arthur Fleck - he is always being feared, beaten up or laughed at.
Asuran doesn’t have such problems. There is a reason for why Sivasamy’s family is in the eye of the storm - the land that Sivasamy’s family owns is the point of contention. If Gotham’s incessant cruelty to Arthur feels made up, the cruelty and harassment that Sivasamy faces escalates organically until it results in death. If Joker is an origin story, Asuran is a re-origin story where we see the old Tamil movie trope of hero revealing his ‘other face’
Ultimately both movies rest heavily on the key men who drive it forward - Arthur Fleck played by Joaquin Phoenix and Sivasamy played by the ever magnificent Dhanush. The roles couldn’t be more stark. Sivasamy is subdued to the point of being too real and exists in an ecosystem of other characters. In fact, for the vast majority of the first half of Asuran, the character is a drunken slob of a man who is reviled by his very kids for the fact that he is not a man who stands up for their family. His transformation, when it happens, is that perfect ‘interval scene’ for the movie although it breaks the gritty realism of the first-half (my gripe with the movie).
Arthur Fleck is performative from the start. The opening scene has you squirming where he just laugh-cries for a while, giving a peak into his deranged existence. Joaquin Phoenix’s uncontrollable laughter (he has a condition) creates some intense moments in the movie. You know it’s not voluntary and you can see the pain even as he is laughing, often morphing into a cry. Phoenix is also physically shocking, coiling his scarily emaciated body. He breaks into a creepy dance which gets more dramatic as he unfurls into the full unfriendly neighborhood Joker.
Both films have issues. In the case of Joker, the monotony of Arthur Fleck’s suffering in the hands of Gotham gets a tad exhausting. Despite the scene brilliance, the repetitiveness begins to catch up with you about halfway into the movie.
In Asuran, the stunts are contrivances that are too hard to ignore. While the scenes are shot gloriously (especially the interval fight scene with slow motion set pieces), the idea of a guy constantly being slashed and punctured and yet continuing to fight takes away the idea of what Asuran was until that point.
Then there is an issue of messaging. Joker glorifies the trope of a disturbed, lone white guy who feels rejected by the society and engages in egregious violence (mass shootings come to mind). The rise of incel subculture has shown the dark side of glorifying this journey into some kind of inevitable heroic lashing out.
Asuran has subtext issues too. Hacking each other to resolve issues has been the plot idea for the many hundreds of movies set in rural TN and the fact that Asuran went back to it feels dated and overused. Besides, caste and class subjugation is reflected in a million ways in the lives of people and the fact that these movies take the reductionist view of it through acts of physical violence alone feels limiting.
But the one area where Asuran truly stumbles (in my opinion) and Joker is elevated is the soundtrack. GV Prakash’s soundtrack for Asuran is cliched and forgettable and probably shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath as the soundtrack of Joker by Hildur Guðnadóttir. The deep strings in the subway scene (which is like the interval scene for Joker, i suppose) will undoubtedly give you goosebumps. Immediately following it is the dance sequence in the bathroom to electric cello. The soundtrack of Joker portends a tragic end-of-the-world and elevates the whole movie.
Ultimately, the movies have different places in your mind. Asuran will be remembered for simple and tight story-telling. More importantly, it has a role to play in communicating a point about the society that’s relevant and needed. Joker, on the other hand exploits a social topic more to propel the cinema of it. It will divide people more (being loved and hated with equal passion) and will remain an important mile-marker in movies that will be talked about.
I wouldn’t be able to pick one over the other. But I can tell you this - If you give me one more one-act movie like Joker, I might get bored. But Dhanush can keep acting in Vetrimaran movies and I can keep watching them all life long.
These are fun times.