From alcoholism to women’s empowerment, the film tries to tell a story with a heart but its politics is as flawed as its hero.

Vijay in Master poster lying down wearing sunglasses and surrounded by books
Flix Film Commentary Thursday, January 21, 2021 - 16:13

At the outset, I have to admit, however begrudgingly, that Master is the Vijay film I’ve had the most fun at. JD is a likeable character. The man he finds himself pitted against well-written— a rarity in recent Tamil cinema. Vijay Sethupathi’s Bhavani has perfect comic timing as much as he is ruthlessly driven. The music, impeccably scored.

However, though Master tries to tell a story with a heart, its politics is as flawed as its hero.

JD (Vijay), an alcoholic professor, tunes out everything he can’t handle with whiskey and a great taste in classic rock and blues. He’s loyal to his students. They seem to be the closest thing he has to a family. He’s deeply protective of them to the point of repeatedly courting suspension from his job by battling the college administration on their behalf. He is also easily overwhelmed, shutting off the world rather than remaining fully aware of what is happening around him. This has him often only responding to terrible situations instead of pre-empting them. He certainly is the most human character we’ve seen Vijay play in a long time, even though his trademark gimmicks have been tapped to full potential by director Lokesh Kanagaraj. “Thalapathy” manages to impress on both these fronts.

Master is perhaps the plainest political signalling that Vijay has made on screen yet. Suspended from his job for three months, JD is sent to a juvenile correctional centre for boys as their new “vathi”. After two of the boys are murdered on his watch, he decides to stop being blind drunk on a daily basis to take on Bhavani and his nexus inside the correctional centre. “Intha bothai oru arasiyal [this alcohol is a form of politics]” he fumes, resorting to the decades-long politics around prohibition: the founding of TASMAC and TASCO, “arasanga sarayam” [government alcohol] as liquor was once marketed here, allegations of spurious IMFLs (Indian Made Foreign Liquor) being sold in Tamil Nadu, competition from distilleries owned by powerful politicians across parties and ongoing agitations about the level of liquor-consumption in the state, one of the recent advocates of which includes Kamal Hassan.

 In my view, while these concerns are valid, there is excessive moralising that these conversations entail, particularly when it comes from celebrity political-hopefuls, relying on tiring sentimentality instead of addressing alcoholism as a problem that requires professional intervention as do the cases of domestic abuse usually chalked up to liquor consumption.

“Intha bothai oru arasiyal” is part of JD’s climax-speech which then proceeds to take on an increasingly erratic stance as he continues to rant. Fairly enough, he speaks about people’s apathy to the factors that lead to criminality in under-age youths, accusing society of preferring to ostracise them over demanding actual opportunities for reform. Yet, perhaps in a bid to ensure Master is a successful mass film, Kanagaraj refrains from describing the structural, systemic failures that bring economically vulnerable children in conflict with the law. Bhavani’s hold over the correctional centre is supposed to serve as a parable for Tamil Nadu’s political present that is often reduced to deficient descriptions like “quarterrukum kozhi biriyanikkum vote a vikkurathu” [buying of votes with alcohol and biriyani].

There is, of course, a legislative assembly election looming as well. Foregrounding the fault lines in both adult and juvenile prisons or the emphasis on the need for access to education are sacrificed for the required take-down of the villain. Defeating Bhavani and closing the correctional centre down, only for the boys to be sent off to different centres which are most likely, equally inadequate spaces of care, feels like writing that could have benefited from a little more thought.

Here, I have to point out another aspect of the writing and cinematic choices that made me uncomfortable. When the Master music album dropped last year, it was a roaring success. Anirudh does impressive work on the background music and his collaborations with Arivu, Gana Balachandar and Santosh Narayanan have produced three of the best tracks. I was exceedingly curious about the placement of these songs in the film. “Vathi Raid” and “Vathi Coming” inserted at predictable points in the story, were entertaining. Both songs are powerful numbers on their own, so they add to the thrill of the scenes in which they feature.

Also read: Vijay's 'Master' review: An entertaining first half let down by a dragging second

“Polakattum Para Para”— a track I’ve listened to countless times—appears to, interestingly, be one that is applicable to both the hero and the villain. But, did the beginning of the sequence have to be so disappointing in the representation of Bhavani and his men? A poosari offers prayers to a god made of black stone, meat is cooked in front of the deity. There’s a frenzied celebration with koothu. Is the director suggesting that all of these are signifiers for evil? Though Bhavani is written with great empathy and Vijay Sethupathi delivers a performance that has drawn many audiences to his role, the men who work for him are reduced to stereotypical caste and class markers that I found de-humanising and are well-past the time for retirement from Tamil cinema.

It’s true that JD more or less speaks Madras Tamil, also loves koothu and lives in one of the many mansions-turned-working men’s hostels in Chennai. Even at the moment he rises to his feet from his lowest point, he does so dancing. But he also seems to subsist entirely on cans of Pringles chips and expensive Jack Daniels bourbon (they cost around 5,000 INR a bottle, possibly unaffordable for an alcoholic professor, but perhaps excusable for the sake of the little in-joke about his name), so his background feels deliberately unclear.

It remains a directorial choice to place the darkest-skinned actors who have the kinkiest-hair among the villain’s henchmen who are all uniformly brutish, slow-witted and indistinguishable. Nor does it escape notice that the boys in the correctional centre break into gaana almost exclusively to antagonise JD except on two occasions, one of which is the tender rendition of “Pona Pogattum” by CB Vinith.

A new Vijay?

JD struck me as a product of the post-Bigil age. He’s repackaged as a befuddled interpretation of how a cis-het man can be pro-women’s rights. As confused as Bigil was in showing support for women asserting their choices with its saviour-annan complex, body-shamming and choosing Vijay’s mass appeal over the female cast, it was a shift from the open sexism he’s spouted in past films like Youth or Sivakasi and the misogyny that most Kollywood formula-films celebrate.

Vijay’s first scene in Master has him bring two sexual offenders (also his students) to book, the women they’d assaulted don’t have a second of screen-time to speak for themselves. He affectionately nurtures the ambitions of a female student contesting the student union elections against a toxic male classmate. When the college campus is attacked by armed men, one of them gropes a young girl, sending JD in to wild fury. “Pombala pulla mela kai vakeera?”[You grope a girl?] he rages as he proceeds to beat the man senseless. Not an ideal response, but a far cry from “Unga udambula ethana macham irrukuthunu mathavan ennura allavukku dress a podrathu…” [You wear such revealing clothes that someone can count how many birthmarks you have] excuse for Asin’s character getting molested in Sivakasi.

Watch: Master trailer

In 2017, Tamil Nadu BJP’s H Raja felt compelled to “out” Vijay’s Christian first name because of Mersal’s criticism of the Union government’s revised GST norms. Vijay himself has never been secretive about his full name. The intended divisiveness did not impress his Tamil fans. Again, twice last year, the actor was singled out, once by TN BJP cadres and another by the Income Tax department with no justifiable cause, while the shoot for Master was ongoing. His religion is a barb that the BJP throws at him, unable to understand that in the state, fans and most other movie-goers aren’t swayed easily by such tactics. In Bigil, Vijay came back as a character called Michael. At the end of Master, the camera takes care to reveal what JD really stands for— John Durairaj. Not to imply that this may be the rule going forth, but it is an appreciable gesture.

Master for all its flaws, including pacing troubles, has heart. The film is doubtless winning in terms of fan-service too. Even for a non-fan such as myself, JD and Bhavani’s magnetic yet conflicting personalities offered a film that does have an irresistible pull.

Bharathy Singaravel is an independent culture reporter who focuses on the intersection of politics, music and cinema in Tamil Nadu. She's written for The News Minute, The Wire, The Caravan, Scroll, Firstpost, The Federal, Umbra, Newsclick and Indian Cultural Forum.

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