If you asked most film fans about movies that originate from India you would likely hear everyone polled mention long runtimes, jarring musical interludes, and the term “Bollywood.” India’s film industries are more than those things though. Yes, “industries”. Plural. India as a country puts out more theatrically released films every year than any other. This is in large part due to the fact that different regions of the country not only have separate languages but their own unique film studios, stars, and cinematic flavor as well.
One of those industries is affectionately known as “Kollywood” (named after the Kodambakkam neighborhood, located in the city of Chennai in the southern, coastal state of Tamil Nadu). Kollywood stylistically is different than its northern brother Bollywood. Painting in broad strokes, Bollywood has adopted the sheen (and massive budgets) of modern Hollywood productions while Kollywood is more heavily influenced by other international film scenes such as the kinetic action cinema and “devil may care” attitude of classic Hong Kong movies to give just one example.
Kollywood’s love of genre and action films, in general, has largely gone unnoticed in the West but as the world gets smaller thanks to the rise of social media and streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon needing a constant stream of entertainment for audiences all over the world, more and more people outside of India are learning that Kollywood/Tamil language movies are an exciting voice in world cinema, especially for those who are looking for a fresh action fix.
The latest release out of Kollywood to reach western shores (through an exclusive deal with the Amazon Prime platform) is the action film MASTER starring arguably one of the biggest stars not just in Kollywood but in India as a whole- the actor known simply as “Vijay.” Vijay (aka Joseph Vijay Chandrasekhar) has long been a fixture of the Indian film industry. Beginning his career as a child actor, he has grown into adulthood in front of the camera and amassed a large number of successful films that have not only played all over India but numerous other countries as well. His massive success in his home region fully began in his adult years though once he embraced the role of “action hero film idol” thanks to his mix of confident tough guy swagger and easy-going boyish charm. He became so popular as a heroic leading man among Indian film goers that he was given a “star” nickname to go along with his singular moniker. The bestowing of a nickname is a unique practice that happens to only the biggest stars of South Indian film and doesn’t really have an equivalent in western fandom. It represents a fan devotion beyond just enjoying someone’s work as an actor. His large base of obsessed local Tamil Nadu fans loving call him “Thalapathy” (this Tamil word translates literally to “Commander”). The exact origins of the nickname aren’t clear (unless you are fluent in Tamil). In South India, Vijay has become quite literally a cult of personality. His words and actions have legitimate power. Many people with that sort of sway over a devoted audience might use it for fully selfish means, but to his credit Vijay has used his stardom and intense following to raise awareness of societal issues in his home region and to push for positive change both through activism and his acting work, which is again the case with his newest film- a film that also happens to be the perfect jumping on point for outsiders interested in what South Indian and Kollywood action is all about.
That film, MASTER, tells the story of a college professor named “J.D.”, played by Vijay, who after a misunderstanding, ends up reassigned to a juvenile correction facility/reform school for a three-month stint as a teacher. While there, he discovers that the youth housed at the facility are being used as scapegoats for a criminal organization fronted by a vicious gangster named “Bhavani” (V. Sethupathi). The setup gives Vijay a chance to draw attention to the poor conditions these children are forced into and how many of them are there due to a corrupt and deeply flawed system of social services. This is just an aspect of MASTER though. Even if you ignore the socially minded messaging, the film still works fully as an engaging action story and also, surprisingly, as a deconstruction of Indian action tropes.
To best understand what that means and why MASTER, as a deconstruction, still fully works as a perfect entry point into South Indian action films for new viewers, the tropes of the genre have to be explained. Again, painting with very broad strokes, the films of the South Indian “Hero” genre usually have consistent elements. First, there is (of course) the righteous hero. Typically an “everyman” who, for reasons never explained by the film, is almost superhuman at fighting. Indian films are not concerned with realism as much as they are mythmaking and the heroes of these films are mythic- honorable and fair who will only resort to violence when forced but when they do they are almost indestructible (except when the needs of the story call for them to be hurt, of course). The hero can be flawed but by the end they will have overcome that flaw, as well as the villain, and end the story as an even more noble figure. It’s never a question of will the hero triumph or not- instead it becomes, “in what kind of fun, outlandish way will the hero win?” and “How cool will they look while doing it?”.
To explain the other tropes, the runtimes of Indian films must be addressed as well. They are typically long, usually clocking in at around 3 hours on average. This is influenced by their “everything and the kitchen sink” approach to storytelling. This unusual style has been labeled by the filmmakers and local fans as “Masala”. The name originates from a rich mix of spices often found in Indian cuisine. These films freely mix genres like Indian food mixes savory and spicy flavors to create truly unique experiences. While the films are at their core action movies, they can also have heavy elements of comedy, romance, melodrama, and yes… musicals. The lengthy runtimes allow the films to engage in indulgent tangents, like the comedic foibles of the hero’s sidekick, or the tragic love story that led to the hero’s dark secret/deep flaw. The musical aspect is harder to explain other than it is something that is culturally beloved in Indian. It goes back to how they are generally unconcerned with realism. Popular cinema is an event there and meant to be fully engaging experiences.
Knowing the elements of what makes up a ‘Masala’ action film, it becomes easier to appreciate what MASTER is aiming for and why it’s unique approach can appeal to new audiences. For example, while MASTER does have a hefty runtime its narrative is focused solely on the main story it is telling. There is no comedic subplot. There is no love interest. When the film teases that it is going to delve into J.D.’s tragic past, the film cheekily deflates that by having a running gag where the hero stars recounting the plots of actual romantic films from India and America. It never delves into lengthy flashbacks that take away from the focus of the film (and are a very common device of the genre). MASTER uses its runtime to instead develop the characters of J.D. and Bhavani and invest you in them and their inevitable conflict. The film starts off with a nearly fifteen-minute sequence that is basically a supervillain origin story for the gangster Bhavani. It could easily have been fleshed out to its own satisfying film. He is introduced as a tragic figure on a quest for vengeance that led him into being someone much worse than those who wronged him initially. Because of the relaxed runtime, you get to fully understand the character and his motivations. That is a rare thing in movies where the intent is just to thrill the audience.
While Vijay’s heroic “J.D.” is more of an enigma than the villain, MASTER allows the audience ample time to see the character’s virtues and shortcomings. He is introduced in an incredibly fun sequence where he chases down and pummels a group of sex pests who harassed his students that is a snapshot of his charisma and physicality as a performer. It then shows the events that led to his temporary demotion to being a reform school teacher. This section, involving a class election that breaks down into a riot, acts along with his introduction scene as a kind of “mini-movie” for the hero in the way the film’s opening did for the villain. It gives you a deeper grasp of the character before the main plot takes over.
It’s admittedly indulgent and not necessary but the pace of the film is impeccable. There is always something happening to keep the audience’s interest up: the hero pummeling thugs with a baseball bat in a beautifully filmed action scene, the villain taking bloody revenge on an enemy that wronged him, tough guy monologues, wry humor, and… yes musical numbers.
The musical numbers will be the thing that likely gives the newcomers to the film the biggest sense of hesitation. The people behind MASTER seem like they understood that and kept these moments sparse but impactful with a clever presentation. There are only three scenes of musical interludes in the film totaling less than fifteen minutes of screen time and they are worked as organically into the plot as possible considering that they become multi-person dance numbers. It may be jarring for the uninitiated but for those with an open mind or the ones that understand the clear link between fight and dance choreography, these scenes are joyous. The music is percussion-heavy and catchy enough that it should win over anyone who is unsure of the stylistic choice to have music breaks in a movie about gangsters and fistfights.
Speaking of the fistfights, Indian fight scenes are often the subject of ridicule online. All it takes is a Youtube search of the phrase “Indian action scene” to see that. What these clip collections miss is the truly inventive nature of the action coming from the region. It’s not all just a rehash of the latest American or Chinese blockbuster. India has developed their own unique action language, brawl-heavy with an emphasis on wire stunts to show the force of the hits. Like anywhere else, there are numerous examples of poorly done fight scenes in Indian films. That does not mean they all are poor though and MASTER proves that. The fight scenes on display here are excellent, expertly choreographed and beautifully filmed by director Lokesh Kanagaraj (KAITHI), with both of the film’s leads being given unique styles that play well off each other. It culminates in a brutal one-on-one fight between the two that will leave any action fan who thought all the work coming out of India was cartoonish excess with their eyebrows raised and wondering what else they have been missing out on by sleeping on these films.
Even with the excessive violence on display, MASTER never loses its moral center and thoughtfulness. It’s an unexpected and admirable gesture. The story makes a point to have J.D. try to end all the conflicts in the film peacefully and, what’s really remarkable is, actually lets him succeed at it a time or two. MASTER recognizes that not every “bad guy” deserves a beat down. Some just need a chance to do the right thing. That’s not the sort of messaging you see normally in action films. When violent conflict is unavoidable though, the film is also consistent about showing the negative consequences that come from that violence.
It’s an absurd balancing act to try and have a film that is brutally violent, socially-minded, and full of fun crowd-pleasing moments that doesn’t completely tear itself apart with tonal whiplash. Yet, MASTER does just that. It balances all the contrasting elements and delivers an experience that while lengthy, is never excessive or inaccessible to new audiences. (4/5)
Master is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.