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Vijay the Master: A blockbuster during a pandemic

‘Master’ is being called a ‘messiah film’ for bringing audiences back to cinema halls in Tamil Nadu. But why are people willing to risk their health for a film that is being screened with obvious violations of safety protocols?

Vijay is known as the highest paid Tamil actor and among the most bankable stars of his generation (Photo: @MasterOfficiaI | Twitter)
Vijay is known as the highest paid Tamil actor and among the most bankable stars of his generation (Photo: @MasterOfficiaI | Twitter)

There was a joke doing rounds of Tamil Nadu on social media last week: “There will be a second wave of covid-19 from 13 January.” It was the day Master, starring Tamil superstar Vijay, hit the screens.

Master had been ready for release in March 2020. Then came the nationwide lockdown, and it was delayed indefinitely. With no certainty around when the pandemic would let up, producers across India released films on OTT platforms. But not the makers of Master.

Instead, on 28 December, Vijay met Tamil Nadu chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswami at the latter’s residence. A source told The Hindu that the actor wanted Pongal to be “a celebration for movie-goers”. The following week, as the covid-19 caseload in Tamil Nadu still hovered in the high hundreds, Palaniswami allowed movie halls to have 100% occupancy. By the time the Union government forced a rollback to 50%, Master had already announced a theatrical release for 13 January.

Muthukumar, a 24-year-old commercial painter from Edayanchavadi, a village a short distance from Puducherry, could not have been happier.

Muthu, as he prefers to be called, has been a Vijay fan as long as he can remember. “When I was small, I’d cry if someone said bad things about him,” he says. Sometimes, he'd even beat people up for such offences. Muthu couldn’t fathom Vijay’s critics. Vijay was a good dancer, fighter, son and lover; he could make you laugh, he could make you sing. Muthu firmly believes Vijay is also a “soft character” – a gentleman – in real life. Muthu himself has imbibed his hero’s temperament over the years. Now he only picks fights on the star’s behalf on social media.

Known as Thalapathy (commander) to his fans, in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, Vijay inspires the kind of devotion Amitabh Bachchan used to and Salman Khan still does in the north. Starting as a child actor, Vijay built his career on the back of escapist masala movies that, of late, also touch upon social and political issues. At 46, he’s ranked in the league of superstars like Rajinikanth and Ajith.

Vijay recently unseated Rajinikanth as the highest paid actor, and will be paid 100 crore for his upcoming movie Thalapathy 65, Hindustan Times has reported.

With fans like Muthu, a Vijay movie has come to be known as an “event film”. “In Tamil Nadu, scenes don't just happen inside the theatre,” film writer Aditya Shrikrishna wrote in The Quint last week. “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 is dancing, brass bands, flower-showers and scuffles at ticket windows, often starting days before the 4am opening shows in the state. All this, and more, was seen across India this time around too, with little regard for physical distancing. Shrikrishna was prescient when he asked: “What do you do about the crowds outside? How do you – if you could – regulate that?”

A Vijay film is known as an
A Vijay film is known as an "event film". (Photo: @MasterOfficial | Twitter,com)

Seating restrictions or not, it is difficult to score a ticket for the first-day-first-show for a Vijay film. But luckily for me, Muthu was part of three Vijay fan-clubs on WhatsApp. One of the admins knew a local politician in Tindivanam, a town in north Tamil Nadu. A day before the release, we had snagged 10 tickets for the 11am show at a single screen theatre, originally priced at Rs190, sold at Rs300. “The ticket is black,” Muthu had said, handing me mine. “Only the paper is white.”

On the morning of 13 January, we set off from Puducherry for Tindivanam, about 30km away, on a borrowed bike. Flags with Vijay’s smiling face on them fluttered outside the theatre gates. The cinema hall was packed with Vijay fans, most of them young men in their teens and 20s. Forget the 50% occupancy rule, most weren’t even wearing face-masks. But the atmosphere was electric. 

Master is a 179-minute song-dance-action-romance drama that Vijay can sleepwalk through by now. Yet, as he broke into the first dance sequence of the movie, droves rushed to join him near the screen and in the aisles. Muthu wasn’t among them. But every now and then, when you heard an ear-splitting whistle at Vijay’s one-liners, that was Muthu having the time of his life.

It took years for Vijay to get here. “He doesn’t have the performance skills of Kamal Hassan or the charisma of Rajinikanth,” says Bhama Devi Ravi, a film critic based in Chennai. “But his movies are clean and he’s got the guy-next-door charm that makes people relate to him.” 

A lot of this is strategy—like many Tamil actors, Vijay has political ambitions, a fact that is evident in the movies he does. Mersel (2017) had a critique of the goods and services tax, Sarkar (2018) raised awareness about electoral fraud, and Master, if you discount the histrionics, seeks reforms in juvenile prisons. Vijay is following the template set by the iconic MG Ramachandran, better known as MGR, followed by the late Jayalalithaa and now Kamal Haasan – where an actor’s fan-base doubles up as their party cadre when they pivot to politics.

It is a testament to Vijay's popularity that Master released in four languages in 4,000 screens across India, according to the film’s co-producer Lalit Kumar. “We were taking a risk,” says Kumar. “No one knew if people would come to the theatres. But Vijay said, if my movie doesn’t release in theatres, they (meaning the theatres) will vanish.”

For all the narrative of Vijay's desire to revive theatres, it’s likely that the clout of theatre-owners also played a part. When actor Suriya announced last April that Pon Magal Vandhal, a film he had produced, would release directly on a popular OTT platform, the Tamil Nadu Theatre And Multiplex Owners Association threatened to ban all his subsequent films.

And now, the all-important question: will the crowding cause a fresh wave of covid-19?

This same concern plagued Tenet, the much-anticipated Christopher Nolan movie last August as well. At the time, the National Association of Theatre Owners in the US created CinemaSafe, a protocol of uniform health and safety guidelines for movie theatres. This included reduced seating capacity, physical distancing, temperature checks and specialized air-filtration systems. All these measures reduced the risks but didn’t eliminate them. “Short of renting out an entire theatre, which is obviously not an option for most of us, there is no scenario in which going to a movie theater is a good idea,” Dr. Anne W. Rimoin, professor of epidemiology at the University Of California told the pop culture website AV Club last August.

Fans gather outside a theatre in Madurai to watch Tamil movie 'Master' on 13 January.
Fans gather outside a theatre in Madurai to watch Tamil movie 'Master' on 13 January. (PTI)

In India, cinema halls opened only in October. The Centre had imposed SOPs similar to the ones followed by the CinemaSafe theatres in the US. A few films like Tenet and Indu ki Jawani had released in India, too, but to a tepid response. Given the extended slump faced by Indian theatre owners, Master has high expectations riding on it. The film made 100 crore in net collections in the first three days, according to its official Twitter handle. If true, it will be the ninth Vijay movie to enter the 100-crore club. “Usually, when dates are postponed, the hype goes down. But this movie is a special case. As long as it was getting delayed, the hype went higher,” says Rajamannar K, a Coimbatore-based film distributor who released the movie in over 100 screens.

There seem to be reasons for the fans’ willingness to take health risks for the sake of a movie: “You can scare someone for one month, two months, but after that you can’t,” says Rajamannar. “This pandemic is going on for nearly a year. People are fed up. They want to move on. They want to see Vijay, even if it is with masks on.”

Not everyone is taking the precautions, though. On the day of the release, Chennai police fined 11 theatres for violating the 50% seating rule and other safety guidelines. But then, India has seen violations of physical distancing norms several times over the past few months. Be it festivals like Diwali or Durga Pujo, social occasions like New Year's celebrations or communal sports like jallikattu, people are tired of being cooped up indoors, and are reclaiming public and private places in droves without taking enough precautions.

Muthu too did not wear a mask during the screening. But he isn’t scared of getting infected. “When the lockdown happened, you [meaning, residents of cities] got house-arrested,” he tells me. “Not us. We’d all get together, we’d have biryani party, cricket party every day. We are all super only now.”

His only regret is that unlike Vijay’s last film release, he and his fan-friends couldn’t set off crackers or garland a banner with the actor’s image on it. “But at least we got to see the movie,” he beams.

What if you get covid-19? I persist. “I won’t,” he says reassuringly. “We’re strong. And now, we’re happy.”

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