Lokesh Kanagaraj: Master is not a fanboy film
Director Lokesh Kanagaraj speaks about his Vijay-Vijay Sethupathi starrer Master, challenges in doing a star film, and the enormous growth he has had in the last few years, and more
Lokesh Kanagaraj arrived as a fearless young filmmaker with Maanagaram in 2017 that won admirers for its hyper-linked narrative, clever writing, and craft. His second film, Kaithi (2019), showed that his debut film was no flash in the pan. This time, he had the backing of a star like Karthi as well. His growth continues to be rapid as his third film, Master, with Vijay, one of the biggest stars in Tamil cinema, is now out. Up next, he has got Vikram, a film with the legendary Kamal Haasan lined up. Lokesh seems unfazed by his meteoric rise though, taking questions like a seasoned professional. It’s easy to see why the biggest stars out there are already trusting this young filmmaker. Here’s Lokesh reflecting on his incredible growth as a filmmaker while discussing his latest film, Master, and touching upon his dream collaboration with Kamal Haasan as well…
Excerpts from a chat:
Quite a time to bring out your biggest film yet.
(Laughs) When Kaithi came out, I didn’t quite have the time to visit theatres and gauge audience response. I was hoping to do that with Master and was mentally prepared for its release last April. But well…
Was there ever the temptation to go the way of films like Soorarai Pottru and opt for an OTT release?
Never. This film is designed only for the theatre experience. In my interviews so far, I have mentioned that half of Master is mine and half of it is Vijay sir’s. This film has been created, keeping in mind his star status, his audience profile… I also wanted to wade into mass entertainment with Master. The script has been created with an understanding of when people in theatres laugh, when they whistle… We were willing to wait, no matter how long, to get the film out in theatres. None of this is to say that I won’t be doing work for OTT platforms; I am sure I will be. But the content then will be done to suit the OTT experience.
There must have been times in the past year when you must have felt quite low?
My pain arose from being unable to present this film to the people. However, I am still part of the entertainment industry, which is not exactly thought essential. There were so many people who suffered more than I did. There were those who started businesses last year and suffered losses. I just tried to remain positive. The optimism from Vijay sir’s fans helped a lot; so did all the calls from Vijay sir himself who kept reminding me to stay positive.
Given the lengthy period between the release of the teaser and the film, you must have noticed the number of people who analysed each frame of the promo footage and tried to guess the film’s story?
That’s why we think of teasers as very serious work. We realise that people these days have a lot of exposure to cinema from across the world, and we are all cautious even when looking for references. I can tell you though that there’s almost nothing that’s given away in the teaser, no matter how hard people look for it. Some suggested that Master could be influenced by Fight Club. (Laughs) None of it is true.
Do you sometimes feel that the 90s and earlier were better times for a filmmaker, given that people could come into the theatre without any knowledge of the film at all?
I hadn’t thought of this, but yes, I guess. I remember back then just looking at posters, and then a newspaper would announce the release date. We would imagine a narrative in our head based on news clippings… I guess all the technology and exposure has been a double-edged sword.
While Karthi is a star in his own right and you worked with him in Kaithi, to be able to accommodate a star like Vijay must have come with its challenges.
As you know, Kaithi was originally written for another actor, but when Karthi sir came in, everything about the film grew, including its budget and scale. I saw that film as an experiment, given that despite the presence of Karthi, we did away with a heroine, did away with songs… With Master, I was careful not to take Vijay sir’s stardom for granted. We considered his market dynamics, his fan groups… And yet, we wanted to show him in a way other films have not. The focus was on sculpting his character and that was the starting point of this film. We begin with him being a fun, devil-may-care character and wanted to treat him more as the story’s hero, and not as one of those larger-than-life figures. And then, we decided to create a similar arc for the villain, played by Sethu na. Even the fights in this film are rooted and not as commercial as one may expect from a Vijay sir film.
There’s also the business of integrating songs…
That was a challenge. I thought about it a lot, but when Ani (Anirudh) came in, we found a connection. The whole process of hashing out a song with a composer was new for me. The songs in this film have not been shot on a set or in places that have nothing to do with the film. We have integrated them seamlessly into the story.
I am more excited about the background music of this film, for which we have put in a lot of time and effort. I can assure you that we will be releasing an OST for Master after the release of the film.
In previous films, you show quite a taste for using old Tamil songs into the narrative…
Well, let me just say there’s a surprise there as well.
Let’s go back a bit. When Vijay first showed interest in doing a film with you, Kaithi hadn’t come out. Were you then tempted to tell him a story that would present the strengths of your debut film, Maanagaram, that he clearly seemed to have liked?
Not at all. I could see that he wasn’t interested in recreating something like Maanagaram. It is my understanding that he enjoyed the intellectual storytelling of that film. He is also eager to work with the new generation of filmmakers and explore his abilities further. I think it augurs well for our young filmmakers. I have already told all my assistants to be ready with stories to take advantage of such opportunities.
And this was quite a big opportunity for you, wasn’t it? Were you worried that your being star-struck could result in a film that would not be quite yours?
If you had asked me this question about Vikram (his upcoming film with Kamal Haasan), I might have a different answer. Here, though I have grown up watching Vijay sir’s films too, I was cognisant of what a big opportunity this was. I knew that if I handled this well, it would help my career’s trajectory. I might have a different answer for you when we have another conversation before the release of Vikram. (Smiles) With Master, I can assure you that it is not a fanboy film.
Did you have to be careful not to romanticise the portions in which Vijay plays an alcoholic, especially given the fan-following he commands?
I was very careful not to glorify these portions. Those who have watched the film will know what I’m talking about. From the scripting to the filming stage, we were careful about this.
When filmmakers like yourself break into the industry with an impressive debut film, it comes as a wave of new hope for our cinema. There is also the fear that the pressures of the industry, of working with stars, could rob such new filmmakers of their individuality. How do you respond to this?
I think it all boils down to individual choices. So long as a filmmaker is clear about his journey, there’s nothing to worry. If I wanted to take a step back and make a film like Maanagaram, I can always choose to do that. Nobody is forcing a filmmaker to do something he doesn’t want to. Take Karthik Subbaraj, for instance. Look at how he does a Mercury, and then does a film with Rajini sir, and then does OTT films.
What gives you the greatest joy about having done Master?
Before this film, I was not sure how I would handle a film with a star like Vijay sir. Those mental shackles are now broken for me. I am also astonished at how grounded stars like Vijay sir are. Before our shoot began, he just had one word of advice for me: “Make the film you want.” That he is a director’s actor came as a surprise to me. These are great joys for a filmmaker. I now have the confidence to make films with any star out there.
Looking back at the growth you have encountered in the last four years, do you sometimes pinch yourself in disbelief?
(Laughs) Everyone knows what has happened to my career in the last four years. However, only I know the effort I put in for about four years before Maanagaram happened. It’s a total of almost eight years of work that’s paying off now, I think. Vijay sir, being the friendly presence he is, never even allowed us to realise what a big opportunity this was for us. With Kamal sir now, it feels even more miraculous. I remember standing outside Samco hotel in Alwarpet, wishing, praying for him to step out once, so I could catch a glimpse. Now, for me to be able to direct him for a film… I do pinch myself in disbelief sometimes. But there’s simply no time to dwell on these developments. Work keeps us occupied and grounded.
Would you like for people to have any specific takeaways from Master?
We have addressed the issue of underage addiction. It’s frightening how easy it is for teenagers to get their hands on drugs and alcohol. Adults are at least able to decide for themselves, but it’s sadder when children and teenagers, who are in no place to decide for themselves, get lured into addiction. We are not offering solutions in the film and neither are we preaching anything, but we have addressed this… I would like that to be the takeaway from Master.