Deep Focus: Director Lokesh Kanagaraj On The Choices He Made For Vijay-Starrer Master

Director Lokesh Kanagaraj speaks about the process of making a film with a star, giving equal weightage to Vijay and Vijay Sethupathi, the choices he exercised, the portions he left out, and… what happens to the cat!
Deep Focus: Director Lokesh Kanagaraj On The Choices He Made For Vijay-Starrer Master

"Even during the scripting stage, we stuck to our conviction that Master would be a blend of a story I wanted to say while being a Vijay film," Lokesh Kanagaraj tells Baradwaj Rangan in Deep Focus, which analyses the Vijay and Vijay Sethupathi-starrer after its release. Edited excerpts.

You mentioned in our previous interview that you narrated a 20-minute script to Vijay. What shape was it in?

I don't exactly remember if it was 20 minutes, it might be 30 minutes. I blabbered a lot, but there was an arc. A drunkard professor who celebrates with his students and is against the management, and someone who misused a juvenile. The initial idea was to see how these two meet at the crossroads. I gave a rough idea of the transformation, and Vijay sir liked the character arc. Then, I took two months to write the film. 

This 50-50 angle involves song, a love story and a kids' angle. If a family of four watches the film, the film caters to all of them. 'Kutti story' was for kids and the alcohol- and drug-related song was for adults, and one song about the kids who died was for the parents. We worked on it and segregated it, so we were able to balance it.

Was Vijay involved in working on the story? There were some political lines in the film. Were they his suggestion or yours?

He always works on developing his characters and the nuances. When I give him the dialogue sheet, I know what I'll see on the camera and then I suggest some changes that he incorporates. He never says that he wants or doesn't want something on paper. He does ask if something sounds vulgar, because he usually doesn't swear in his films. But, one of the scenes needed it,  because it was that intense.

So, you wanted the politics angle?

Yes, yes. There are a lot of things in the film that Vijay says that I think will have a reach. 

JD and Bhavani are like mirror images of each other except one drinks and the other doesn't, and you expect the hero to be sober, but it's actually the other way around. Apart from that, they both have a superpower in their hands and political entries. How did you compare them?

Some of these similarities came to me while writing. I wanted the supervillain to be super strong and unpredictable and have a story. Bhavani has killed all his threats, whereas nobody knows JD. We get to know about the villain from the interval. To make them comparable, there was a college election on this side and another election on the other. I wanted the super villain to be spiritual and not drink. We added a line where he says, "Go drink and die."

Among many interesting decisions here is Vijay meets Vijay Sethupathi only in the end. Das is the common point between them. Could you tell me about that?

In Kaithi, we showed Arjun Das as someone who is restless and agitated. In this, we wanted someone who's focussed and thinks a lot. So, Arjun wasn't on paper initially, someone else was supposed to do it. When Arjun came, we changed a few things. 

What changes did you make?

The previously-written character was straightforward and listened to Vijay Sethupathi's character and did what he said. When it came to Arjun, his features and aggression was more in this film. That's why he calls for a kabaddi match.

One of the best scenes in the movie is the post-interval scene where Arjun sings 'Kutti story' to mock Vijay. I was thinking Vijay would give a counter punch because that's what the hero would do. There is one real emotional integrity in that scene, because at that point he knows he doesn't have the moral authority to give that as two kids died because of him. He's still vulnerable. When did you think of this? Because when it comes to Vijay-level films, there is no such thing as vulnerability. When Vijay called you, did you ever think that this character is not perfect and did you think of changing it?

I had that feeling during the first two meetings. Then, when the meetings became regular and we began to sync I asked him directly. Usually Vijay Sir portrays larger-than-life characters and this is a normal character, a drunkard professor. Even when someone dies of an accident, it takes time to get out of guilt, there were several things like this. When I asked him, he said, "It's okay, there is no problem."

 In a hero-oriented film, one of the most important shots is the hero intro shot. Why an auto?

I came to films because of Kamal sir's films. At the same time Rajini sir, Vijay and Ajith sir have intros that make people in theatre shout so I felt the auto is unique since it reminds me of Kamal Sir and Rajini Sir. So, the problem posed was why he'd be sitting in the auto and I thought it would be unique to place him in that street listening to music. I had seen someone sitting on a tricycle listening to music, his clothes and the cycle didn't match and I found it interesting. So I decided to recreate it. 

In mass movies, for the hero's entry, you can do a song or a dance. You started it with an action sequence because of the incident. This establishes him as a heroic guy, but we don't know much about him. If you had started the intro with the 'Vaathi Coming' song, the audience would have looked at him as an alcoholic. Why did you choose to have an action sequence in the beginning?

The first reason would be his stardom. People would definitely enjoy the action sequences. Another thing is I had already established Bhavani, he's very steady however he is shown as a forceful and stable guy. So, I wanted to show both these characters visually this way for the first shot. The action sequence is because of his stardom, because, otherwise, the opening shot would be of him picking the phone while sitting on a sofa.

You have used a classic template explained in Joseph Campbell's book The Hero's Journey, which mentions that a mission is set up for the hero to complete it. For a movie starring a big star the negative aspects of this template, such as the hero's Achilles heel or weakness, will not be shown. Only the positive aspects such as how the hero cleanses the system will be the prime focus. In Master, throughout the first half and a little into the second half, the negative aspects of Vijay's character were predominant. Did you have to keep a tab or constantly measure the level of the negative shade in the character of JD?

Yes, it was keenly observed throughout the filming stage. That's where Rathna Kumar (Director of Meyaadha Maan and Aadai) yielded great support in figuring out aspects that would work and which wouldn't among Vijay's fans. At the same time, we knew that if we focussed only on the star's image, it might dilute the story's core idea. That's why I emphasised on the fact that it's a 50 per cent Vijay film and the rest is mine. Also, the credit goes to him for accepting this experiment. There were many scenes that made it to the script, but we didn't film them. One such scene was when a class gets cancelled, Vijay goes to mix a drink. We felt it would not fit in, and removed it.

Earlier, movies used the double role trope to showcase the weakness of the hero, where one character is timid and the other is more daring. In Master, you have shown the hero play a flawed character who gets a chance of redemption, which was the strength of the film. But the problem I had was you establish the college portion for about 45 minutes but the crux of the story begins only when Vijay joins the observation home. What made you think you had to have the elaborate college portion before getting into the story's conflict? And why did you not feel the characters needed to come back?

The initial idea was to showcase an upscale and posh college, since it'll work out in contrast colour palettes between the College and the observation home. Since a major portion of the story takes place at the observation home, it was necessary to have that elaborate college portion to observe the contrast. The second reason was I wanted the story arcs of both Vijay and Vijay Sethupathi's characters to be established thoroughly —  hence the length. I have also received feedback that the movie is lengthy and have taken it into consideration.

The scenes where a few characters return and the portions where a few principal characters die — we somehow don't register it the way Vijay's character does.

We thought of only having the scene where some characters return to clean the observation home, but later included other portions. I have received comments that the impact of those sequences is not strong enough.

One lovely decision among many was the placement of the 'Kutti story' song. It establishes that JD is only there for three months and he does not care about the rest and that is why he sings the song in English, which might not have sunk in with the boys at the observation home.

It was exactly the reason why 'Kutti story' was placed at that juncture, where the character JD doesn't care if the boys understand what he is singing, and as he conveys the life message, it registers that he is only there for a short span of time. 

Even the romance is toned down with only a one-sided angle. What was the reason?

We couldn't include a romance angle in the first half and also there wasn't a solid purpose to justify it. Hence, in the latter half of the film, the story progresses because of a decision made by Malavika's character, and she begins to like the change in JD's character and that's where we established a crush sort of angle with the song 'Andha Kanna Paathaakaa'.

Why did you want the song 'Pollakum Para Para' at that point of the film? Though a great song, why did you have the need to establish the song?

I tried to include the fact that the character Bhavani is constantly thinking about JD approaching him sooner or later, which creates a kind of disturbance within himself, and also simultaneously showcases JD's attempt to track Bhavani. Sometimes, we end up doing something that is triggered subconsciously.  That's why Bhavani ends up thrashing his henchmen at the end of the song that depicts his state of mind.

Apart from the principal character arcs, there is an arc for inanimate things such as the kada worn by Vijay. It is shown in many scenes, following up to its use in the climax. The same can be applied for the letter that is torn and later stuck back with a tape, which ends up becoming an important reason for JD's transformation. When you got this idea, did you think it would connect with the audience?

It all started with Cast Away. I was literally in tears when the football was swept away, and Tom Hanks' reaction to that. The movie registers our love for certain small things that we keep in our homes or workplaces, and how we get upset if we lose them. I have established it in my previous films also, be it the phone carried around by Charlie in Maanagaram or the jimikki in Kaithi. Be it the kada or the letter, these things end up being the cause or part of the reason for the transformation of Gouri's, Undiyal and JD's characters.

The concept of keeping your lead character's backstory as a mystery worked really well in Master. Though it was done to some extent in Kaithi, it fitted well in Master. Vijay's character is similar to the character played by Clint Eastwood in Dollars Trilogy, where we are not told about the character's past. Was this intended or did you have a possible backstory?

It was my conscious decision to not have a backstory for the lead characters in all my three films so far. There is a scene in Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, where a character narrates the past of Eastwood's character, in which he was a merciless killer. Though it is conveyed orally without the use of a flashback, it created an impact. I attempted to do something similar with Nassar's character explaining JD's past. It also helped avoid a flashback.

There is always some motion of sorts in many static scenes. For example, the scene in which Vijay Sethupathi interrogates the two kids by offering biryani, there is a slight flicker in the tubelight, which creates a certain tension in the scene. Was it the art director's contribution or just an occurrence? 

The contribution goes to the cinematographer. While shooting a scene, sometimes the lights tend to flicker due to technical drawbacks. This sometimes adds to the flavour of the scene. We caught on to this idea, and implemented it  when Vijay Sethupathi kills certain characters. It became like a motif of death.

There is a general feeling that Vijay Sethupathi's character overpowers Vijay's character. What's your take on this?

The credit goes to Vijay sir. During story narration, he knew there would be a strong antagonist along with sufficient screen space for many character artistes, and he still greenlit the project. The same can be said of Vijay Sethupathi, who  agreed to do such a role opposite a big star, and thoroughly enjoyed the process. I was very conscious about including equal screen time for both characters.

How did the Undiyal character come about?

The first half had many humourous moments that complemented the story's flow, while the second half got into a more intense territory, so we wanted a character who could offer relief. Rathna and I wrote this character and gave him a couple of mass moments — they came out as humourous and also provided a breather in between the action sequences.

Throughout the film, the violence was toned down. Even in the final showdown, I felt the violence could have been a bit more intense, considering Vijay Sethupathi's character is very evil. Was this a conscious decision?

Yes, from the beginning we took the decision to reduce the violence, considering the fact that there would be family and kids in the larger demographic of audience. That's where the 50-50 contribution kicks in. Any given time I would prefer justified violence for the antagonist, but I hope to compensate for this in my next film.

In our previous interview, you mentioned the film length was justified, since it required you to establish certain aspects. I, however, felt the action sequences were elaborate but not fast-paced. What do you think is your biggest miss? If you had an opportunity to rethink or reshoot Master what would you do?

I would have written some story arcs for the other characters. But, during the scripting stage itself we stuck to our conviction that this would be a blend of a story I wanted to say while being a Vijay film.

Will you consider the criticism you have received and correct it in your upcoming films?

One unanimous feedback I received for this film relates to runtime. I will keep that in mind while making my next commercial entertainer. My next film with Kamal Hassan does not have a runtime issue, as it's an experimental emotional action film. 

Finally, what happens to the cat?

We had shot a conclusion where college students arrive at the police station demanding JD's release and take the cat along with them. But, it was edited out during the final stage.

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