Readers Write In #339: Bhavani (Master) is one of the greatest villains in Tamil cinema

Posted on February 19, 2021


(by Alex John)

I grew up with Tamil films. Much more dramatized and expressive than the films in my tongue, they often made me feel elated and a fan of the unassuming funfair they are. Tamil cinema’s antagonists are probably the most rambunctious lot in Indian cinema. From MN Nambiar to Raghuvaran, and from Prakash Raj to the muscle-toned Mumbai imports, Tamil movie baddies with a no-hold-back-emotions policy were the easiest available hate-objects in my childhood, and were the guilty-pleasure I sought after when I grew up and started taking cinema more seriously. The dread had given way to cheesiness over the years, and nothing prepared to meet Bhavani, the steel-fisted, child-killing monster who reminded me that sometimes movie villains can make you dread them absolutely and at the same time wanting for more of them. So, what makes me think Bhavani is one of the greatest villains of Tamil cinema history? Well, that is the topic of discussion today.

The villain propels the story

I don’t remember a mainstream Tamil cinema maintaining such a generous approach to its villain before Master. Not only does he have a back story that almost justifies his monstrous existence, he is also never reduced to a mere prop that exists just to serve the purpose of highlighting the hero’s upstanding practices. The hero himself is ambivalent, at least in the beginning of the film, and here, on the contrary to Tamil movie traditions, we desperately want him to come out of his self-imposed dormancy to crush the unstoppable abomination. The villain doesn’t come across the hero’s path, it happens the other way around, which is a rarity in not just Tamil films, but also in any mainstream Indian film industry. Of course, this has to do with Vijay Sethupathy’s stardom, but the character writing is so strong and dreadfully appealing that an actor like him had no qualms in playing it at full throttle, resulting in the shaping of an antagonist made of stuff that nightmares are made of. In fact, it is the villain that takes the story forward; an inversion of story-telling style Indian cinema should really look forward to.

The true physical menace that Bhavani generates on screen

It’s really hard to find another villain that terrifies us with his physical presence like Bhavani in Indian cinema. Amjad Khan used to have this appeal in his heydays. This is not just about the sturdy appearance, but also about the actor’s ability to transform his domineering physique into the sheer terror of the invasion of your body and soul. Prakash Raj came close to being this in Ghilli, but he too succumbed to the average Tamil villain’s fate of being hilarious than threatening towards the end of the film (It’s funny that the actor was accused of lacking Sonu Sood’s physical menace when he acted in Dabangg 2). Make your villain cunning and dreadful every other way, but the character will fall behind the one who can make you feel cornered and about to get hurt (yes, the same feeling that makes domestic violence one of the most dreaded things on the earth). I wasn’t scared for the hero whenever Bhavani was, on screen; I was scared I would cross paths with a man like this, become the subject of his wrath somehow, and have my ribs jammed into my heart. This is true horror, not something deliciously superficial like a villain with eyes bulged out yelling out he will kill the hero and burn his family down.

Bhavani made me forget the film’s hero’s shortcomings

God knows one of the biggest superstars in south India is also probably the most stagnant in terms of choosing script and characters. Relying more on charisma and attitude than acting chops (textbook definition of a mass-star, but even such stars have anomalous moments of real acting, but I can’t imagine Vijay winning the national award for the best actor like MGR did), Vijay is always content with his limited facial expressions and repetitive intonation. JD in Master is no different, even though he is portrayed in the beginning of the film as someone in need of emotional assistance (I guess this is as far as film-noir goes for Vijay). Yet I didn’t care because the antagonist was so fearsome, ruthless and miles ahead of being a serviceable mass market villain that he made me tolerate watching a serviceable hero for almost 3 hours. This is something I’d always love to have in our mainstream cinema that has heroes who mostly play themselves and makes us wonder if ‘actor’ is a term we should waste on them.

The minimalism

I am so glad the makers of Master captured the aptitude of today’s movie goers, especially youngsters’, while forming Bhavani’s character. Flamboyance is the trademark of the baddies in Indian commercial films, especially in the southern films, but Bhavani is so sober and close-to-life that he barely raises his voice in the film. He is not a chest-thumping gorilla, but is more like a covert alligator that lays low in the water, sometimes preying on the life in the water, or sometimes out of it. Watch him small-talking to somebody before he kills him, or donning hair-horns while taking a lavish bath, or explaining the sufferings an ostrich goes through while laying an egg to one of his henchmen with an air of eerie intimacy surrounding him. This is fascinating stuff for an industry that slowly transforms itself into a place of realistic movie-making from a stagy, dialogue-heavy past.

Alright, I have jotted down about why I think Bhavani is one of the best baddies ever in Tamil cinema, but what makes me happier than all these things? Nothing but the widespread acceptance the character and the film got all over south India. We usually hate it when a film goes even slightly off the beaten path (remember, our biggest complaints against mainstream films include this cringy one – the hero’s introduction was not strong enough (sigh!)). Master- which had a semi-vulnerable hero, lack of regular ‘masala’ elements, unusual set pieces, and a villain who terrifies the hero with his iron fists-might have gone the same way, but it didn’t. Instead, it went on to become one of the biggest hits in Vijay’s and Vijay Sethupathy’s careers. It would be far-fetched to call it revolutionary, but Master’s box office performance is definitely a ray of hope for the movie lovers who expect our cinema to catch up with our international counterparts. Is it too much If they ask for a Javier Bardem of our own? Does it hurt if we have an actor who can portray a meek transgender in trouble and also a cold-blooded killing machine?

The success of these films and characters says no. Bhavani is not a matter of exultation, but is definitely a harbinger of what these young filmmakers have in store for us, and is a reason why we should not go back to our petty film-viewing demands that have been keeping us playing catch-up with international cinema forever, period.