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Lokesh Kanagaraj’s home-grown style

Lokesh Kanagaraj, the director of ‘Master’, ‘Kaithi’ and ‘Vikram’, owes as much to Selvamani and Aabavanan as Scorsese or Tarantino

Vijay in 'Master'
Vijay in 'Master'

When we quiz older film-makers from the south on their inspirations, we hear familiar names: Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Paul Thomas Anderson. Lokesh Kanagaraj gives us these familiar names too but he adds that one of his favourites is the Aabavanan-written, R. Aravindraj-directed Oomai Vizhigal (1986). As famous as the film is, it’s rare to hear it mentioned by film fans, and even rarer to hear about it from film-makers who have established themselves in the last 25 years.

Peeling through Lokesh’s enthusiasm for Kamal Haasan, we find that his real heroes are writers, storyboard executioners and action directors. In that sense he’s closest to Tarantino. Lokesh sees cinema not only in K. Balachander or Balu Mahendra, the craftsmen, but more often in steadfast technicians like Aabavanan and R.K. Selvamani.

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So far, Lokesh—the most exciting Indian film-maker working the action genre, with Maanagaram (2017), Kaithi (2019), Master (2021) and Vikram (2022)—has not expanded on these influences beyond the song references and proclamations of his fascination for actor Mansoor Ali Khan (Veerabhadran in Selvamani’s Captain Prabhakaran). However, the generous use of songs from the late 1980s and early 1990s in his films says a lot about his appetite for Tamil action films of that period.

Take K. Rajeshwar’s Amaran (1992), which was, at the time, a failure at the box office. The gangster drama, derivative but with compelling mythmaking and cinematography, was considered too violent for the “family audience”. The hype created by a bouncy soundtrack from Adithyan didn’t help, especially Vethala Potta Sokkula, featuring Karthik and Silk Smitha.

In Master, young men in a juvenile facility become tabletop percussionists and start humming the lively song during the hero’s (Vijay as JD) lowest point. Veerabhadran, the antagonist in Captain Prabhakaran (1991), appears in the lesser-known Predator pretender Asuran (1995)—written by Selvamani—with its most popular song used for an action set-piece in Vikram. Selvamani’s Pulan Visaranai (1990) and Captain Prabhakaran feature some of the best action sequences of this period (including Lokesh’s favourite extended prologue before opening credits that lasted three films), and Aabavanan delivered some inspired storytelling in the action films of that time.

Selvamani’s protagonists are men of the law, while Aabavanan’s are wronged men forced by circumstance to fight for good from the outside. The masculine camaraderie of Oomai Vizhigal is reflected in Maanagaram; Kaithi borrows its state actor-convict interplay from Inaindha Kaigal (1990).

In Lokesh’s cinema, Selvamani and Aabavanan influences converge. He is self-aware enough to pick the best of Selvamani—the latter’s eye for set-pieces and build-up—and from Aabavanan, his old school, mythical, high stakes storytelling. The politico-criminal nexus in Lokesh’s films draws into its maelstrom laymen, lawmen and those disowned or let down by the state; the compelling aspects of Kaithi and Master come from this very clash of power.

While Vijayakanth’s action films had portrayed him as a prototypical police officer performing procedurals with breakneck action, films like Oomai Vizhigal and Inaindha Kaigal have regular people putting in a united effort. Despite these differences, both types of protagonists went after crime lords with links to political authority. These were always well-written and compelling antagonists, an element that Kanagaraj never misses in his films either. The unnamed young leads with varying levels of adrenaline—played by Sri and Sundeep Kishan—in Maanagaram are as susceptible to be pulled into the nexus of crime, politics and law enforcement as the bungling idiot wanting to be a henchman.

In Kaithi, a man freed after a 10-year prison sentence is called to help investigators during a drug bust where the police force is compromised, and the only trustworthy man is a mild-mannered, avuncular constable guarding a fort.

What results is unmitigated violence filmed with a relish rarely witnessed in Tamil mainstream cinema. No other Indian action film-maker has serviced such set-pieces with auteur-like touches in the last decade or so. The darkness of Lokesh’s subjects finds a home in the murky underworld and night-time visual palette of his frames. Lokesh loves to play with lights; the streetlight of an intersection in Maanagaram and the headlights of vehicles in Kaithi centre the action that is delivered without cuts and never lets our focus slip away from the kinetic aspects of the scene.

What editor Philomin Raj brings to Lokesh’s films cannot be understated; they have worked together in every film so far. They know when no character is required in the frame—like a through-the-vehicles shot in Kaithi—and when they need both their main characters, as in the interval scene of Master. A lamp that illuminates the subject under interrogation dazzles the hero in light as it swings like a pendulum, even as we swing between the narratives of hero and villain.

Lokesh Kanagaraj is ready with his fifth film, Leo (releasing 19 October), starring Vijay, and armed with a cinematic universe that could go boom or bust. The very fact that top actors have ceded ground to a director is a moment worthy of celebration in an industry saturated by male star persona.

Aditya Shrikrishna is a freelance writer and film critic from Chennai.

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