What is Masala Cinema?
(parts of this piece originally appeared on NG)
What is ‘masala’ cinema? At some point this question should be raised with a certain force. The responses in turn would hopefully address what this ‘haunting’ signifies at the current moment. For it is a ‘haunting’. We are not ‘done’ with ‘masala’ cinema’. We have not yet exorcised the ghosts. Minimally, we continue to remain confused about what this ‘heritage’ means. ‘Bollywood’ cinema (which is not the same as Bombay cinema) has in recent years wrestled more explicitly with this legacy and the results have been on the whole quite mixed.
It seems to me that the most fundamental principle that contemporary filmmakers and often afficionados have forgotten about ‘masala’ cinema is that it was always intended to be taken very seriously. Certainly audiences did so when this brand of cinema was at its peak. There was a strong cathartic principle to films in this genre (and it is by no means clear that the word ‘genre’ can be used for a cinema which was really a ‘pastiche’ of genres or a bleeding of one into another, much as in Shakespeare). All sorts of political struggles were represented in those films. The narratives often relied on mythic referrents. This was not a cinema one laughed at, it was a cinema one laughed with. Much like ancient Greek tragedy the best examples of the masala tradition were powerful emotional experiences not reducible to models of pure consumption. Finally, masala cinema was much variegated. A Manmohan Desai was radically different from a Prakash Mehra, a Yash Chopra profoundly so from a Nasir Hussein. The examples could be multiplied. Another misreading of this tradition seeks to obfuscate the differences and simply present all these earlier films as one and the same.
Masala cinema waned after the early 80s and eventually survived through this decade but especially in the next through B grade manifestations. No serious talents seemed to be capable of mining this rich legacy in the 90s and since then some new directors have only gingerly approached the ‘genre’. Most often they have been in the business of paying ‘homage’ and almost equally often they have taken the route of ‘parody’, something that based on this discussion should not come as a surprise.
The perspective on ‘masala’ today is essentially one of condescension where one somehow enjoys the movies while laughing at their ‘logical lapses’ or their ‘overblown’ sense of drama or even their ‘larger than life’ characters. In other words the cinema might be ‘consumed’ like junk food but must not be taken seriously. In a more critical register one could argue that a certain Bloomian poetics of influence plays itself out here. ‘Masala’ is what one always seeks to repress. Better still the ‘forgetting’ of masala in the 90s led to a ‘return of the repressed’ in the new millennium.
From the perspective of the present the original masala films were already ‘parodies’ in some form or fashion. How then does one parody these if one approaches the subject from such an angle? I would suggest that some of the recent films have struggled with this problem. In Farhan Akhtar’s Don for example there is the attempted ‘refining’ of a masala classic. There is simply no realization that what often seems campy in the original is so by design and is in fact a strength of the film. Masala cinema often collapsed distinctions between terms such as ‘A grade’ and ‘B grade’ cinema. The latter was always folded into the former. Another way to understand it would be to suggest that the distinctions were never as clear cut as these might have been in 70s Hollywood (the ‘Western’ obsession with ‘classification’ perhaps offers another example in this sense!). Let’s take a small example from the films and see how the translation works. There was an old joke about the original Don. People wondered how many briefcases Don had if these kept exploding from time to time. In Farhan Akhtar’s Don when we are at the dead center of Don’s lair we see a whole set of identical briefcases. On the one hand this is an inspired move and really one of the genuinely zany moves in an otherwise insipid film. On the other hand one sees how Farhan tries to explain away or ‘rationalize’ something in the original work. Those exploding briefcases must have a reason or logic. This misses the masala encounter. There can in fact never be any explanation for Don’s briefcases! In a more Deleuzian sense Farhan is guilty of going to the ‘outside’ of the frame when in fact ‘masala’ cinema gathers its sustenance from the notion (also Deleuzian) of an ‘absolute outside’ of the frame. In the former instance one might account for the briefcases, in the latter case one cannot. To ‘refine’ masala cinema is any sense is to completely falsify it.
Another approach is suggested by Shaad Ali who remains at this time a strong reader of the tradition even if he is also problematic in other ways. Bunty aur Babli is perhaps the closest one gets to 70s cinema in this vein without the ‘apologia’ that is often offered by way of a spoof. BnB is a comedy for sure much as many Desai films were comedies, which is again not to suggest that these are not meant to be taken seriously. ‘Comedy’ in a Desai film is often the absence of ‘tragedy’ much as this term was defined in classical Western registers. Richard Pena thinks of all Desai films as comedies, a labeling that one can accept with important caveats. In any case BnB summons that world for us. It is unapologetic masala even if the absence of the all important action element here is perhaps a bow to Yashraj interests. More importantly Shaad Ali makes the masala his own which is to suggest that the film is not literally old wine in a new bottle. In Shaad Ali’s next, Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, a film which cannot be adequately summarized with brevity, the director seems to be resorting to parody but as opposed to his peers he greatly alters the terms of the debate. There is a ‘fold’ effect apparent in JBJ in many ways. For the purposes of this discussion Shaad grafts masala codes onto a quintessentially 90s love story. Situationally the film mimics the latter but the characters often behave as if they were conscious of having wandered out of a 70s masala work and into a 90s film. Rather than a deconstruction of masala this film involves a parody of the 90s by way of masala. The joke is really going the other way! As I have just indicated one cannot hope to do justice to this rather deceptive film all at once. But it might still be plausibly argued that Shaad Ali for all his genuine achievements in these two films nonetheless privileges comedy as his access point into the earlier tradition. After all, what about the high drama of those earlier films? Shaad Ali’s wager remains open in some sense.
Nonetheless one of the reasons I am ambivalent about the efforts of someone like Shaad Ali though I might otherwise like the films is because it seems to me that you cannot quite rescue masala cinema with the tongue in cheek take. For one this kind of self-parody is already present in that genre! It’s a bit like Leone’s Westerns that are very dramatic and very tongue in cheek at the same time (in his later Westerns he privileged the latter pole of the equation even more). But leaving this aside the wager in a Tashan or a JBJ is that masala cannot perhaps be taken too literally. I would however argue that masala is precisely what must be taken very seriously! An important connecting link here has been once again Bachchan and the Desai intervention in his career. Beyond a point masala cinema was converted into ‘comedy’ by the Desai/Bachchan combo. I don’t mean the obvious comedic elements that surfaced in these films to ever increasing degrees but the fact that these films were ‘comedies’ in a more structural sense, even in a classical sense. The contemporary directors feed off this history when they approach masala cinema. The Deewar/Zanjeer kind of more intense mode is rarely practiced though a Ram Gopal Varma picks up on this on his best days. Santoshi made in many ways a perfect masala film with Khakee.
Farah Khan in both her earlier Main Hoon Na or in the recent Om Shanti Om has not offered a solution either. The director’s interests have always been rather more superficial in terms of ‘re-igniting’ the genre. Once again one witnesses ‘parody’ as the ’safe’ option. But the problem lies elsewhere. Both Main Hoon Na and Om Shanti Om are really 90s films in the guise of masala homage. The former is quite uninteresting in this regard, the latter is also a mixed achievement though with surprising results on one level. Farah Khan might have inadvertently done masala cinema a favor. How?
No one having any real familiarity would recognize any authenticity in Farah Khan’s spoofing of masala in OSO. For one there are all sorts of anachronisms. The initial portion of the film is set in 1977. Karz was not being shot at the time. Nor were Rajni-like Southern stars known in Bombay circles at that point. In fact Rajni’s eventual iconic avatars were still in the future even in Tamil cinema of that period! Similarly Shahrukh refers to Kamal Haasan in the same breath as Gemini Ganesan in 1977 when this kind of juxtaposition would have made far more sense some years later when Kamal had made more of a mark in his career. Shantipriya (the 70s actress who is the first incarnation of Deepika Phadukone) appears in a film looking strikingly like the Aishwarya Rai of Devdas. That kind of Bengali look was again not very current in 70s cinema. A director like Shakti Samantha who sometimes represented a Bengali milieu never indulged in the Bhansali sort of glamorised image of the the Bengali ‘parineeta’ that seems apparent in that just cited moment. The Pakistani actor Javed Shaikh plays the late, somewhat pathetic Rajesh Khanna, and he seems completely wrong for the part. The Rajesh Khanna and Jeetendra that show up in the song with Shantipriya seem to belong to very different eras. A very young Rajesh Khanna is juxtaposed with a much older Jeetendra who seems to be more suggestive of the 80s. A Mithun-like figure shows up who again was not known in th period represented in the film and gained prominence later and was really a truly 80s phenomenon. One is even more surprised to see a Govinda figure here! So on and so forth. The 70s and 80s are combined into one period in Farah Khan’s imagination when there is a world of difference between the two decades in every conceivable sense.
It is not that I am missing the forest for the trees here. Even a spoof must have a certain authentic relation to what is being spoofed. Otherwise the spoof falls flat. Or at best it becomes a collection of gags or curiosities. The more interesting element that emerges from this entire first half of the film is the extent to which Farah Khan’s representation of the 70s tradition is really a parody of B or C grade films of that period. Or at best a parody of the campy elements of masala cinema. This is not a homage to a glorious tradition but a pastiche of the worst excesses of the period. Not surprisingly Manoj Kumar occupies center stage or Dev Anand crops up. These are soft targets. Leaving this aside one of the most important features of the 70s tradition was the city of Bombay that appeared in film after film and whose topgraphy was linked to a greater degree with the films of that period than any before or since. Unfortunately all of Farah Khan’s homages take place on one or two sets and there is little sense of the city outside. The director fundamentally offers no more than the pastiche equivalent of jokes that later generations often made about the tradition. The older Rajesh Khanna or Dev Anand or Manoj Kumar were always the ‘bad’ 70s as opposed to the good 70s of a younger Rajesh Khanna, a Dharam who was transforming himself from 60s romantic or family film hero to action star, and of course Bachchan. Dharam shows up briefly in the film and thankfully Rishi Kapoor is represented by his Karz clip that begins the film. Amitabh Bachchan is completely absent. I think this is important. Bachchan is still so absolutely central to our concerns that he resists completely any attempts at parody. Nonetheless, absenting Bachchan from any 70s homage is to more or less collapse the ‘homage’ even before it has begun. This is therefore the film’s blind spot but also a point to be reflected on in serious fashion inasmuch as it highlights a whole set of issues — the twinning of Bachchan and ‘masala’ in the minds of many, the extent to which Bachchan today represents almost entirely on his own Bombay film history, all of this therefore becomes problematic when one ‘deals’ with ‘masala’ because one also has to account for Bachchan’s ‘permanence’. So on and so forth.
As a political matter Farah Khan is doing no more than playing to audiences who either remember the 70s imperfectly or not at all or have not been exposed to this decade in the first place. It is somewhat ironic that the director has such great reverence for Nasir Hussein because her perspective on the 70s relates far more to this director and his brand of very campy and lowbrow bourgeois masala as opposed to the peaks of a Desai.
The framing device for this film is of course the reincarnation angle and the director is on firmer ground here in terms of homage as she ‘refers’ to Karz in the opening sequence and then more obliquely to Madhumati and even Kudrat in the closing moments. But otherwise the director completely mishandles this aspect of the narrative as well. The theme is never approached with much seriousness and simply becomes a casual plot device to bookend what are essentially a series of gags in both halves of the film. The reincarnation idea which has always appeared dramatically in earlier films, has always retained a degree of ‘uncaniness’ even in a very masala venture like Karz, is competely diluted in OSO by the constant spoofing in both halves of the film. It is hard to marry comedy with drama as any good student of Manmohan Desai ought to have learnt. Sadly Farah Khan is not that student. By introducing the reincarnation plot device and aligning this with a parody she doubles her bets and completely fails to do justice to the former. The film simply does not have the gravitas to deal with the demands of such a subject. OSO is many ways represents the perfect example of everything I’ve been critiquing about the latter day reception of masala cinema. It is completely symptomatic of the confusions that pervade the understanding of this genre in contemporary ‘Bollywood’ and its audience.
As I suggested earlier one must be careful not to ‘falsify’ this rich tradition in the process of ‘refining’ it. ‘Masala’ cinema does not involve a storyline onto which various ‘excessive’ elements are then added on to increase the mass appeal of the subjects. Those seemingly ‘extraneous’ features are precisely the point (this is of course not to deny ‘bad masala’ which too is amply in evidence in the 70s). By way of a literary analogy I would offer the example of Tristram Shandy where the digressions are the novel. I am of course not going to pretend that Desai is somehow Sterne’s inheritor (!) but I do think one might bridge the gap using Deleuze once again whereby both Sterne and Desai could be examples of ‘lateral’ plot development (or writing) as much as ‘linear’ in a somewhat more traditional sense.
In a similar vein I have also long believed that is entirely incorrect to see Indian cinema with its song interludes as equivalent to Hollywood musicals. It is once again a kind of ‘lateral’ movement that incorporates the songs into the major narrative. Of course the songs often work in linear ways and serve to advance the plot. But even when this happens there is still a ‘lateral’ dynamic at work to the extent that the song situation also disrupts the linear chronology of the film. Again this is a subject that would require much thought.
‘Masala’ in Bollywood suffers from two afflictions. One is the distance which current bourgeois audiences (I mean especially target multiplex viewers) have from the tradition. In Tamil cinema, to take the most obvious example, that heritage has never been lost and has been ‘upgraded’ at every point. Now one might not be a fan of the genre but that’s a different point. One does have a choice to see what a healthy masala tradition would look at present. Unlike Hindi audiences that are a often a little embarrassed with what they perceive to be ‘crude’ elements in those films from the comedy to the action sequences.
What is however missed is the extent to which masala depends on such a combination of the high and low. This is why Deewar is not really a masala film. It is akin to Shakespeare in many ways where you have the most lofty thoughts expressed in the most exquisite poetry in one moment and then you suddenly get the most obscene sexual puns! The overall effect of Shakespearean drama depends on such a juxtaposition of elements. These are in many ways questions of ‘filmic’ time. The comedy portions rudely interrupt the more serious dramatic ones and vice versa. The same is true for masala cinema. The genre operates in linear fashion on the one hand but also laterally in other ways. There are sequences that take the story forward and others that simply keep it ’still’. But both are equally necessary. What you see with a certain kind of cinema is that the comedy bits are taken out, in another kind it’s only the comedy. The other vital ingredient is always missing one wat or the other. Masala cinema is therefore always a bit of a roller-coaster reader. It’s not just that too much happens (a thriller could do as much) but that it happens in different ‘time zones’. It is then the job of the director to compress these different ‘zones’ into one at the very end of the film. Of course this also involves a literal spatial element as well. Characters who start off within a common space, are then scattered, but reunite at the very end. The ‘communal’ (in the sense of community) space is therefore always present only as an ideal. Once in the very early portions of the film and then in the film’s ‘afterlife’ which we again imagine but do not actually witness. In between there is only to introduce Hamlet once again ‘time out of joint’.
Similarly the technical values to the extent that these might be judged ’substandard’ (this is not true for all masala) are also very much a part of the film’s fabric. This is why the idea of updating Don the way Akhtar tried to do also misses the point. Don works as a kind of B movie with a megastar at its center. Don is not Bond even if Akhtar imagines this to be the case!
But the other affliction is that masala cinema depends on a notion of the ‘epic’ that is sadly completely foreign to the sensibilities of most contemporary multiplex audiences (again within Bollywood). One understands that genre fashions change with time. I don’t lament the loss of masala simply for its own sake but because of what it represented which is to my mind the most inclusive and politically progressive cinema in Bollywood film history. Despite all the caricatures and all the stereotyping masala cinema ‘represented’ more groups and more identities than any other before or since. It was simply a more variegated world. A richer cinema.
Similarly when I bemoan the loss of the ‘epic’ I am also referring to ‘rootedness’ and cultural artifacts that have informed Indian sensibility in many ways, whether we know it or not. Masala engaged with this as well, or took up this heritage consciously. The film scripts that I would consider ‘great’ from the 70s married this epic inheritance with Western romanticism and Shakespeare and so forth. This was ‘real’ writing not just a cobbled together script that could be written in ten minutes by any one of us here.
And it is hopefully not ‘judgmental’ to suggest that a film tradition that fed off the Mahabharata was ‘better’ than one that relies on Saved by the Bell (the ‘college’ in KKHH? The entire ethos of all these romances (which even if one enjoyed them at the time are really no more advanced than Disney teen romances) operates at a somewhat infantile level. People are are all too happy seeing Hollywood Generation X films made into small budget clones in Bollywood to ever dream of returning to the epic challenges of J P DUtta (in the 80s to be exact.. the one director who did ‘update’ masala but was perhaps too late..). No audience nurtured on Kuch Kuch Hota Hai will ever be able to digest Ghulami! I was rather surprised to see Khakee under-perform at the time. It did reasonably well but it really should have been a massive blockbuster. This ‘heart of darkness’ re-writing of Sholay was too much for ‘multiplex’ audiences.
We also continue to witness a set of attitudes where belonging to upper or upwardly mobile classes insist on speaking for this abstraction called the ‘common man’. Somehow ‘we’ are privy to his (it is never a common ‘woman’) dreams and desires and ambitions. Somehow he is only ‘elemental man’ interested in fulfilling his most basic wants and unable to indulge in fictions of any kind in life. As long as he gets his fantasies fulfilled by way of masala cinema or Dhawan or Akshay Kumar’s comedies he is happy. Meanwhile we ’sophisticated types’ watch Karan Johar! The ‘common man’ in this way becomes a ’site’ for the fantasies of bourgeois types like ourselves!
I think in many ways those films from the 70s (specially the Bachchan films) represented more universal struggles, not just those of the ‘common man’. The ‘common man’ probably realized on day 1 that he was not ‘like’ Bachchan in any sense! Bachchan was always too ‘extraordinary’ or too ‘God-like’ to represent the ordinary even if he fought those ideological battles. But it’s not just his cinema or even masala cinema. The Amol Palekar comedies were for example delightful fictions but also rooted ones in profound ways. Isn’t it ‘reality’ anymore to imagine someone finding it very hard to get on a bus every single day because of crowds, the jostling and so forth? Does no one take trains in Bombay today? Does no one live in a Bombay chawl anymore? It’s just that a Johar or anyone else doesn’t represent this aspect of life (this is till well and alive in for example Tamil cinema). The earlier films did that. There was always a slice of life relevant to one social group or another but the issues were universalized. So Piya Ka Ghar is not about life in a ‘chawl’. It’s about a couple who can’t ‘do it’! Surely this situation is not relevant only to chawl dwellers?!
I too enjoy a film such as Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham for many reasons but that fiction does not contain even an ounce of ‘reality’. Bachchan roams around in helicopters. Shahrukh leaves his house with no inheritance. Some years later he’s replicated his father’s lifestyle in London. Hrithik arrives in London. The next day he takes off in his own Benz. It’s plain silly. There is an ideological component here for sure but it’s one that excludes. Trishul was about rich people but the film contained very many real characters and there were unpleasant aspects of life that kept intruding on these characters’ lifestyles, in essence because these ‘rich folks’ had done things for the unpleasant to creep in from elsewhere. Nothing of the sort in K3G. You stay separated for 10 years. At the end of it you pat each other on the back and that’s the end of the deal. No real sense of loss or the ‘irreparable’. Consider masala: sometimes your mother died when you were young, sometimes your family was murdered, all the happy endings couldn’t quite make up for this loss. These strands of narrative or of emotional response made the works ‘universal’. It is not that these films were more ‘realistic’, just that the ‘stories’ triggered certain archives of human experience that always involve a sense of ‘cost’ which is very unlike the ‘cartoon’ world of Johar where everything can simply be ‘restored’.
When one turns to Tamil cinema the nicest thing about it is the extent to which masala there is not an ‘issue’. It is as normal as any other genre! This is why I didn’t even notice Ghajini too much when it first released there. I did see it and didn’t think much of it. Because that tradition offers much better. But in Bollywood this film (of course I think it’s better in the remake) has all the shock of a seismic event and little wonder that it has registered one at the box office. An authentic one! In contemporary Bollywood such a film cannot be divorced from the entire history I’m talking about.
Masala cinema (as I keep repeating) is about certain ingredients but also a set of aesthetic choices. But Hindi cinema was never able to upgrade masala after the early 80s and the genre more or less died out. In Tamil at least since the 90s there has been the slick masala film which contains all the ingredients of the latter updated for contemporary times. These films sometimes err more on the side of the Hollywoodized action flick but are equally often rooted products with discernible ‘mass’ strains.
Of course masala itself has become a much overused and abused word. These days it’s intended to mean anything that has broad commercial appeal and has the song and dance stuff and so forth. But this isn’t really a precise definition of masala. Some masala examples in recent years are Fanaa (though this is a bit of a hybrid incorporating the 60s as well!), BnB, LRM, MP. Even BnB and LRM lack the pure drama of masala though these are otherwise squarely in that tradition. Akshay’s comedies owe something to masala but are not complete masala products. Nor is OSO (MHN is more masala than this). One could get into other examples here. In addition to Khakee, the recent Ghajini offers the best path forward for a re-invigoration of the genre not least because it is unapologetic in terms of what it does (I have written on this elsewhere).
As I have hopefully shown through this lengthy essay masala ‘stakes’ are well worth preserving. It is at any rate a legacy that keeps informing us in complicated ways whether we choose to embrace it as a ‘good’ or not.