My question before entering for Lokesh Kanagaraj's third directorial Master was this: will this film be a typical, conventional, unflinching rendition of the Thalapathy canon, or will this have both the hair-raising excitement of a Vijay masala film and the astute cinematic vision of the budding filmmaker that is Lokesh? Obviously, I had to sit through 3 hours to find out my answer.
What had actually excited me and many other followers of Tamil cinema was what Vijay would have to offer by signing on to a production by a relatively new entrant, who was only two films old. This time, he hadn't been roped in by a veteran like A.R. Murugadoss or a fanboy like Atlee Kumar. Lokesh's filmography, however, was exciting enough, and testimony to his cinematic mettle. I hadn't expected an entirely new avatar of Vijay to appear on the screen, even though I was anxious to watch how Lokesh, as a director, would view the star. The result was not very disappointing.
For the first time in the last few years, I got to see a Vijay who wasn't superhuman, or who wasn't the pinnacle of virtues and morality. In Mersal and Bigil, Atlee created a Vijay avatar who was a compassionate, good-to-all human being, but in the face of adversity, wouldn't care to break a few laws for the people. Even in Sarkar, Vijay played a businessman who leaves the Silicon Valley industrial space to foray into Tamil Nadu politics and creates unimaginable paradigm shifts. When Lokesh created JD in Master, the youngster made sure to script a flawed, not-so-perfect protagonist. JD, a college professor, is an alcoholic who, while defiant to the authority he works for, is the apple of the eye for many students there. To the college administration, JD is an occasional troublemaker, whereas to his students, he is the go-to person to solve the issues facing them. Here one may notice flashes of the past 'saviour' personas portrayed by Vijay. When a smooth-going student election procedure goes violently wrong, JD is transferred to a juvenile observation home where he has to confront threatening stakes.
Lokesh has evidently taken time while scripting and filming to make sure that he subverts some of the oft-used and severely worn tropes of the Vijay template: the double Mentos popping, the head tilting, and the iconic 'I am waiting' interval punch. Even though Lokesh uses the mandatory kuthu song in his film, it is never tiring and was one of the exhilarating highlights in the theatre experience. Anirudh's background music played a huge role in magnifying Vijay's screen presence and complementing Lokesh's innovative manoeuvres with the camera. A couple of noteworthy sequences, including the police station fight sequence and the kabaddi sequence (in an incredible homage to Vijay's Ghilli), have to be mentioned for their sheer technical brilliance, rather than going out of their way to portray otherworldly instances and superhuman feats of strength.
I can't help but mention the imaginative ways in which Lokesh tries to conjure some hair-raising frames in this 'mass' film. Kaithi's major takeaway was its stunning use of camera and lighting to create breathtaking shots in a film whose entire plot takes place over the course of a night. The same Lokesh touch is seen in Master, where even the slow-motion shots are well-framed and in sync with the cuts in the film. This technical finesse is a huge improvement over previous Vijay films, which occasionally smacked of artificiality.
Yet another development of the Vijay template was how the director scripted a believable, intimidating, and devilish antagonist in the spectacular Vijay Sethupathi, who portrays Bhavani, a crime boss with fists so concrete that he never requires a weapon to eliminate his enemies. Lokesh gives the deserving treatment to a Vijay-film villain, and Sethupathi is a delight to watch when he comes onscreen. Even when the protagonist and antagonist face-off, we expect more to happen between them because we can't get enough. Especially the scene where JD and Bhavani meet (albeit unknowingly), which was one of my favorite scenes. Unlike past villains in Vijay films, Bhavani's character has a credible and more interesting backstory, which indeed explains why this formidable character turned out the way he is.
While many would find the almost-three-hour runtime a bit tedious, ardent Vijay and mass film fans shouldn't find it a problem. Master is a film that has a lot of story to tell and moments to showcase. It may not be Lokesh's best film; in fact, I believe that this director still has a lot to display (the exciting Vikram, starring Kamal Hassan, is in the works). But as far as the Vijay canon goes, Master is a much-needed improvement, something that fans and movie-goers equally wanted.