In Bigil (2019), the final blow to the villain happens during the end-credits, after Atlee is noted as the director. Jackie Shroff, in his suit-boot globalized villainy is found with drugs in the Malaysian airport, planted by Michael (Vijay), the Hero. Drugs— because a few scenes earlier, it was Michael and his protegee who were being intravenously, forcefully fed cocaine. This was the final touch of poetic justice.
That this was relegated to a small inset rectangle as the credits roll to its right, and not even considered a "scene" worthy of the entire dimensions of a screen, shows how little the film thought of its villain.
Vijay's next film, Lokesh Kanagaraj's recently released Master, not just reverses this, but takes it to a point very few films have. It gives its villain, Bhavani (Vijay Sethupathi, Sethupathi hereon) sympathy by padding his villainy with a back-story. This is a villain with an origin story to explain how he became evil. He wasn't born evil. Circumstances made him bloodlet. While keeping all the cliches of the perfect villain intact— emotionally unattached, signifying death (wearing black, huddled in a meat fridge), a low, purposeful vocal fry— Kanagaraj, who co-wrote the film, stops short of creating a complex villain.
The very first scene of the film has a young Bhavani, played by Mahendran watching his parents scorch into ash as the fire rages. He is face-to-face with those responsible for the fire, who murdered his father, a leader of the Lorry Union. He is afraid, and he takes the bait—willing to testify that this was a gas explosion, and in return he can have his life.
The streak of violence within him was initially a coping mechanism to deal with bullies at the Juvenile Home. This slowly becomes an integral part of him as he grows up; even as his bullies are in his past, his violence is very much present. It's how he becomes evil.
The two striking heroic features of Bigil— the long-drawn, sympathetic origin story, and the use of symbolic religious syncretism— are both, in Master, given to the villain
He also, interestingly, doesn't immediately kill the person responsible for all of this—the death of his parents, his being sent to a Juvenile Home, and being mistreated there. He instead asks to be able to live a "normal life"- enna vazha vidu. Bhavani strikes a deal with his devil—that he will get him money, in return for living a normal life. This normal life entails crime, violence, and replacing a moral compass with the dollar compass; Bhavani makes his world view very clear. That in this world, it is not gratitude, vishvasam, but greed, kaasu, that works.
There might be a class element to this. Paresh Rawal and Jackie Shroff's hand sanitizing, globe trotting richness in Soorarai Pottru and Bigil was seen as emblematic of their evil, like the Industrialist villain of yore. Their richness explained their badness in a way that did not need a back story. Here Bhavani is as poor as they come, till he pulls himself up by the bootstraps. His poverty and desperation in the face of it, must be integral to the becoming-ness of his villainy.
All of this happens— the back story, establishment of the dollar compass—while the hero Vijay is not even introduced on screen. Both Vijay and Sethupathi by virtue of their popularity are given monikers— Thalapathi, meaning commander, and Makkal Selvan, meaning the wealth of the people, respectively— and their introductory credits run one after the other introducing them as stars in their own right. Kanagaraj was also very clear that this was a film that gave its villain the heft a hero is often given, and yet the hero remains the Hero, and the villain remains the Villain. While Kanagraj tampers with the means, the ends are, disappointingly, the same. The Good Versus Evil template is only tampered with in the blueprints— the architecture is as mass as it comes.
My issue with this was that the sympathy is all on paper, as ornaments. We are told that Bhavani is syncretic, hanging symbols of different religions on his neck, like Michael's father in Bigil, a heroic man who prays to Jesus, Devi, and keeps the Quran. So by shifting this ornamental aspect of a hero to the villain, Kanagaraj is doing an interesting thing in theory. But it plays out without any conviction. Bhavani never comes across as a man who is willing to bow to anyone—a god, a lover, a victor. Even in his death, he hangs above the hero on a hook, and not at the feet of the vanquisher.
Thus, we can see that the two striking features of Bigil— the long-drawn, sympathetic origin story, and the use of symbolic religious syncretism— both reserved for the Hero, has in Master both been given to the villain, before the hero is even introduced to lay claim on these characteristics. But it's too surface level an intervention into the mass caricature of a villain.
Now, while Bhavani is the kind of villain who uses his inner collar to wipe the blood from his knuckles, JD, the hero played by Vijay, uses the same inner collar to wipe out his saliva. This might be a nod to Vijay's older film Thirumalai (2003), where he keeps his cigarettes in his collar. But once we are introduced to Bhavani who ferociously, and calmly wipes blood on the collar, seeing JD put his collar between his teeth feels like seeing a child suck on a soother.
JD is first shown 18 minutes into the film, feet-in-the-air, resting in the auto, while the grown up Bhavani (Sethupathi) is first shown feet firmly planted on the ground as he gets off a lorry. JD stutters in his walk in an alcoholic haze, while Bhavani's sober repose couldn't be moved by a mountain.
This suggests an interesting set-up— that even while the film eventually will become this mass Hero Vs Villain template drama, the path to getting there is going to be detoured by virtues of the villain, like teetotalling and devotion, and vices of the hero, like alcoholism. The sunglass often used to signify swagger, is now a defense mechanism to hide JD's hangover. The chewing gum, whacked into the mouth with a swift pivot around the arm, is here used to dim the breath of alcohol. The poor man doesn't even have well fitting pants, having to keep adjusting it around him bum for comic and koothu relief.
We are finally willing to tell stories of goodness and badness not as innate characteristics, but as cultivated characteristics. People aren't born bad. They become bad.
But like Bhavani's belief in god, these too feel like convenient narrative techniques, because this isn't a story of the agonizing and emotionally draining alcoholic recovery process. The recovery is a character arc, and not the story. We never take it seriously because we know, like dust gathering, it will be wiped off soon.
His alcoholism isn't even given context, and this might be the smartest thing the movie did. It creates a hero without establishing him as one through a backstory of sympathy. For me, this was a testament to other filmmakers tampering with the genre to let go of the flashback— a crutch at best, a bore at worst. Even JD notes the voyeuristic tendency we have to explain a character's alcoholism, "I won't tell you why I got into this habit. I'll tell you why I left it." This I think is one of the most refreshing moments in cinema, that calls out all the films that make love-sick alcoholic men aspirational. JD notes that if he tells his backstory, a handful of men listening to it, might feel validated in their alcoholism, following in his footsteps.
It is important to note that this is indeed a move forward in the genre of mass films, signified by Vijay asking Kanagaraj during the shoot if it's okay that his character swears. In a state where real charisma and reel character are often inextricably tied, these choices, while easy for an actor to make, are genre defying when a "star" makes it.
But more than anything there's a philosophical underpinning to this shift. We are finally willing to tell stories of goodness and badness not as innate characteristics, but as cultivated characteristics. People aren't born bad. They become bad. And by inserting oneself in the process of "becoming", we can move towards a society that is kinder to its margins.