It is enthralling to watch a masala film that uses the term as a form rather than exploitation. Lokesh Kanagaraj’s Master has the routine dance numbers, hero glorification, and even the shirtless face-off. What sets it apart from your usual masala potboiler is the organized treatment. I don’t remember the last time a “crowd-pleasing” film took efforts to genuinely serve the audience without regarding them as vacuous beings (perhaps, War was the other superb entry in this genre).
As per the norms, we have a hero and a villain. The hero is J.D. (Vijay), a devoted alcoholic who may very well have his morning showers with a bucket of Jack Daniel’s. The black shades conceal his red eyes. The bracelet adds to his swagger. He dresses up like a college student, complete with earphones sticking out of his ears. In reality, he is a college lecturer. J.D. is a hit among his students. They worship him. Not because of the outer appearance, but for his dedication towards the betterment of the students. In an early scene set against the backdrop of an alumni meet, we see the reason behind this idolisation. Turns out J.D. extends help beyond the boundaries of the university. He helps in punishing two scumbags who had misbehaved with a girl in the college. The authorities and the staff are incompetent as expected. As J.D. chases the scumbags, we enter an exciting chase sequence moving from a bus to a train to a rickshaw.
Rewind a bit and notice the hero’s entry. Kanagaraj films it with the regular doses of small reveals (a shot of leg, a hand) before disclosing the whole body in slow motion. You can practically hear whistles from the fans. And this is not the only entry shot of the actor. J.D. is given some more scenes to introduce himself. They are scattered along the way. Vijay’s adorable face and charm are crucial for his character. Master uses J.D’s time in college to set up his personality. We come to know about his interests in politics, his stand for equal rights, and his willingness to protect his people. Everything shown here establishes our confidence in J.D. When he is transferred to a juvenile centre, you believe only he has the power to control the goons there. More on that later. For now, observe his flaws. Laugh when he misses calls. Cheer at his languid walks. Smile when he sleeps during important confabs. You have to enjoy these “messy” bits, and Master wants you to be as relaxed and carefree as our protagonist. Because all these insouciant manners land a slap on your cheeks (and J.D.’s) after a horrifying incident. It serves as a wake-up call for both J.D. and the viewer.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the villain. He is Bhavani (Vijay Sethupathi) or one-punch man (a single blow from his fist provides a ticket to meet your maker). His past is filled with extreme torture. Bhavani has been beaten up so much that pain has befriended him now. For every whip inflicted on his body, he posted a punch on the wall. It’s from this act that he developed a deadly thwack. The ill-treatment gives birth to a tough man who is rarely allowed to smile (Sethupathi aces the stiff features). Before knocking down his opponents, Bhavani kindly offers them two minutes to kill him and save their lives. Strangely no one takes advantage of it. They either freeze or debate. But then it’s rather unlikely that a man like Bhavani would even give someone a free pass to kill him. Even if they had attacked within the time, he would have finished them off without mercy.
Kanagaraj (with writers Rathna Kumar and Pon Parthiban) tries deviating from the norms. An excellent example of it is the scene where Charulatha (Malavika Mohanan) is chased by some criminals. You expect J.D. to pop up by breaking a wall or something but, in the end, she is saved by a little boy named Undiyal (a scene-stealing Poovaiyar). It is one of the best scenes in the film. While the male leads, including the boy, get to flaunt in style, I wished even the actresses had gotten opportunities to shine. For a change, they do more than just posing as well-decorated mannequins. Charulatha helps J.D. in his quest. Vaanathi (Andrea Jeremiah) gets to shoot arrows like Hawkeye. But they are still underused. Considering Kanagaraj’s skills for crafting a solid introduction, why not give some of it to the women in Master? It’s a pity that Mohanan and Jeremiah are underutilised and limited to small moments. But then, this is Master, not Miss (take it in the context of honorifics: Mister/Master/Miss/Missus). And the “masters” shine throughout. It’s wonderful to watch J.D. narrating stories from different films when someone asks about his past life (that is why the real information involving a professor felt unnecessary). The interval point is rousing and whistle-worthy. It’s the point where the hero “grows up.” It’s here he becomes a human (now even he can cry). Master may not be perfect, but it is definitely a step in the right direction.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.