Monday, June 22, 2015

Masss: Was it a Mass?!

Running for their lives towards the beginning of Massu Engira Masilamani aka Masss, our orphan hero Massu (Suriya) and his buddy Jet Li (Premgi Amaren) run right into a temple. In this temple is a holy man who tells them--and I’m paraphrasing from the subtitles here--“A rock outside is just a rock but if you see in the temple then it becomes a God. The mind is what gives meaning.” It’s an odd little moment of quiet shoehorned into a very loud, very busy film and the message stuck with me after the film was over, as I tried to piece together what it was, exactly, that I’d just seen. Masss is a lot of things all at once, what you see depends on where your brain places the meaning.

The main narrative of Masss doesn’t really come together until the second half of the film but it goes something like this: (Warning: Spoilers ahead) The film opens like a standard herogiri type of hero film. An escaped convict (Riyaz Khan) stabs a politician in the gut. (Bad guy, check!) The action then switches to Massu and Jet Li enjoying their carefree life as small time street hustlers. (Hero introduction song, check!) Massu spots a gorgeous girl (Nayantara) and promptly falls in love. (Heroine, check!) The film continues on in this easygoing way, jokes flying everywhere, for about 20 to 30 minutes when all the action screeches to a halt as Massu and Jet Li are very badly injured in a car wreck.

The buddies, still afraid of getting chased by angry rowdies, run away from the hospital only to find that they’re now getting chased by ghosts! With the advice from the aforementioned holy man--and some half remembered trivia from Hollywood--Massu realizes he can identify ghosts with the help of a smartphone camera. And the jokey tone of the film stops dead as he realizes Jet Li was actually killed in the car crash and is now a ghost. Massu is heartbroken but you can’t keep a good sidekick down and Jet Li is determined to stay with his buddy and help wrangle all the ghosts who’ve come swarming out of the woodwork now that they’ve realized Massu can see and hear them. The next chunk of the film is dedicated to the two buddies running a scam exorcism business in which Massu’s ghost gang causes “spooky” things to happen to rich people that Massu will happily bring a halt to… for a stiff fee.

AND THEN, finally, at one house, Masss faces a ghost who isn’t in his gang and the main plot of the film whirrs into life. After some seriously creepy (and very well played by Suriya) business with a mirror, Massu realizes that he’s face-to-face with a ghost who looks exactly like him but with a ponytail so we can tell them apart! Creepy Duplicate Ghost Massu knows all right buttons to push with Massu and convinces him and Jet Li to truck out to the boonies to raid a giant stash of cash from an industrialist’s safe. But at the last minute the Creepy Duplicate Ghost Massu feeds Massu the wrong code first and triggers the alarm! Massu does get the safe open but is forced to leave the cash and make a run for it. But while he’s escaping Creepy Duplicate Ghost Massu again feeds him wrong information and their getaway vehicle hits and kills a guy (Sharath Lohitshwa, later we find out his character is Anthony). And while all this is happening the bad guy from the beginning creeps in and steals all the money from the safe.

The second half of the film essentially deals with the fallout from the theft and murder. A delightfully swaggering policeman named Vikram (the much-loved Parthiban) is sent in to solve the case and he swiftly sniffs out that Massu has some involvement. But Massu himself, though aware of the danger from the law and from the industrialist looking for his missing money, finally, finally has his crisis of conscience and realizes that the easy-breezy way he’d been living his life was responsible for a lot of pain for the community around him. Massu decides to enrich his heart instead of his wallet and he helps his ghost friends fulfill their last wishes in a song (“Piravi”) that quite unexpectedly set me crying.

All that’s left is to figure out what the heck is up with Creepy Duplicate Ghost Massu. Is he a personification of Massu’s worst instincts? No. Some sort of weird head cylon out of Battlestar Galactica? No. The ghost of guy who happens to look exactly like Massu? Well… kind of. The final bit of plot clicks into place when the bad guy from the beginning, Kamal, turns out not to be a bad guy at all but Massu’s father’s best friend because Creepy Duplicate Ghost Massu is actually Massu’s dead father!!!!! And the men he’d been using Massu to murder were the ones who’d slaughtered Massu’s entire family and stolen their land! Naturally Massu then teams up with the ghost of his father to take his final revenge.

Just as the holy man said in the beginning, how one sees Masss really depends on what one is looking for. If you want a big, bright, silly masala film, you can certainly watch the film that way and have a good time. There are jokes and cameos from familiar faces and a great ghost-themed song-and-dance number that is more than enough to keep audiences looking for “leave your brain at home” entertainment entertained. But there was another thread running underneath all the silliness. All the seemingly random plot twists were just variations on that theme of what you see depends on what you want to see. And thinking back on the film I really appreciated the thought that went into it.

The biggest change in perspective is the Creepy Duplicate Ghost morphing into the father. All of a sudden he’s not just being a dick but acting from a place of justified anger. But there were quite a few of these moments--Massu realizing Jet Li is a ghost; Kamal going from bad guy to uncle; Massu understanding that things he did in the past weren’t harmless. Even in the beginning the theme is there, with Massu dressed like a cop breaking up black market liquor sales… only for the audience to realize he’s actually stealing the money.

Going along with the motif of switched perspectives was a nice message of community. People are only strangers until you hear their stories. Our actions do affect others and not always in good ways. The money you take from one person isn’t just a gain for you, it’s a loss for the other. And, oddly enough, but also important, donating your organs after you die isn’t creepy and may give another person--for example a small, tiny, adorable blind boy--a second chance at life.

It took me a little while to settle into Masss but once I did, I ended up really enjoying the film. I don’t know how well it would have worked without Suriya, who as a hero always seems to really get exactly where even the silliest of films is going. Nor do I know how well it would play for somebody without at least a working knowledge of Tamil films. There were a lot of gags and scenes that relied on the audience being conversant in filmi speak. I’m certainly not an expert but I could appreciate the throwaway references to Ghajini and Pizza and Naan Kadavul and I knew the faces, if not the names, of many of the cameo making actors.

While Masss isn’t going to the Oscars anytime soon, it was certainly an entertaining film and interesting enough to keep my guessing until the very, very end. All else aside, it definitely proves that if Suriya has signed on to a film, there is no way it will be a typical masala potboiler.

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