A Face-off with Evil: Reflections on the Tamil Blockbuster film Master (2021)
If delinquents like us lament in pain, will our voice be heard or is it in vain? - Master (2021)
Then the Lord said, “I’ve clearly seen my people oppressed in Egypt. I’ve heard their cry of injustice because of their slave masters. I know about their pain (Exodus 3: 7)
Movies mirror the human condition. They help us explore deeper questions of life through the power of the story. You can easily map the discourse of desire and/or despair within the film narrative. Perhaps, this is why movies deeply resonate with audiences.
I watched Master (dir. Lokesh Kanagaraj, 2021), a Tamil blockbuster movie, on Amazon Prime last month. The Movie tells the story of juvenile delinquents who find themselves trapped in a life of unending crime through enticement, threat and brute power.
Believe me, this is no “kutti” (small) story about Good Vs Evil. A correctional home breeding hardcore criminal is unimaginable. What happens at the correctional home is shocking, uncomfortable, and disgraceful and you are stunned into silence.
This ‘mass-entertainer’ made me seriously reflect on the systemic Evil in our midst and remedial action! Interestingly, the film also illustrates how Evil can be defeated through redemption and personal transformation - a theme that so easily resonates with Christian hope.
Master (2021) - Synopsis
Master (2021) is a story of two men - Bhavani and John Durai (JD) - and their tryst with an unfair life. Bhavani (played by Vijay Sethupathy) is a ruthless monster behind a mask of benevolence. JD (played by Vijay) is a professor who turns alcoholic after a personal tragedy. Apparently, he is flawed - the good and bad mixed in varying proportions.
These two parallel lives intersect when JD enters the correctional Home wherein Bhavani criminalises innocent juveniles to a troubling degree. Master, then, unfolds the Good Vs Evil story albeit with a twist.
As I watched Master (2021), I discovered few insights about Evil that Christian faith can readily engage and have meaningful dialogue with wider culture.
The stranglehold of Evil is real
Bhavani’s experience of trauma and torture at the hands of his father’s killers turns him into a devil (Interestingly, he is shown with horns in a scene). He becomes a nightmare for the many who enter the correctional home.
Bhavani controls this army of juveniles with money, drugs and power. They are either used as pawns to escape punishment for criminality or unleashed at will to stifle opposition to his nefarious business interests.
The normalization of fear and the endless supply of “goodies” makes the inmates vulnerable to the loss of freedom. The hapless young boys are unconsciously robbed of a huge swathe of themselves - innocence, love, compassion and worse, their humanness.
The stranglehold of Evil is real. The cry for freedom is hidden deep in the depths of the soul. Despite the implicit obedience, binding loyalties, and endless supply of “goodies”, the tumult of the soul is poured out once in a while in casual conversations and in song.
We want to reform given a choice
We are good-for-nothing boys
If good-for-nothing boys wail
Will our voice make justice prevail?
The underage petty thieves aren’t irredeemably stupid. They are merely bullied into silence. Moreover, any escape attempt is crushed with violent impunity. The inmates wait meekly for change even as the stranglehold of Evil tightens.
Evil needs more than a quick fix
We know evil exists. But we only see the surface. We don’t care to see issues in depth. Worse, we uncritically accept the fantasy of things going right, particularly if we have necessary systems in place.
Bhavani holds the system to ransom with his money, muscle and brute power. He grows adept in manipulating greed and gratitude to his advantage. Ironically, Bhavani himself is the creation of a system meant to correct juvenile delinquents.
Bhavani’s brazen violation and exploitation is made possible by inducements and force. Is it strange to see how far money can stretch itself to arm twist people’s will and intentions? The conspiracy of silence is deafening. However, the conspiracy of silence is our least problem. Our inability to destroy Evil is the real problem.
The Police officers in-charge are able to see the inmates submerged in problems - drug addiction, violence, crime etc. And yet, they are unable to stop the free flow of drugs. Charu (played by Malavika Mohanan), an activist, is able to discern the symptoms but she is helpless as she faces legal hurdles and threats.
Evil is complex. We suffer from a misunderstanding of it than sometimes supposed. And therefore, we offer simplistic answers which betray how little we understand about the grim reality and the hopelessness.
Let’s be clear! We live in a complex and messy world. There is no quick fix.
Imperfect people can fight Evil
Master (2021) shows us a glimpse of flawed systems. Bhavani enjoys an unshakable sense of entitlement to exploit the system and entrap underage petty thieves. JD enters the correctional home against this grim backdrop (by chance and not by choice).
But, JD is no righteous hero. Apparently, he is a contradiction. He is deeply flawed but extremely popular, defies the system but seeks to bring order, and seems completely lost but teaches focus to his students.
At first, he is comfortably numb to things around him. While Bhavani exploits the messy world, JD is apathetic towards the messy world.
I have my share of personal problems. I am unable to come out of it. I can’t cry. I can’t sleep. That is why I drink”.
“I had no idea whatsoever. No one told me anything”.
But, sometimes all one needs is a sense of something gone wrong. The unexpected tragic death (actually murder) of two kids, Sabari and Manikandan, at the juvenile Home shakes JD.
Two innocent boys here lost their lives so dear.
To reside here or hang by a rope.
One and the same without hope.
“I sacrificed my children in an unjust way”.
“They (my children) were sure they would be rescued. No one came to save them.”
The encounter with the mother of the two boys and her inconsolable sob becomes his moment of Truth. The film graphically displays this moment with an overhead shot where the juvenile home is bisected with sunlight and darkness, with JD in the lit area looking into the darkness.
JD seeks to save the boys from hopelessness and despair. The juvenile delinquents do not realise how much has been taken away from them till they regain what has been lost. Despite the initial resistance and scorn, JD begins his work by humanizing the boys.
JD leads the fight against Evil. You easily connect to the story’s broader truth that flawed people can redeem themselves and join the fight against Evil, perhaps lead it too.
Evil can be defeated, if not destroyed
JD helps cultivate sensitiveness, so the boys begin to spot falsehoods in Bhavani’s narrative. However, Evil is stubborn. There is a push back on the good that begins to permeate in the ‘life spaces’ of the inmates.
The fight against Evil demands determined resistance and sacrifice, sometimes even at the peril of personal loss. Surely, there is a price to pay. Charu, JD and his student friends quickly realize this.
Charu is almost killed by a henchman. Bhavani’s anger and revenge hurts JD’s student friends who helped him destroy Bhavani’s network that are used to entrap underage thieves.
Bhavani threatens JD with more evil and destruction: “I have never forgiven anyone who has crossed my path till now...Quit this job and leave this town”. But JD’s resolve is persistent: “I will save them, every one of them”.
Then, JD and Bhavani meet in a final face-off as JD offers himself as a ‘ransom’ to save the boys.
I am fighting for your sake. So that your hands don’t grip the knife. You should not go back to your old ways. Not one of you, not even one of you should raise his hand.
It is deeply moving to see JD fight Bhavani - personified Evil - to save the boys, much more than that to give them hope and future. In the end, it’s the redemption and the change of hearts, particularly Bhavani’s underage henchmen that gives you a glimpse of the Good - True and the Beautiful.
Conversations with Master (2021)
Moments of the Good, True and the Beautiful - (why? even the deviant, deceitful, despicable) provide opportunities for conversations on matters that are genuinely theological concerns as well.
The theological reception of film can help us identify the discourse of desire/despair and engage with wider culture. It can help us bring the answers implied in the gospel to the questions at the heart of our culture, mirrored in Movies.
As followers of Jesus, we believe Evil is real. And that, Evil became a reality due to the Fall and our fallenness is seen in every aspect of life. God created the Good - True and the Beautiful world but sin made it deviant, deceitful, and despicable. Evil, then is the corruption of that which is Good.
Jesus triumphed over the forces of evil on the Cross. God – in Jesus – redeems us from the deviant, deceitful, despicable and invites us to experience the Good – True and the Beautiful.
God wants His people - the Church - to overcome Evil in its various forms - exploitation, violence, disease, and poverty – with determined resistance, goodness, and personal transformation. Finally, God will defeat Evil.
Master (2021) provides an occasion to talk about Good Vs Evil and share our hope of the final defeat of Evil. True, we live in a messy world. Fortunately, all is not lost. We can fight Evil with determined resistance, personal transformation and the Good.
All I know is that small actions can make a huge collective impact. In the end, Good shall overcome Evil. Take heart. We are on the winning side!
Samuel Thambusamy is a PhD candidate with the Oxford Center for Religion and Public Life.
Photo by Ehsan Habashi on Unsplash
For Other Articles by Samuel Thambusamy
Jesus - A Ransom for Many