As I stepped in to watch Master – my first Vijay film in a theatre after about a decade – I had clear-cut clarity on what it was going to be, even though in a broad sense. My desire was to relive the silver screen euphoria that I had missed for close to a year. I wished the cinema hall to erupt into mega hoots and thunderous claps when the superstar arrived. The experience, I must say, was precisely that. That said, in Master, I could see how a classic Vijay film template has evolved. Directed by Lokesh Kanagaraj (of Kaithi fame), the film is a mass potboiler but not without some fine filmmaking on display and a pure, beating heart.

Master invites us to a world ruled by JD (Vijay), a super-cool professor who is quite a sweetheart to his students. Having majored in Psychology, JD takes care of the personality development curriculum in a happening Chennai-based college called St. Jeffreys. If the man imparts a simplified version of self-help book solutions at work, he famously hits the bottle as the sun dips. A trippy kuththu dance number and an election with a well-meaning women empowerment message later, destiny lands JD as a teacher in a juvenile home. Thronged by a group of ill-fated teens, the ‘master’ in JD has a rather shaky beginning at his new workplace. He sings a sweet-natured ‘Kutti Story’ and partially earns their loyalty. All is hunky-dory until a twin death occurs in the compound. The man responsible for the mishap is Bhavani (Vijay Sethupathi) and JD ought to give up alcoholism first to tackle the villain who, actually, is pure evil.

Kanagaraj’s film does not hit the jackpot on the story front but the ambiance and the immediate struggles differ from that of a routine masala fare. Kanagaraj’s writing is spiced up by a spate of filmmaking techniques that had clearly bowled us over in his monstrous 2019 actioner Kaithi. The director is aware of the wattage that Vijay brings in. Akin to what a Rajinikanth film would be under the helm of Pa Ranjith, a Vijay film ultimately remains in a zone even though the atmosphere around him might change. It is up to makers to tweak the template in ways that the actor organically improvises. Lokesh Kanaragaj manages this feat in Master.

To kick off with its flaws, Kanagaraj’s film suffers from the curse of the second half. Setting aside its predictable nature, Master is a notably rousing commercial entertainer in the first two acts. If we overlook minor hiccups at places, the film with its larger-than-life leading man, stylized action set pieces, and a social message is one that engages and entertains. The transition is smooth and the leading lady Charu (an efficient Malavika Mohananan) is no singing-dancing wallflower. Then again, Charu never gets the footage she deserves despite being an important catalyst who links JD to the dubious juvenile home. She is a woman with a personality and definite life goals but is bizarrely sidelined of privileges that leading ladies in this genre of cinema enjoy. Vijay Sethupathi’s Bhavani is no cardboard villain with high decibel yells either. Through a blood-curdling introductory scene, we see the savage monster eliminating those who come in his way. Bhavani remains an enigma while Vijay’s JD metamorphoses through the course of Master – drawing quick parallels between the two.

The writing ((Lokesh Kanagaraj, Rathna Kumar, Pon Parthiban) falters at the brink of the interval. Every time Master desires to trigger his leading man, the writers put death in the picture. There are times where we get a series of them for no rhyme or reason. For something that is evidently an example of lazy screenwriting, these homicides are designed to give JD a bunch of moments to scream his lungs out. The approach, even for commercial Tamil cinema standards, is dull and dated. This is unfortunate because Master is neither of it in temperament. The techniques are fresh and the version of Vijay we see is a visibly upgraded one. It is just that the screenplay if we subtract some cheeky meta humour, chooses not to experiment. As is the present-day trend, Master tries to uphold populist (read woke) sentiments which I didn’t mind considering how a little spoon-feeding might positively influence the film’s primary target group.

The mainstay in Kanagaraj’s film is Anirudh’s thumping soundtrack. The music – be it the playback songs or the original score – glides seamlessly through emotional and high-voltage action scenes. It is somewhere a blessing that even the dance numbers stick to the film’s theme (much like the recent Soorarai Pottru) and do not transport us to glamourous locales. Sathyan Sooryan’s cinematography carries the stamp of a grand Vijay extravaganza. Ably supported by the editor (Philomin Raj), there are slow-motion shots galore in Master. Aside from that, the leading man’s agile physicality is canvassed to perfection in a series of stylishly choreographed stunt scenes. The DOP decidedly reserves the colour palette to earthy shades thereby rendering Master a real, lived-in look that is fitting to the film’s intent to become a social fare.

Master is not the regular Vijay film with tried-and-tested doses of Vijay-ness peppered all over. The actor does play often to the gallery but that element functions more as the need to pitch Master as a viable product in trade circles. Kanagaraj’s film, at no point, turns him into a frivolous entity. JD’s fight feels real and Vijay takes notably giant strides as an actor in heavy-duty emotional scenes. At the same time, the film never drowns JD in a pool of melodrama with a weepy back-story. No, he wasn’t raised in a juvenile home. He is what he is for reasons best known to him and this mystery is amusing enough for us to buy his edgy humour which is the film’s mainstay. Becoming perfect foil to the superstar is Vijay Sethupathi as the chief antagonist who proves why he is a massive force to reckon with in Indian cinema. Arjun Das with a unique baritone makes his presence soundly felt. The child actors are a treat and kudos to the casting director to have handpicked them.

All said and done, Lokesh Kanagaraj’s film will be fondly remembered for the twists it confidently employs in transforming what a Vijay masala fare would otherwise look like. Master comes with loads of action, wit, punchlines, music, and a non-obstructive romantic track. If the film, despite its significant writing shortages, isn’t a positive move to transforming the mass genre, then nothing else is.

Rating: ★★★ 1/2

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