After two modest, moderately successful projects in Polladhavan and Aadukalam, it seemed to me that Vetrimaran truly hit his stride with his third feature, Visaranai (“Interrogation”), an unflinching look at police brutality whose intelligent structure stoked and then implicated the viewer’s apathy towards the issue. But delusion of precocious grandeur caught up with the filmmaker sooner than I expected, his next film, Vada Chennai (“North Chennai”), a hollow, self-styled epic mistaking scale for vision, straining for import at every turn. Vetrimaran’s new film Asuran (“Demon”) assures us that Vada Chennai wasn’t a stray blip, but a sign of things to come. A mediocre work in terms of not just artistic merit, but even basic technical competence, it continues the rapid plunge of a director who was briefly the white hope of Tamil cinema.

Vetrimaran’s second literary adaptation after Visaranai, Asuran begins in medias res, with Sivasami (Dhanush, in his fourth collaboration with the filmmaker) and his son Chidambaram (Ken) making their way through a water body. They have murdered a VIP from the village and are being pursued by the dead man’s family. As they pause at a hilltop, a narrator (the director himself) takes us into the reasons for their flight. Sivasami’s three acres were being eyed by the upper-caste family owning most of the land in the area, and this led to a series of confrontations between Sivasami’s hot-blooded son Murugan (Teejay) and the landed family, resulting the murder that triggered Sivasami’s flight. A large part of the “present” traces Sivasami and his son walking day and night, traversing the lawless terrain of the countryside in the hope of getting to the nearest city, where they have a hope of surrendering themselves to the law.

Like Vada Chennai, the nested structure of Asuran seeks to dig beneath present-day conflicts to reveal the deep-rooted nature of oppression. In another flashback on their flight, Sivasami details his tragic past: his job as a toddy-maker with an upper-caste baron in another village, his romance with his sister’s daughter, the organized struggle of his brother towards getting back lands their community lost to the baron, Sivasami’s own political awakening following his boss’s betrayal, the escalation of violence succeeding a volley of public humiliations, ending in a bloodbath modelled on the Keezhvenmani massacre. In the present, Dhanush plays a character well above his age: a timid middle-aged drunk with a curved spine, a ridiculous patch of white hair, a loose shirt, a soiled veshti hovering above the ankle and a Palakkad towel on his shoulder. It’s a character that’s emasculated to prepare us for the Sivasami’s heroics in the past: the sight of Dhanush’s young, thin frame taking down scores of thugs, always punching above its weight.

These passages of poetic justice are also what vitiate the film. Every time the narrative pries open the question of structural violence, Vetrimaran sublimates it in the macho spectacle of Sivasami dishing it to his oppressors. In a film full of institutions failed and functional, it’s only the agency of brute person-on-person violence that’s given any real weight. And how? Vetrimaran depicts all acts of lynching, humiliation and aggression in full detail, allowing the audience to partake in it, while at the same time using these scenes to drum up sentiments in favour of Sivasami’s retribution. For a filmmaker who was so clear-eyed about audience participation in Visaranai, he treats the viewer like a Pavlovian dog, introducing an exhausting trumpet theme to whip up emotion every time Sivasami moves in shallow-focus, slow motion to take down a gang in a bloody skirmish.

The first part of the film (the “present”) contrasts Sivasami’s non-violence with his son Murugan’s machismo, a trait that the younger Chidambaram inherits a while later. Chidambaram (and his mother played by Manju Warrier) belittle Sivasami’s submissive impotence, permitting film to restore his masculinity through a triumphalist assertion of Sivasami’s bravery through his violence. This presentation of Sivasami as a supremely macho, courageous man also allows the film to seal his lineage, Murugan’s and Chidambaram’s sense of honour being only a bequest of the respectable patriarch. Following the bloodshed of Sivasami’s youth, the narrator notes in all sincerity that Chidambaram understands now that his father isn’t useless. This demagogical bent of the film isn’t part of some legend-building exercise, for Sivasami’s political consciousness vanishes as quickly as it came. At one point, the wise, old Sivasami tells his son that acting on impulse is what led to his family—a patently untrue claim that falsifies the bigger battle his brother was fighting. At the end, he gives a hollow-sounding sermon about education (!) as the sustainable solution to their oppression.

But Vetrimaran’s focus, justifiably, is not on the politics but the spectacle. The entire thrust of the story is not on whether Sivasami will get justice, but on whether he and his son will get caught in their flight. And the director uses several devices at his disposal to bludgeon us into revulsion: a lynching that’s staged the same way a boar hunt earlier was, a public humiliation around a pair of slippers (a symbol of self-respect of the oppressed akin to the towel around Sivasami’s forehead) photographed and edited sensationally, the extended, CGI-enabled sight of a rotting, decapitated corpse. The tactic was the same in Visaranai, but the sadism there was integral to what the film sought to do. Moreover, the dubbed sound of Asuran is significantly out of sync with the image, which lets us suppose that that major rewrites were involved post-shoot or that last-minute self-censorship was called for. In any case, it suggests that Vetrimaran’s daring stems wholly from the script and, when that’s compromised, the filmmaking is too.

Of course, Vetrimaran is not a hack, and there are aspects that come through. He composes almost the entire film in wide shots, sometimes extremely long shots à la Mysskin that turns characters into mice in a maze. His eye for landscape is still intact: Sivasami and Chidambaram sneaking through marshes, shrublands, rocky fields and plantations like in a studio Western gives an existential counterpoint to the father-son relationship, which is one of the film’s focal points. He also emphasizes the difference between the well-lit, geometric streets of the upper-caste main village and the irregular, moonlit pathways of the theru, the kutcha settlement of Sivasami’s community. And it’s commendable that he resists the temptation to DI-enhance the dull colours of the landscape, which here simply exists.

On the other hand, there’s a markedly rushed quality to the shot and sequence composition bordering on embarrassing (at least two shots with the .ari file name on them visible!). The edits are constantly confusing and one particularly egregious scene of a Panchayat meeting cycles through scores of shots of random perspectives just in order to dramatize the proceedings. Sivasami’s past proceeds at a breakneck speed to show betrayal and revenge even before the initial dynamics are settled—clearly an afterthought to reduce runtime. Vetrimaran arm-twists Sivasami’s relationship with his elder son into a sympathetic register through a set of rather outmoded choices. The distance offered by his wide-angle, long-shot composition—with actors moving about the space like on stage—collapses when he is dealing with scenes of violence, which simply advances on auto-pilot. The sound-mix, likewise, is overly detailed with redundant information even when the shots allow the actors to breathe. A dire undertaking that continuously short-changes both its viewers and subject matter.