Master (2021)

I loved Lokesh Kanagaraj’s last film Kaithi, and was interested to see how he would approach having a big name star for his latest movie. Not that Kathik isn’t a star (he definitely is!), but there are certain fan expectations for a Vijay film and as might be expected Lokesh follows most. However Master is more than simply another star vehicle and thankfully there are some touches that make this a cut above the usual Vijay mass film. For instance, the villain here is just as important as the hero – in fact he has more of a backstory and quite frankly a more interesting story arc. The obligatory ‘romance’ is practically non-existent and here Vijay plays a more dislikeable hero with more flaws than I’ve seen before. It’s not a perfect movie, but better than I was expecting and with both Vijay and Vijay Sethupathi on screen together, a real treat for fans of both.

The film opens with a young Bhavani (Master Mahendran) being menaced by his father’s enemies after they have murdered his family. He’s thrown into a juvenile detention centre where he is beaten and bullied, leading Bhavani to develop a tough persona and his own ‘superpower’ from years of pounding his fist into the wall. Moving forward to the present, and the now adult Bhavani (Vijay Sethupathi) has taken control of the trucking industry using the young inmates of the detention centre as his criminal associates. Most notably he uses them to take the blame for his various illegal acts, while plying the youngsters with drugs and alcohol to keep them compliant.

Meanwhile, a college teacher John Durairaj aka JD (Vijay) is struggling with his job. Although he is loved by the students for his stance on student rights, the headmaster and other staff dislike him, possibly due to his popularity with the students, although this doesn’t ring true. When a contest for a new student president descends into violence, JD is quickly ousted from his job and moved to the juvenile detention centre to take charge of the facility as the new ‘Master’. JD quickly discovers the facility is beset by corruption and after a distressing incident involving two of the inmates, he starts to make changes in his own life. The idea seems to be that to change the facility he first has to change himself. After discovering links between Bhavani and his juvenile pupils, he sets out to destroy Bhavani and redeem the inmates.

So far so good, the story is engaging if rather predictable, and the addition of a good and personable villain really helps. As expected for a Vijay film, the action sequences are well choreographed and executed to a high standard. Those involving Bhavani and the various people who stand between him and the coveted Union leader’s position are made even more awesome by his ‘super-power’, which harks back to those hero fight scenes where the hero can manage to defeat hundreds of men without even breaking a sweat! There is a terrific extended sequence with JD in a police station, and it’s clear that all these small fight scenes are leading up to the big finale between JD and Bhavani, which also does not disappoint. While I would have liked a few more fight scenes with Vijay, overall, in terms of action, Master gets the recipe just right. The songs too are excellent. The energy and exuberance in this opening number with Vijay is simply spectacular!

What also works well is the development of Bhavani as a villain. Initially the character evokes sympathy for the way he was treated, and in many other films this would be the track that turns someone into a hero. But not here. Instead, after being powerless as a teenager, Bhavani becomes corrupt and willing to sacrifice anyone and everyone for his ambition.  Lokesh uses Vijay Sethupathi’s voice for the young Bhavani, I think modulated to sound younger, and it’s works well to anchor Bhavani’s persona in what he experienced as a youth. Vijay Sethupathi uses his physicality to really dominate in the film and I loved that here was a villain that I could really enjoy. There is some comedy and naturally lots of cool mannerisms that meant I was rooting for Bhavani in every single fight (well, the people he was fighting were just as corrupt) at least until he locks horns with Vijay. I am a big Vijay Sethupathi fan, and it was good to see him as the villain of the story for a change.

Interestingly, Vijay’s character JD had much less character development, although there is a long sequence at the start that introduces him and deals with his issues in the college where he works. This part of the film does drag and it also introduces characters that don’t add anything much to the story. Although they do appear at the end, by that stage I’d forgotten who they were and why I should care about their fate. Indeed, the entire introduction sequence only had 3 points of note, all of which could have been established in a fraction of the time. 

JD’s introduction sequence does feature new teacher Charu (Malavika Mohanan) who has a crush on JD. But s is so often the case in these big hero films, there was simply no point to Charu’s character and unfortunately, she adds little to the story. Her crush doesn’t go much further and attempts to bring her into the story using ‘connections’ in the detention facility fall rather flat. The only part of her story I enjoyed was when young inmate Undiyal (Pooviyar) manages to save her from a gang of thugs while JD is unable to do anything but watch. That felt much more like a Lokesh Kanagaraj touch. The best scenes are those with Vijay and the kids in the detention facility, and in these the mix of comedy, action and tension is just right. The contrast between Bhavani’s scenes of menace and destruction are used well to contrast with the gritty but still lighter scenes in the facility. I just wish there had been more of this and less of the ‘fluff’ and window dressing,

The good parts of the film; the fight scenes, Anirudh’s music and Vijay Sethupathi as a villain, are all excellent. Vijay is awesome in the fight scenes and his interactions with the kids in the detention facility are really cute. But where Master really falls down is the length. The film is really long and there is much that just feels unnecessary and indulgent. The screenplay seems loose and at times not coherently put together with a number of side alleys and diversions that should have been curtailed. The additions and distractions slow down the plot and the film only comes back to life when either JD or Bhavani are centre stage without all the extra padding weighing them down. An action film with Vijay should be tight and exciting from start to finish but sadly, Master isn’t, not quite. But it’s still a fun watch and I did enjoy watching Vijay Sethupathi as a villain and Vijay’s foray into the educational system. Thanks to rekhs and her excellent subtitles the film is also easy to understand while the production is slick and polished. I wish I’d been able to watch this in the cinema with a huge crowd, which would have helped get through some of the slow sequences. But even at home, Master is still a good film and definitely a better than average watch.  

Kaithi (2019)

Kaithi was recommended to me as a must-see by many people but the film didn’t release in Australia until this weekend. Word of mouth has been so good that the cinema was full despite reaching Melbourne a week late. And after all the hype – is the film worth it? A resounding yes! Kaithi is a tense action thriller that doesn’t miss a beat, while all the cast are simply terrific, including Karthi in a role that sees one of his best performances. No songs, no dances and no romance track, just all out action, intelligently plotted drama and even a dash of comedy all ensuring that Lokesh Kanagaraj’s latest film is one not to be missed.

The film opens quietly, introducing a young girl in an orphanage who is told to expect an important visitor on the following day. We’re left in the dark as to who she is, and who the important visitor will be, but not for too long. Dilli (Karthi) is a paroled prisoner who is on his way to see his daughter for the very first time. Flashes of his daughter’s restless night as she waits impatiently for morning are interspersed with the action of the rest of the film, adding a strong emotional thread to the narrative as well as upping the stakes for Dilli as he battles his way through the various obstacles in his path. Importantly these scenes add some space around the high-impact action sequences and give us a reason to invest in the outcome of Dilli’s struggles. After introducing Dilli’s daughter the film shifts into fast-paced action with the introduction of numerous characters and the basic story all given in quick succession, which makes these small interludes a clever way to accentuate the action without breaking the overall level of tension in the film.

The action starts with Inspector Bejoy (Narain) and his team capturing a lorry load of drugs and other smuggled goods, although Bejoy is injured in the raid. For some political reason the raid has been kept secret, so Bejoy and his men stash the drugs under the police station while throwing the smugglers into the cells above. The team head off to the Chief Commissioner’s retirement bash along with all the senior officers, leaving a few junior police and recent transferee Napoleon (George Maryan) from Tirunelveli at the station. The action then switches to the gangster hideout where Anbu (Arjun Das) is plotting how to get the drugs back and also ensure that the police never know that they have his brother and gang leader Adaikalam (Harish Uthaman) in custody. The smugglers plan to drug the police officers at the retirement party and while they are incapacitated, break into the police station and grab the drugs and Adaikalam. All of which would work except for Bejoy and his decision to co-opt Dilli to drive the truck carrying the drugged police officers to hospital.

The events all occur over the course of one night which adds to the suspense and increases tension as Dilli and Bejoy battle to save the police officers, stop the gangsters getting to the stash of drugs and prevent Anbu from freeing Adaikalam. Along the way there are double agents on both sides, a group of students who end up barricaded in the police station along with Napoleon and the owner of the truck, Kamatchi (Deena) who is dragged along against his will. The action is a mix of the road trip across rough terrain to get medical attention with periodic attempts by the gangsters to stop Dilli and Bejoy by any means possible, and a siege of the police station by Anbu and his men, all anchored by the strong presence of Dilli who will do anything it takes to ensure he can get to the orphanage and meet his daughter.

The action sequences are well choregraphed by Anbariv who uses a mixture of one-on-one fights, inventive ambushes and stunts with the lorry to add novelty and interest to the film. Sathyan Sooryan’s cinematography makes the most of the night setting, highlighting the cabin of the truck where Bejoy, Dilli and Kamatchi are literal lights in the darkness of the war against drugs as the gangsters circle around in the darkness of the forest. Car headlights, torches and burning carts provide background lighting for the fight scenes with Dilli in the truck, while the police station, boarded up by Napoleon and the students is lit by moonlight as they attempt to keep the smugglers out.

Each member of the cast is fantastic, starting with Arjun Das as the erratic and bloodthirsty leader of the smuggling gang. He creates an atmosphere of violence simply by snarling at the camera and is a plausibly dangerous villain. Although Harish Uthaman has limited screen time, he is suitably menacing, particularly as he emerges from the gloom of the police cell to threaten the engineering students who have devised inventive methods for preventing his escape. George Maryan is outstanding as the ageing constable, fresh in from the country who ends up the sole defender of the police station and pulls the students into the fight. He is steady as a rock, perhaps because he doesn’t quite understand the magnitude of the force arrayed against him, but his attitude and strength of character are brilliantly written into the story and along with the students his fight against the gangsters is just as compelling and thrilling as that of Bejoy and Dilli.

 

I loved Narain in Anjathey and he is excellent here as a police officer pushed to the limits by circumstance and desperate to do the right thing. He gets across the internal conflicts that result when he pulls Dilli and Kamatchi into the volatile situation with the gang, and he is also excellent at portraying Bejoy’s helplessness from his broken arm which prevents him driving the lorry himself. It’s a well nuanced performance despite the straight forward character arc, and Narain excels in the brief conversations with Dilli that expose his innermost struggles. Deena too is well cast in a role that adds some humour to the story, but he’s also effective as a voice of the common man who tries to do the right thing despite being terrified by the violence that erupts all around him.

I really like Karthi and have seen most of his films including the excellent Naan Mahaan Alla, Madras and Theeran Adhigaaram Ondru, and in Kaithi he produces another scorching performance to add to the list. As a prisoner, Dilli has learned to keep his eyes down and his mouth shut making Karthi’s slow deliberate movements and measured dialogue a perfect fit for the character. His obvious enjoyment of biryani, eaten while Bejoy is trying to load up the lorry with the drugged police officers is a satisfying nod to freedom and the simple joy of good food eaten leisurely. He’s also excellent when describing to Kamatchi how he ended up in prison, but it’s in the action sequences where he really excels providing a convincing portrayal of a man willing to risk everything to reach his daughter. He gets the emotions just right too, never dipping into maudlin or overly dramatic sentimentality, but still showing the mix of fear, elation and trepidation that would naturally be present in any father going to meet his 10-year-old daughter for the first time. The character is written quite simply, but Karthi adds plenty of depth and intensity that contrasts perfectly with Narain’s more desperate Bejoy.

 

There are no songs but C.S. Sam’s background music fits the narrative well and helps to drive the action forward. The two different tracks to the story work well with each other to keep the tension level high, especially when it always seems that the defenders will be overwhelmed by the gangsters, and the finale is just as over-the-top and Rambo-esque as befits the indestructible character of Dilli. The film doesn’t feel overlong despite the almost 2½ hour running time but instead stays thrilling and almost claustrophobic with the one-night timeframe and race against time to save everyone. With brilliant performances, a simple but well plotted storyline and plenty of action sequences, Kaithi is an excellent thriller and highly recommended for fans of the genre.