With ‘Master’, Lokesh Kanagaraj yet again pays a hat-tip to his vaathi (Kamal Haasan), in a film that, unlike his ‘Maanagaram’ or ‘Kaithi’, is a bit drag and flab
At one point in Master, the protagonist enters the arena for a contest in an Observation Home for boys, where the only rule is; there are no rules. The boundaries are drawn and the onlookers galore. Let’s call the contest Fight Club for the sake of a few over enthusiastic fans who drew a (seriously?) parallel to the David Fincher masterpiece when the Master teaser came out. It’s a delicious set-up for a “mass” moment that welcomes the arrival of the “mass” hero. But how Lokesh Kanagaraj does this, or rather, what he does with the scene makes you think of the possibility of why he is an exciting filmmaker.
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The boys invite our protagonist JD (Vijay) for a game of kabaddi and the scene pays a glorious tribute to Ghilli, one of the wholesome Vijay films and a rare masala film that is absolute fun. Why Lokesh is an interesting filmmaker working within the boundaries of mainstream cinema, is because of the little inventions that he does with the format that produces the desired, electrifying effect. Like the ‘Kabaddi’ track from Ghilli that he carefully weaves in at the right moment, that elevates what would otherwise be an over-the-top action scene. The “mass” scene written for the hero thereby ends up satisfying the star’s cohort, and also the humble flag bearers of masala cinema.
That is not the only Ghilli moment. A better one comes when JD walks into the villain’s territory, arm twisting him (without knowing who he is. Anyone here misses Prakash Raj?) to deliver a message to his boss Bhavani (Vijay Sethupathi, well, in a Vijay Sethupathi performance). From these two individual scenes, it is fair to come to a conclusion, to the kind of Vijay film Lokesh tried to make — whether it worked for the better or not is a different issue. But the larger point to take note of from Master is that, Lokesh has broken the Vijay formula and the star has allowed, for once.
But what’s the Vijay formula and how different is it from other “mass” films, you ask. For one, Vijay has always maintained a clean image on screen post the Thuppakki phase. He never let his guard down, or rather, never let the idea of his off-screen persona down — almost carrying it like a baggage. In Master, Vijay seems to have finally let go and has come out of his cocoon to play a character, who, by the traditions of star-worshipping films, has flaws and more importantly, an alcoholic — which is unlike a hero for which Vijay would advocate.
- Cast: Vijay, Vijay Sethupathi, Malavika Mohanan, Shanthanu Bhagyaraj, Arjun Das, Andrea Jeremiah and more
- Director: Lokesh Kanagaraj
- Storyline: JD (John Durairaj), an alcoholic professor, steps into an Observation Home for boys, secretly controlled and manipulated by a once-juvenile convict Bhavani, to teach them a lesson.
Another Vijay formula that is broken, in the conventions of masala entertainers, is the way these “mass” scenes are written and integrated into the film for the hero, but without his wilful participation. There are two scenes that are really solid. Early on, in the college portions, when the winning candidate, Savitha (Gowri Kishan), of the student election says she wants to share the position with the losing candidate, Bhargav (Shanthanu Bhagyaraj), she tells professor JD that she is afraid of him. And what she does next? She borrows JD’s kada — which is usually associated with men and masculinity, thanks to Kamal Haasan for Sathya — to boost her self-confidence. She feels safe appears to be the point.
There is another intense mass scene, where the hero has to save the heroine, as he is expected to in a star vehicle. The heroine is Chaaru (Malavika Mohanan) and she is saved, but not by Vijay, but by someone else in the least expected fashion. The last time this trope was broken in a Vijay film was in Bigil, when the star took a backseat from the saviour template, and let the women speak for themselves. Even the celebrated ‘Kutti Story’ is integrated into the film.
Is Vijay reinventing his own formula? Or are we witnessing a Vijay 2.0? Maybe it’s too early to comment. But you could sense Vijay telling Lokesh: “Listen, I’ve been there, done that. Let’s see what you can do.” Which is why we get those imaginatively put together scenes with JD, where he cooks up a love failure story from Mouna Raagam, 7G Rainbow Colony, Punnagai Mannan, and Kadhal Mannan. What is more tempting is to watch Vijay associate himself more with the lesser of “woke” films that he has been part of, for quite some time. He is top-notch here. Personally, I would like to see him in the Fan zone.
The third and, perhaps, final formula that is broken in a Vijay film is to allow moments to linger, without the editor necessarily chopping scenes. That is why the first half feels long. One of my favourite scenes is when JD finds a flat tyre (the car looks like the one from GTA Vice City) and decides to take a cycle. In another Vijay film, you would expect a cut after you see the flat tyre. Here, there is at least a four-second gap before the cut happens. Maybe that is why even the establishing shots leave a good impression.
History tells us that when a superstar climbs the ladder down to work with a young filmmaker, the film would invariably have middling results, ending up neither here nor there. Master, too, suffers from this paradox. That is partly due to the efforts that get lost in stitching the stories of JD and Bhavani. Before we get into that, let us acknowledge a fantastic decision to cast ‘Master’ Mahendran as a young Vijay Sethupathi. The latter’s voice, too, sits well with Mahendran’s on-screen presence.
The film begins in Nagercoil in 1992 with a young Bhavani pleading for his life. His lorry driver-father and mother have been killed and torched. Bhavani is momentarily relieved from the torture and is sent to a juvenile prison, where he is tortured every single day. He manifests the anger by punching the walls of his cell, reminding you of a scene from Oldboy. His right fist forms the weapon of mass destruction; he is almost like a warrior, a Bheema. Bhavani runs a lorry business and an army of juvenile boys, whose innocence he trades for money, drugs and power. It is when JD steps into Bhavani’s world that Master does look and feel like a regular Vijay film. Vijay Sethupathi’s rendition of Bhavani in his style is the best thing, some would say. But others would argue that it’s his limitation.
Master is not a work of a fanboy like a Petta, but still is a fanboy film. Could there be a more Kamal Haasan fan than Lokesh Kanagaraj already is? In one of the superbly-choreographed action scenes, Vijay removes the kada and doubles its purpose as a weapon — something Kamal did in Sathya. The heroine is called Chaaru (which was Velu Nayakan’s daughter’s name) and it does not come across as a happy coincidence. Mahanadi Shankar plays a good warden for a change.
In the broader sense, the film is very much a Nammavar retelling, adapted for an audience who may not have seen the Kamal Haasan-starrer. But unlike Nammavar, which was a small film in every sense, Lokesh gets too aspirational in the second half, especially with regard to action scenes. Some of it, like the lorry chase sequences, leaves a jarring effect.
Apart from the cursory throwbacks and references, Lokesh takes painful measures to unite these two films with a kutty backstory for the JD character, connecting his life with the character played by Kamal. And who gives us this information? Yes, Nasser. This mouthwatering possibility, to tie two different films of two different eras, is fascinating — in theory. And if Master is what Lokesh could do to a Vijay film, one smiles at the thought of what one could expect from him for his vaathi, in Vikram.