Why Vijay’s ‘Master’ is Crucial for the Indian Film Industry

Aditya Shrikrishna
·6-min read

In December, there were reports that Vijay’s Master will release in 1000 theatres across Tamil Nadu for the harvest festival of Pongal in January 2021. His previous release Bigil released in around 700 theatres in the state. The trend is such that these numbers increase with every film. Bigil was even re-released in Germany and France when theatres started opening post the pandemic in June 2020. Search on YouTube for Master teaser reactions in theatres and witness the madcap energy in possibly 50% occupancy theatres for a ninety second teaser. That’s the power of an event film.

In the South, as a film watching community, we cherish the event film. The more popular Hindi cinema that in this OTT era wishes to cannibalise the Indian film industry, probably got inducted into this ceremonial aspect with Baahubali. The SS Rajamouli films were event cinema and the filmmaker’s RRR too will be huge (with Bollywood actors jumping on the train) but films and their day of release as a reason for celebration is unique to the south and has existed for as long as I can remember. Thalapathi and Gunaa on Deepavali 1991. Pandian and Thevar Magan for Deepavali 1992. During my teenage and college years, the nascent cell phone and free SMS packages era, it was all about standing amidst crowds outside the theatre on release day trying to snag tickets in black. With internet and smartphones, you refresh multiple browsers and apps in vain.

The stars have changed, ticket bootleggers have disappeared only to be replaced by bulk bookings, corporate bookings and an FDFS (First Day First Show) mania that rivals a cricket world cup final. In Mumbai or even Bangalore, I have had the experience of casually booking a ticket online on the first day of a big film, headlined by the biggest of stars and walking into a theatre that has the average weekend crowd looking like they were bored out of their wits at home.

A still from <i>Master.</i>
A still from Master.

It’s a legacy of the star system, specifically the male star system. From MGR and Sivaji to Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan. The old gods are dead, long live the new gods - Vijay and Ajith. The market for Kamal Haasan is non-existent and began to dwindle in the mid-2000s. Rajinikanth can summon the frenzy but it needs to be manufactured - sometimes with the magnum marketing of a Kabali or the unimaginable budget of a director like Shankar, with the bonus of a Bollywood star like Akshay Kumar in 2.0. In the last decade, Rajinikanth might have delivered huge hits but he's hardly the force he used to be in mid-90s to mid-2000s. His name alone isn't a guarantee. He had to change course to new age directors like Pa. Ranjith and Karthik Subbaraj or stay with established ones like Shankar.

A lot of it has to do with the ascendance of Vijay and Ajith who rule the markets of Tamil cinema and drive the event film enterprise, irrespective of the filmmaker. While their fans indulge flame wars and trend hashtags on Twitter even when the two are not in the news, their name in the casting alone is enough to ring in the budget and the distributors to queue for rights for regions. Their sheer inaccessibility expands the aura around them while a Ranveer Singh must promote his film in the weeks leading up to release.

Lokesh Kanagaraj's Master - let me correct that - Vijay's Master that also stars Vijay Sethupathi was supposed to be the event film of 2020, slated for an April release (the Hindi version title is “Vijay – The Master”). It's not just any other Vijay film. It's a Vijay film in the hands of a genuine filmmaker. Lokesh Kanagaraj is two films old. With his debut Maanagaram and sophomore film Kaithi, there are enough reasons to believe that we will get more than the Vijay staples of swagger and stylish comedy. The last time Vijay was in the hands of a filmmaker known for visual and narrative flair? I'll stick my head out - never.

A still from <i>Master.</i>
A still from Master.

The pandemic is still raging all over the world. Across languages, Master qualifies as the biggest release, the most anticipated film post lockdown in India. Budgets are accruing interest; a lot of money is riding on this film. Theatres are dwindling and being turned into Amazon warehouses and a film like Master will be the one to overturn all that in a matter of weeks. It's not difficult to see why Master needs 100% occupancy in theatres and a bigger worldwide release like the normal times. But what it also needs is a safe environment and as normal as normal can be, not the new normal, to land its punch as the highlight it was designed to be. Vijay meets the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami and a week later, a government order arrives allowing 100% occupancy, followed by an administrative gaffe (on Tuesday TN Health Secretary said they will look into the GO issued by Revenue Dept). As I write this, the MHA has ordered the TN government to revoke the 100% occupancy order and the release of Master on Jan 13th is up in the air.

A still from <i>Master.</i>
A still from Master.

But what is the event? Stars like Vijay and Ajith take up the major release days - Pongal, mid-April that marks the Tamil New Year and Deepavali. In Tamil Nadu, scenes don't just happen inside the theatre. It's what happens outside too. Whether you hold a ticket or not, masses throng outside in celebration of their favourite star, fan clubs put out flex banners with the star splashed across and the faces of office bearers and devotees glowing below. There will be dancing. For a release like Master with 100% occupancy, it is impossible to check masking and safety practices inside the theatre. What do you do about the crowds outside? How do you - if you could - regulate that? The very idea of an event film and what it entails make the decision to allow 100% occupancy callous and irresponsible.

At a time when big Bollywood releases like Akshay Kumar-Rohit Shetty’s Sooryavanshi and Ranveer Singh-Kabir Khan’s ‘83 continue to wait it out, the audience reaction to Master will set a precedent as to how mega budget films with big superstars plan their release schedule in the weeks to come.

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