How the minds of average Indian movie-goers have been muddled due to over-dose of masala! Don’t get me wrong! I have nothing against them personally. However, it seems to be a corroborated fact that the shrewdness of an average film buff in India has been distorted a great deal due to these so-called ‘masala films’.
Quoting wiki, “Action Masala films of Indian cinema are those that mix genres in one work. Typically these films freely mix action, comedy, romance, and drama or melodrama. They tend to be musicals that include songs filmed in picturesque locations. The genre is named after the masala, a mixture of spices in Indian cuisine. According to The Hindu, “masala is the most popular genre of Indian cinema“.
That last bit of information is sortof alarming though. Does this mean that the majority of films, churned out year after year by the various industries in India, were characterized by an average of five songs (maybe two of them being item numbers), four to five over-the-top stunt scenes and a love triangle (or quadrangle even!) all driven by a logic-less plot and shirtless hero?
And the worst part is, the Indian Censor Board happily grants them a U or a U/A, which means even kids under the age of twelve can watch all this stuff without (any/parental) restriction. Have you ever imagined how the average kid (of ages 6-12) in India would comprehend things like the hero turning a rebel against the wrongdoers in our society by beating them to a bloody pulp or murdering them secretly, as if this is the only way we can bring about a positive change in people’s lives (Okay! Maybe that atleast counts to justice served in a filmi fashion); quick cut to the next scene, our man is performing tappankooth with all the ladies in the colony (one of them scantily clad – ITEM it seems!), followed by a scene where he sits down n’ gulps dosas prepared by his mom. That would likely be the same scene where his mom (with a traditional mindset even if the story is seemingly set amidst a bustling metro city) tells him (the hero’s age could fall anywhere between 20 and 60 in Indian cinema, and yet) that he needs to find a girl and get married asap (so that he will stop being so care-free and turn over a responsible leaf), while the hero says NO! (Perfect mom-and-son scenario I tell you. Meh! What a bore!). Masala-filmi moms these days, GOSH, they’re absolutely ludicrous.
Next scene would be where our man finds his leading lady either enjoying the rains or playing a damsel-in-distress. And he is forced to rip apart some fifty odd goons (single-handedly!) in the process of becoming Superman of the neighborhood and inadvertently attracting the attention of the dumb blonde lead (who has been added to the film because of everything else sans acting chops). It is all so effing predictable. Sigh. Some unnecessary scenes (under the disguise of ‘comedy-tracks’; bore-fests in reality!) which most likely do not affect the central thread, are all added in, for good measure. Scenes are solely stacked against each other in an incoherent manner and the viewer is asked to make sense out of this entire jumble. Moreover, why is the audience subjected to such inane predictable stories lacking in creativity or food-for-thought (because of compromises made in the name of “entertainment”?) In my opinion, a movie should always possess some X factor that makes it stand out from the clutter, even though it might be following an age-old format of love-dance routines, stunts and familial melodrama. Also, coming to more significant part, how will audiences which are familiar to typical masala fares accept offbeat films?
Time and again, it has been reinstated that the majority of the movie-going demography in India continue to regard films as only ‘feel-good entertainment pieces’, with adrenaline, testosterone and progesterone being pumped in unequal measures. But yes, I’m not writing off the Indian (or more specifically South Indian) audience completely. How in hell would films in recent times like Soodhu Kavvum (an excellent black comedy), Pizza (a well-made horror thriller), Kaakka Muttai or Naanum RowdyDhaan (another entertaining black comedy) strike gold at the box-office? <Notwithstanding the fact that Singams, Veerams, Kombans and Vedalams simultaneously continued to retain their proficiency in bringing audience to theatres>. Same goes with Malayalam cinema in recent times. Many new-gen directors have taken the much treaded formulaic path yet made films that were both fun to watch and gave off some matter to chew on, despite the simplicity and age-old storylines (For eg. Amen, Kali, Premam, Maheshinte Prathikaram, Action Hero Biju, Mumbai Police, Drishyam, Pathemari and so on.. none of these films boasted of a completely fresh scenario yet were either good or excellent films). However, there have also been instances where certain films (or rather call them out-of-the-box ‘experiments’) such as Mosayile Kuthirameenukal, Nirnaayakam, Lukka Chuppi and even Double Barrel(an experiment in totality) bombed big time. A remedy for this would be to not brand a film as purely art-house or commercial or following a pre-determined format. Let it have its own identity; in other words let the story, direction, performances, technicalities and buoyant blend of genres drive you to discern its brand.
Now let us look back at masala films again. The 70s and 80s saw the rise of these illogical action-rom-com heterogeneous mixtures (similar to how low-grade cannibal films were a rage in Europe during the same era) that were welcomed by the Indian audience with utmost appreciation and led to the christening of many a SUPERSTAR. Old-gen stars Amitabh Bachchan, Rajnikanth, Chiranjeevi, Nagarjuna, MGR have all done masala films in their prime that cemented their stardom in their respective industries. More recently, Salman Khan, Akshay Kumar, Vijay, Ajith Kumar, Mahesh Babu, Ram Charan and Allu Arjun have pulled off astonishing feats churning out one masala film after another yet tasted success.
The masala format does not merely stick to actors alone. Filmmakers such as Siva, Vysakh, Puri Jagannath, Srinu Vaitla, Hari, Sundar C, Prabhu Deva, Sajid Khan, David Dhawan, Rohit Shetty and Anees Bazmee have always stuck to their tried-n-tested formula. Essentially speaking, every filmmaker has a bit of a masala-lover in them. Few established directors (mostly of big-budget fares) especially the likes of Shankar, SS Rajamouli, AR Murugadoss and KS Ravikumar have actually handed us (somewhat better) masala films with an X factor (an edge over the others you can say!) that made them comparatively more memorable.
I read somewhere that the recent SRK film ‘Fan‘ did not perform as great as some of his previous masala ventures Dilwale, Chennai Express, Happy New Yearand Jab Tak Hai Jaan. The star chose to step out of his comfort zone to do a reasonably different film and it does badly at the box-office and people bash the film in its entirety. Same applies to Vijay with respect to ‘Puli‘ (although ‘Puli‘ followed a cliched storyline fit for a masala film). Now I’m not imposing that either Fan or Puli was necessarily a good or bad film here. Is the audience trying to denote that anything outside the typical masala-format seems not befitting these guys (who are apparently better dancers-than-actors)? Agreed, they may not even be great character-actors but they’re SUPERSTARS already. Poor box office turnout for SUPERSTARS ultimately implies that they go back to remaking those unbearable masala-flicks for the umpteenth time.
Some might contend saying that arthouse and offbeat films or simply put, films that stray away from the regular format, have their own audience. But sadly, this constitutes only a minor 2-3% of the entire film-going population. Fans of SUPERSTARS will continue to welcome these masala films as long as they get to glorify their idol and have a great time at the cinemas! This does not mean that a serious movie-buff will be ‘having a great time’ as well. In other words, quality keeps hitting all-time lows but box office records keep getting broken. It is quite a tough task for a filmmaker as well as an actor to balance the scorecard. Exceptions are definitely there, but they are too far n’ few to warrant notice of the masala-craving Indian audience.
Just have a look at the highest grossing films of all time in India. Barring a couple of flicks here and there, most of them have followed the masala format. Does this mean the rest of the world gets to stereotype all Indian films as meaningless and full of bright colours and song-and-dance routines at historically significant or exotic locations? While it is not alright to measure a movie’s success purely in terms of its box office intake, it does play its part. After all, higher box office revenue signifies that a bigger crowd has taken efforts to see the film in the theater or on DVD/Blu-ray. It’s all business at the end of the day.
So credit needs to be given to the filmmakers who have actually put in some thought behind the making of those films which have triumphantly blended commercial cinema with some basic logic and arthouse elements. We all know very well that a film like ‘The Revenant‘ would not have achieved its current ‘cult status’, if not for big names like Dicaprio, Tom Hardy (and Alejandro G Inarritu). Therefore yeah, it is an industry of stars. It will continue to be. Just give us a bigger percentage of content-based films along with them typical masala templates.
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Writer by Profession, Wanderer by Passion.