Asur: A riveting thriller series on Voot

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on April 17, 2020

Stays on your mind Long after the action-thriller hijinks are forgotten, viewers will remember the thoughtfully crafted mythology around Asur

Indian television finally has a compelling serial killer show — Asur — fuelled by solid mythology, a whip-smart screenplay and a welcome return for veteran Arshad Warsi

In the 1970s, American law enforcement agencies began to understand the motivations that drove a serial killer — in fact, the term ‘serial killer’ itself was popularised in that decade, as was the practice of psychological profiling (the David Fincher show Mindhunter captures those heady early years).

As this nascent field of study developed, certain common patterns began to emerge in the childhoods of many serial killers: Parental abuse, a high degree of intelligence, a history of harming animals and smaller children. More often than not, these symptoms reflect the breakdown of social structures. The abusive parent (generally the father) represents patriarchy; animal maiming is the normalisation of bullying, the association of empathy with weakness or emasculation.

The opening half-hour of Voot’s serial killer series Asur (literally, ‘demon’, in Sanskrit, Hindi and other languages; metaphorically, an uncouth person) shows us all these major symptoms, in a suitably chilling manner without being gratuitous. Shubh, a young boy with a piercing gaze and knowledge beyond his years, is abused by his oafish dad. The boy then kills a puppy; some of you may want to fast-forward this particular part.

To its credit (and to my surprise), the show also locates these acts in the most mainstream Brahminical setting possible — the abusive dad is a domineering priest in Varanasi who calls his only child an asur. The mother had died during childbirth, and it’s hinted that the father’s insistence on scheduling the delivery at a shubh muhurat or auspicious time had something to do with this. Very few stories in India these days, across any medium, have the courage to point to a simple truth: That a majority of the country’s problems can be better understood (if not traced outright) through its majoritarian culture, which is Hindutva. There are a lot of things to admire about Asur, but this is perhaps the most admirable of them all.

The Hindi web series has its basics firmly in place. The story/screenplay by Gaurav Shukla is fast-paced and relentlessly entertaining. The dialogues are, for the most part, smartly written and on point (sounding forced only at a couple of places, where it seems they were a touch too eager to include the word asur). The direction, by Oni Sen, is quietly competent and never screams for attention, which (as Ram Gopal Varma has demonstrated in the last 10 years) can be jarring in a high-intensity thriller.

The cinematography is brilliant from the word go; this is a show littered with painterly shots. The makers have clearly studied the latest iterations of the Netflix model, exemplified by shows such as Mindhunter and The End of the F***ing World. This shows in the timing of the cliffhangers, the way its most shocking moments are spread out across its 10 episodes, and even the basic two-tier storytelling structure, where every episode opens with a flashback, and the flashbacks “catch up” with the primary narrative eventually.

The actors do not let this story down. TV star Barun Sobti plays Nikhil Nair, the ex-CBI forensic genius lured back into the field by the serial killer — he is effective at portraying a reluctant savant. Anupriya Goenka (fresh off the blockbuster War) is similarly impressive as Naina, the embattled computer scientist married to Nikhil. Fifteen-year-old TV actor Vishesh Bansal does a fine job of playing the flashback Shubh — as for the grown-up version, we can’t say too much without revealing the end.

But the show’s headliner, and rightly so, is Arshad Warsi, who plays Dhananjay Rajput, the leader of the CBI’s forensic unit. The pain in Warsi’s eyes may well be drawing off the reality of being perennially underutilised in Bollywood — for nearly 20 years now, he has been typecast as the court jester. Here, though, the veteran excels in a rare dramatic role; interestingly, the last time we saw him in one was also in a Uttar Pradesh-based crime thriller, the underrated Sehar (2005).

Long after the action-thriller hijinks are forgotten, viewers will remember the thoughtfully crafted mythology around Asur. It follows a critical reading of Hindu texts. In this reading, asurs are neither demons nor the mortal enemies of the gods.

They’re indigenous pagans living off the land in ecological harmony until the colonising, pontificating caste Hindus usurp not just their land but their stories as well, portraying their cultural practices in a uniformly negative light. These indigenous people are, therefore, demonised literally and figuratively. Asur, of course, being a crime show first and foremost, does not delve too much into this, but the elements are all there — Shubh is able to attract followers in prison, for example, by pointing out the dharma discourse’s hypocrisy, its Manichean hollowness. He points out correctly that asurs are only viewed the way they are because of ignorance and the fact that culturally dominant histories are written by the victors.

By the time the nearly five-and-a-half-hour opening season ends, Asur makes a strong case for being the best Indian thriller in the streaming era — only the ambitious Sacred Games rivals it, really; and Asur has clearly been produced at a fraction of its cost. Can Shukla and co create an equally compelling second act and put the question to rest? Watch this space to find out.

(Asur is currently streaming on Voot)

Published on April 17, 2020

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