Director: Lokesh Kanagaraj
Cast: Vijay, Vijay Sethupathi, Malavika Mohanan, Arjun Das
Dear Lokesh Kanagaraj,
I am a fan. I love your Tarantino-esque approach to cinema, where you take a bit from this film and a bit from that film and make it totally your own. As Godard said: It’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take them to. In Maanagaram, you took the hyperlink format of narration and gave it a moral centre. You made a film where the anonymity of the characters (they weren’t even given names) mirrored the anonymity of a big city. In Kaithi, a film I am less a fan of than most people, you took the Hollywood “genre” thriller (like a Die Hard) and made a video game-like movie that moved from set piece to set piece. And now we have your most challenging work yet, Master. In a sense, it is easier to make a Maanagaram than a Master, because…
Because in a Maanagaram, you were new and your cast was (relatively) new and there were no expectations. Here, there’s one part of us that’s waiting to see “A Lokesh Kanagaraj Film”. There’s another part of us that’s waiting for “A Vijay Entertainer”. And I think it is to your credit that you have made something that’s more the former. I can’t say I loved Master without reservation (and I’ll get to the problem areas later), but after a long time — probably after Mohan Raja’s Velaikkaran — I got the sense of a “mass” movie that’s classy. For one, I have not seen Vijay being this vulnerable in ages. Post 6pm, the character (a college professor named JD) turns into an alcoholic. A father-figure actually tells him he is losing control. JD is the kind of guy the Vijay character in a usual Vijay movie would end up giving a “drinking is bad for you” lecture to.
JD is, refreshingly, a bit of a dick. (A likeable dick, sure!) You don’t sentimentalise the protagonist, like you did in Kaithi. In that film, I felt you cheapened the material with all that melodrama about a daughter waiting for her father. (I still wince whenever I think about that “jimikki scene”.) But here, JD’s past is dismissed in a flash, in a couple of dialogues by Nasser. What he was and why he became that way — that isn’t as important as who he is now and what he is going to do. The way JD is woken up from his dickishness (by a tragedy) and a subsequent fight (which begins with a letter being torn apart) — these are superb examples of classy mass-film writing.
Even the hero-intro scene is classy. You follow the usual feet-back-face reveal format, but the way you shoot it is so cool, so different. That’s one thing I enjoyed throughout Master: your infectious enjoyment in staging your scenes. In an early action stretch inside a train, when a man gets clobbered and crashes against poles and seats, the camera doesn’t capture all this in a wide shot: it moves with the clobbered man, so we feel every bit of every hit. In another action scene, set in a college, the background is filled with people running, so there’s a genuine sense of chaos. And in the climax, I loved how the camera does 360-degree turns around JD and Bhavani, but goes in much tighter than usual — we seem to be inches away from these men.
The palette is classy. It’s not the typical explosion of colours we’ve come to expect in a Vijay movie. This is a sober story, and the browned-up visuals are just perfect. But the classiest feature is the pre-credits set-up, which you recently said was your “signature”. Vijay fans are probably going to hate me for saying this, but this is the best stretch of the film: it’s about the birth of the villain, Bhavani (played as a grown-up by Vijay Sethupathi). We see a terrified boy who’s just been orphaned, and he slowly transforms into a terrifying killer. The darkness in Sathyan Sooryan’s cinematography is not just style: it’s a reflection of the characters and the settings. Bhavani also gets the film’s best masala touch, which feels almost… mythological. He has fists of steel. Bhavani uses his adversity to his advantage. Instead of succumbing to the torture he’s put through, he becomes stronger. And what a fabulous touch that this strength results in him becoming evil!
So why, then, does the rest of the film feel undercooked? After such a great villain-intro, was it so difficult to write a solid heroine-intro scene? Charu (played by a visibly uncomfortable-looking Malavika Mohanan) has a very important role in transforming JD, in making him realise his destiny. But her scenes (like the scenes with Andrea Jeremiah, or Shanthnu Bhagyaraj, or even the sub-villain played by Arjun Das) come and go without any sense of a character arc. (They seem randomly inserted.) For that matter, even Bhavani, after his grand introduction, goes nowhere. I loved the Hitchcockian touch that we (the audiences) know who he is but JD doesn’t, but you don’t do much with it. The man should have been much more menacing. His actions should have made us feel he deserved that gory death, which beautifully echoes the very tragedy that awakened JD from his self-centred stupor.
It’s fun to hear a KV Mahadevan song like Iravinil aattam play out during a key scene, like how you had a bunch of ‘80s Rajinikanth numbers in Maanagaram. It’s fun to note the very Westernised music (Anirudh) and the very Westernised decor, from the LPs to Beatles posters — even the booze isn’t TASMAC “sarakku” but a bottle of Jack Daniels (if I saw that right), which ties in with JD’s initials. Above all, it’s fun to note your continued Tarantino-isation (Godard-isation?) of Kamalisms: if the film’s premise is a reworking of Nammavar (there’s even a Sorgam enbathu-type “clean the college premises” segment), we get Sivasankar playing a character that has the same name (Thulukanam) as the character he played so memorably in Mahanadhi.
But these are for trivia buffs (and believe me, I am one). They can add to a screenplay, but they cannot become the screenplay. That’s the tricky thing about postmodern game-playing on screen. On the one hand, we accept (and are explicitly made aware) that nothing is “original”. But on the other hand, the narrative has to be strong enough to power through these “bits” and come together on its own. It’s a great touch that Bhavani wears chains that denote all religions, but it would have been a greater touch had this quirk actually resulted in a payoff. Vijay Sethupathi isn’t able to find a pitch for his performance. He remains a powerful physical presence, which might have been enough in the usual Vijay movie — but Master needed more.
And that, Lokesh, is the problem with Master. The conceptual boldness isn’t fleshed out with the force and the conviction it deserves. Conceptually, it’s a great idea to spend such a long time from establishing that JD is going to take over a correctional facility to the point where he actually ends up at that correctional facility. (And how nice it is to see Vijay actually play a character and not a pre-fab star!) But this screenwriting decision also means that the people we meet during this (long) stretch end up doing something significant, and they don’t. Conceptually, it’s a great idea to keep JD and Bhavani away from each other for such a long time. (And the scene where they accidentally “meet” is a cracker.) But this screenwriting decision also means that we should be showered with fireworks when the final confrontation happens. Instead, we get something ironic, like a postmodern wink. Are you implying you are too cool to go back to old-fashioned showdowns? I wasn’t able to make up my mind.
Also, the little flashbacks, where you end a scene before it actually ends and then, later return to the scene to show what really happened — they looked gimmicky. (They are like mini-hyperlinks, a pared-down version of your Maanagaram technique.) But that is also why I think Master is an important movie. (It’s probably easier to write a thesis about it than a review.) You haven’t just made “a Vijay movie”. You have made a Vijay movie through the prism of “a Vijay movie”, giving us what we expect but giving us those things in very unexpected ways. Take the children, who are always a very important component of a Vijay movie. But here, a child isn’t just a cutie-pie sidekick for “family audiences” to smile at. He actually saves the heroine, while Vijay watches in astonishment. I nearly stood up and applauded.
So what about those who want only “a Vijay movie”, something with sentiment and action and songs and romance (which is non-existent here)? I loved the staging of the songs, especially “Kutti Story”. I loved the “comedy track” of JD narrating his life’s story through the stories of various popular films (including one of his arch-rival’s). I liked how his biggest punch line (about having crores of fans) is tied in with his character’s earlier thoughts on politics and public service. But given that the film goes on for nearly three hours, Vijay fans may wish for more Vijay-isms. But that’s what you are really going for here, right? It’s not where you take Vijay from (i.e. his roots), it’s where you take him to (i.e. your zone). I really liked that your protagonist isn’t a Rambo-esque superhuman, like the one in Kaithi. You’ve made him a “normal man” who slowly discovers his destiny. He isn’t born a man of destiny.
I like the auteurist streak in your films, where self-centred people slowly find themselves becoming selfless. To see that happen even in a Vijay movie is a sign that you aren’t going to bend over easily for a big star. But it would have been even better had the writing conceits translated into more excitement on screen. I’m not asking for the amped-up “highs” we get in, say, an Atlee movie. You are going for something classier, of course, and you are still finding your way, your voice. As a filmmaker, you have arrived. But (unsolicited advice alert) as a writer, you may want to spend more time fusing your sensibilities with those of your stars’. I liked thinking about Master. I really did. I just would have liked to have enjoyed it more.