Master Movie Review: Many strengths, and yet, not a consistently captivating experience

Master Movie Review: Many strengths, and yet, not a consistently captivating experience

Many of the star events in Master are cleverer than in your average mass film and do cause adrenaline surges — but what do they come at the expense of?
Rating:(3 / 5)

It’s a tricky thing, a poisoned chalice if you will, isn’t it—this joining hands with a star? It rewards you with wider exposure and a bigger budget to make the film in your head, but are you truly free to make it as you envisioned? More importantly, can the unavoidable need to play up the star in regular intervals even allow for purity of vision in the first place? It must be pretty hard to tell a genuinely authentic story when you are tasked with injecting star essence into the veins of fans once every few minutes and make the story progress only while the fleeting high lasts. The first warning that this is likely to happen throughout Master is how long the film teases you with the introduction of JD, as his footwear remains in focus, encouraging you to pay obeisance. To be fair to director Lokesh Kanagaraj though, he does seem to have put in a shift to try and offer creative doses of Vijay intoxication in this film. If JD (Vijay) is running into trains and fighting in buses during his opening stunt sequence, the justification is that it’s a pressing situation with two criminals seeking a swift getaway. If JD is playing kabaddi to the strains of Ghilli’s ‘Kabaddi Kabaddi’, the justification is that the sport is the only reasonable way through which the master can get rough with some of the unruly inmates of the juvenile detention centre. And yet, these arguments, while attempts to root the star-pandering into a story, do not always hold muster. The biggest giveaway is when Bhavani (Vijay Sethupathi) breaks character to share acknowledgment of the ‘I’m waiting’ pre-interval line that’s become pretty much routine now in Vijay films. More damning evidence comes in that rather underwhelming, overlong faceoff at the end, as, like many an actor-predecessor yearning for applause, Vijay rips off his shirt. Again, many of these star events in Master are cleverer than in your average mass film and do cause adrenaline surges—but the question is, what do they come at the expense of, especially in a film from one of our most promising filmmakers?

Director: Lokesh Kanagaraj

Cast: Vijay, Vijay Sethupathi

In such films that show cognizance of the star at their centre, the protagonist’s skills need no justification. Hence, JD is already quite the expert in several sports and games (kabaddi, carroms, football…), and an ace in combat as well, including hand-to-hand, handling of weapons like baseball bats, and even archery (a joke works well, but the actual stunt sequence doesn’t). It’s the antagonist that needs justification, so he can rise to become an equal, even if it’s played by Vijay Sethupathi. These form some of the most enjoyable portions in Master, which begins so promisingly with an origins story for Bhavani. There’s even an almost mythical story behind the powerful punch he can pack with his right hand (Kill Bill, anyone?). It’s an idea that wonderfully suits Vijay Sethupathi’s build and plays right into his apparent lack of agility. Across the film, the only weapon that matches up to his right hand is JD’s metal bracelet (vibranium?)—whose importance Lokesh painstakingly builds up over several scenes, with minor characters borrowing it to attain strength. I enjoyed these touches.

Master is mounted on the appeal of its two main characters, JD and Bhavani, and that’s why the film is constantly intercutting between developments in their respective lives, as their trajectories hurtle towards each other—even if not as methodically as, say, in a Thani Oruvan. All the waiting around for these characters to finally meet necessitates a colossal showdown, not just the rather formulaic sequence that we instead get. This is a pity, because with almost every other stunt sequence in this film, there is evidence of inventiveness in thought and execution. One happens amid a student riot, another on a kabaddi field, and yet another—my most favourite of the lot—inside a police station, as Anirudh’s guitar riffs seem to channel the power of the mythical lightning that brightens up the setting of the first conversation between JD and Bhavani.

In a film that has a ‘Thalapathy’ and a ‘Makkal Selvan’, composer Anirudh’s is a heroic musical presence, and the source of much energy and entertainment. Quite in keeping with the composer’s style, it’s rock-heavy but that’s not all. Notice the retro beats as JD is resting in an auto. Notice the explosion of ‘thara local’ beats in Vaathi Coming that heralds the awakening of a star without the help of lyrics. Notice the Caribbean twist in a track that turns out to be JD’s ringtone. Above all, notice the wonderful ways in which he teases the arrival of the Master theme track, and notice how it is repeatedly utilised to cause adrenaline surges, especially in that interval block. Also, in that sequence, what a wonderful idea to use JD stepping out of prison as a metaphor for his finally being able to break out of his shackles of indifference, out of his alcohol-induced stupor.

As for how the songs are used in the film, I have to say that by and large, they feel like flab. ‘Andha Kanna Paathakaa’ is the detour of a woman so charmed by our hero, while ‘Polakattum Para Para’ doesn’t exactly serve us any new information about Bhavani. The song that caused me the most discomfort is ‘Kutty Story’, coming as it does during a particularly delicate period in the film. It’s a time when you are wondering how this strange, new master is going to adapt to his new environment, how he is planning to win over the aggressive juvenile criminals that are his new students, and all you get is a man who struts around, throwing generic English advice. The kids are all shown to buy it, but I didn’t, not for a minute.

While on songs, Lokesh has shown a taste for reusing old songs to enterprising effect in his previous two films, and in Master too, he continues this habit, even if it doesn’t result in as many highs. There’s the Ghilli song in that now-popular kabaddi sequence from the film. ‘Adho Andha Paravai Pola’ plays to a victorious girl walking towards danger, armed with JD’s legendary bracelet. ‘Vandha Naal Mudhal’ plays as JD, much like Sivaji Ganesan in the song, nonchalantly rides a bicycle. In more Lokesh style, during a tense situation, ‘Karutha Machaan’ blares, first through a speaker in a salon, and later, through a mobile phone. Two more old songs are sung by JD and Bhavani respectively, during their final face-off, both of which fell spectacularly flat for me. There are also all the nods to Vijay’s films. The kabaddi sequence is Ghilli, the involuntary twitching of his body to music is Velayudham, that pre-interval dialogue is, of course, Thuppakki and Kaththi, and the chewing gum popping, as everyone knows by now, is Theri, and later films. The most enjoyable references to old cinema in this film come in the form of fabricated stories JD tells people about himself. He references several films, including 7G Rainbow Colony, Vaaranam Aayiram, Mouna Raagam, and even allows himself a cheeky dig at Kadhal Kottai.

The whole film could be imagined as a sequel to Nammavar (1994), to which there’s an acknowledgment in the end credits (note that Lokesh’s Kaithi is acknowledged to bear the influences of Virumandi). In Master, there’s even the character of a male student reformed likely by JD in the past. I enjoyed that JD doesn’t indulge in old stories about himself and shows much awareness of the impact they could have… on Vijay’s fans (it’s pretty much Lokesh showing awareness of the responsibility of handling a star). JD takes recourse in humour as a means to avoid launching into a flashback. Much like in the two other Lokesh films, here too, there’s plenty of humour: my favourite jokes, of the dark variety, are in the Bhavani portions. Be it when he auctions a man’s life in the beginning or later, shows great frugality (picking up a chicken piece, saving up a video camera…), Vijay Sethupathi shows a real taste for such humour, and does it in a way that doesn’t come at the cost of his character’s potency.

When Master begins with a story not about JD, but about Bhavani, you could be forgiven for wondering if perhaps, just perhaps, Lokesh might have managed to hold his own against the rampaging stardom of Vijay. As Master winds up though and Bhavani feels only like star fodder, it feels like somewhere along the way, the film faltered in maintaining the difficult balance of telling an authentic story whilst consistently delivering star-drawn highs. In this film that makes pertinent points about underage drug and alcohol abuse, there’s a sharp dialogue that states that the first troublesome act of a juvenile is usually one done in emotion. It goes to explain that they then lose their way, after becoming prey to addiction, and further warns against the dangerous charms of intoxication. On some level, these insightful lines of advice felt almost like a commentary on the dangers posed by star worship and its charms to authentic storytelling. Mind you, as a young director tasked with handling a star like Vijay, Lokesh has still managed to do a fair job with Master, but if we were to remember that he is among our most promising filmmakers, well, this third film feels rather unremarkable, and surely, we must hold him to higher standards?

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