Sunday, April 11, 2010

Of Masala and Magadheera...

I love masala films.

This weekend I saw not one but two modern specimens of the form – Vivek Oberoi’s Prince and the Telugu SUPER HIT Magadheera. The divide between the two is indicative of so much that is happening in Bollywood right now and with all the Bollywood chattering classes expressing surprise that Prince has done well when piles of films with better critical reviews have crashed up against audience indifference, I thought I should add my take on it.

It used to be that not so long ago that Bollywood put out films that were not too different from the southern film industries – granted they were always a little tamer with a little better production values and, of course, different cultural reference points. Something like
Khakee (2004) is not really so far removed from Chatrapthi (2005), even if Akshay Kumar has never wrestled a shark, but in the last few years, the number of big budget Bollywood masala films has dropped along with the quality of the masala. Signaling that the trend is here to stay, the Filmfare Awards quietly dropped the traditional ‘Best Villain’ and ‘Best Comedian’ awards in 2007 – awards that used to give the industry a chance to appreciate the hard work of actors like Pran, Amjad Khan, and Johnny Lever who stole scenes from out under the feet of the hunky heroes headlining the films. Bollywood filmmakers are aiming more and more towards the greener (as in cash) pastures of the ‘world’ audience and, in doing so, are changing the composition of the films they want to sell.

And, yet, for all the talk about ‘competing with Hollywood,’ the Hindi film industry has had a rough couple of years. Since Akshay Kumar had his year of low-brow hits in 2007 and solidified his place as a Hero who could bring in the masses, no new faces have emerged to take over the mantle from the Three Khans, who are all in their mid-40s and objectively speaking don’t have that many years of ‘heroing’ left. While Ranbir Kapoor, Shahid Kapoor, and, to a lesser degree, Neil Nitin Mukesh and Imran Khan, have all had hits none have begun to inspire the devotion shown to Shahrukh, Aamir, and Salman. And this isn’t a coincidence – the kinds of films that create the larger-than-life personas of Shahrukh, Aamir, and Salman are just not being made today. The industry has gone and changed the kind of audience it is aiming at – Westernized, educated, and most likely raised on Hollywood – and has been suffering at the box office at home because of it.

All of this is a roundabout way of bringing me to my point, namely, there is a reason that one of the top films of the last two years was a Southern remake -
Ghajini - Bollywood scriptwriters have forgotten how to write a proper Bollywood narrative. I feel like every week we see yet another round of films that don’t connect with the audience. Take Karthik Calling Karthik, which had an promising premise, a good cast, and great music and then proceeded to waste all of it in an attempt to make a film that was as ‘realistic’ as Hollywood but still Bollywood enough to please the average viewer. Song picturizations, which ideally should flow naturally from the narrative, have become song montages thrown in at random intervals. Witty dialogues and memorable lines have – with the exception of, perhaps, Imtiaz Ali, vanished into Hinglish simple enough that even gori me can watch a recent film without subtitles – which I did for Karthik Calling Karthik - and understand everything that’s going on. In one of my favorite scenes from post-modern masala film Tashan (a total flop, although not because it was a bad film), arch-villain Bhaiyaji gives a bastardized version of Amitabh Bachchan’s epic temple speech from Deewar entirely in Hinglish, horrifying his audience. (This is just one of the many scenes from Tashan that leads me to believe that Vijay Krishna Acharya, who also wrote Dhoom 2, is currently the only man in Bollywood who knows how to write an honest masala story.)

And it’s not just the style – the songs and dialogues – gone, too, are the epic struggles and epic romances of times past that would emotionally connect the audience to the film and the actors in it.
Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na was cute but it doesn’t have the emotional heft of DDLJ. More and more often, when I leave the theater, I don’t care about the film I just saw – actually, sometimes I stop caring while still watching the film. Prince may not have had any dil but it did deliver on the masala style, which was enough to give it a 70% to 80% opening crowd at the single screen theaters.

There is a wonderful quote from the comic strip
Calvin & Hobbes in which Calvin says that, “a good compromise leaves everyone mad.” To me this sums up so much about the state of Bollywood right now. New filmmakers want to be making Hollywood-style films but audiences at home still want the traditional masala experience, leading to the cognitive disonnance that leads the Bollywood chattering classes to express surprise that something like Prince turns out to be a hit. Of course, it was a hit! When was the last Bollywood film to add action, adventure, sexy ladies, evil villains, and a bumping soundtrack? I can answer that for you because I saw that one, too – tepid, hugely boring Blue back in October. It’s now April. Why are we all surprised at Prince’s success? It may not be a “good” film (and in my review I explain why) but it is certainly much more entertaining than anything else out there right now.

So, where does
Magadheera fit into all of this? The SUPER HIT film starring Ram Charan Teja and Kajal Aggarwal is a masterwork of masala from the opening motorcycle jump sequence to the star-crossed love to the creeptastic villain and unironic heroicness and even more unironic dance moves by Raj Charan Teja. Magadheera delivers on everything that the Bollywood is too embarrassed to show onscreen and it’s incredible. The simple yearning between Harsha and Indu, Hero and Heroine, is palpable and the villain is evil enough for us to enjoy hating while not overwhelming enough that I end up rooting for him. Ram Charan Teja’s performance as the Hero was breathtaking – he has the kind of charisma that gets an audience rooting for him even though we know he is going to win. That takes talent.

And while Ranbir Kapoor and maybe Shahid
could pull off something similar in Bollywood, they won’t get the chance because no matter how much I might wish it, the Pandora’s Box of ‘realism’ has been opened and, like a virus, this desire to appear ‘realistic’ is spreading around Film City.

I may sound like a crank but I’m not against progress – like I said, I loved post-modern
Tashan to pieces - and there is certainly a place on film screens worldwide for films like Ishqiya and Dev.D which use a subtle and modern form of Bollywood narrative. What I am against is this half-baked idea that films can only be taken seriously if they are ‘realistic’ and that 'realism' is something only found using a Hollywood style of filmmaking. This idea is something that filmmakers are going to have to shake if they want audiences to start returning to the theaters en masse. While I still go to my local Bollywood theater and still see all the new releases no matter how terrible the reviews, when I do get excited for Bollywood films now it’s usually for things like Golmaal Returns or Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani or Singh is Kinng - comedy aimed at the masses (and me) – because I know I’ll be in for a rollicking good time.

But when I want a cathartic viewing experience, the kind of film that I’ll watch twice in one day, I turn South.

To Magadheera.


Bombay Talkies said...

That was FANTASTIC. I sometimes feel my pushing of Bollywood on my friends is disingenuous because I do tend to show them films that are closer to what they're used to (ie Hollywood style film making) rather than what I know in my heart to be *real* Bollywood (KKKG, DDLJ, Khalnayak, etc). I feel like I'm doing them a disservice by not exposing them to more traditional films but at the same time I know they have a different standard when it comes to what they consider "good" film making.

On a totally different note, I seem to recall you being in the DC area--where do you go to see films? I'm in the DC-burbs and never know where to see new releases.

Kiran said...

Agree with every single word you wrote. I watched Magadheera twice in the same week. The experience of watching it with live audience in the theater was just beyond awesome. I hope it never changes.

Filmi Girl said...

@Bombay Talkies Thank you! I am in DC - you can check here:

I usually go to Lohman's Plaza. :)

@Kiran Thank you! :) I wish I could have seen it with a live audience... Oh well. I guess I'll just have to learn Telugu!

filmizest said...

Vey well put Filmigirl,agree with everything you have written. Even as I appreciate the Ishqiyas and Dev Ds as good film making, my heart is just never that involved and I am just never that excited.

My love will always be with Masala films. Not to say there aren't some stinkers too but when they get it right... I just love it.

Also many Tamil films since decades have a very good balance of 'realistic' with Masala. Perfect.

filmizest said...

Forgot to include that Prince sounds like a film I need to see.

red42 said...

I so agree. I have had this same conversation so much recently, trying to explain why I am watching so many Telugu and Tamil movies. They really have become my masala lifeline as there has just been nothing recently in the Hindi world that I have enjoyed to the same extent. I think it was 5 times I saw Magadheera in the first week that I got the DVD! I have had to get a second copy to lend to friends as I cannot bear to part with it yet! Such a totally great film that has absolutely everything including horses, tigers and an elephant!

Filmi Girl said...

@filmizest Thank you! And I agree 100% with you! :)

I should warn that Prince isn't exactly "good" but it is fairly entertaining - much more so than bland, stupid Blue or Race. I explain more in my review. :)

@red42 I think this idea is definitely floating around the Indian film watching community - part of the reason I posted this is because I was having the same conversation with a friend of mine right before we went to see Prince. :)

Banno said...

Filmi Girl, you've hit the nail bang on. This is exactly the reason Bollywood is floundering. Compromise. We've just forgotten story-telling. :(

There's nothing more dreary than a so-called realistic film which then also tries to give a cursory nod to Indian masala traditions. Or vice-versa.

suhail said...

Exactly the Word..Every Movie is Aiming for the NRIs and the New Upmarket City Market.

Look at the Stars..Nowadays...Pink Lips, Shaved Chest, Hinglish Cool Lines and Dresses straight from Fifth Avenue. Shahid, Ranbir, Imran are all and act like these Cool dudes which really is simply not bollywood. The Khans,Akshay, Sanjay all connected with everyone but these kids need to think beyond the gym and parlour...!!

Hmm How I wish for a WANTED, GHAJINI more every is strange that both of them were the biggest HITS simply suggesting that there is a STRONG MASS MARKET still..

d said...

was maghadheera subtitled?!?

while you can't compare it to ddlj, i wouldn't underestimate jaane tu. its reception really surprised me; it seemed like the epitome of a trivial middle-class movie, yet it played the old theaters in lucknow, and four months after its release , it was playing as the morning matinee at a porn theater on lamington road.

d said...

pardon, i noticed the comment suggesting you didn't see it in a theater only afterwards. blast. i'm within driving distance of four (possibly soon to become 5) mainly telugu theaters (SF Bay Area), but nothing's ever subtitled. (to my knowledge, two tamil movies in nearly six years and no telugu, kannada, or malayalam movies that have played.)

eliza bennet said...

I agree with you Filmigirl!

Filmi Girl said...

@Banno You just summed up my post in two sentences. :)

@Suhail Thank goodness for Salman's new found love of Southern remakes! We have Dabangg to look forward to, at least...

@d Yes, I saw Magadheera on DVD with subtitles. :) One of the reasons I never watched many Southern films before is that it is difficult to get many films with subtitles - they really aren't made for a non-Telugu/Tamil/Kannada speaking audience.

@eliza THANK YOU!!! :D

dishoomdishoom said...

By chance, a few weeks ago, I stumbled upon Magadheera. I'm a Pakistani, and had no exposure to southern culture, apart from one dosa, Rock your body's Tamil version (Hard Kaur in Tamil!), and Avial's "Nada Nada". So I don't know what compelled me to watch a Telegu (or Tamil?) movie. But, I fracking loved it! I had no idea about any of the actors, and I didn't know ANYTHING about the movie, but I fracking loved it!

It just hit the right spots! Apparently, I was told by the Telegu movie connoisseurs later on, that it was not that great of a movie. But i didn't care!

Anyways, as for the Masala philosophy. I agree with you wholeheartedly. Filmakers are increasingly self-conscious about their dance and song routines from a western sensibility, and it is giving us rather less than satisfactory movies. The identity Hidni film industry has carved over years and years is being diluted by a need for the "realism", which is ironic because the movies are still not realistic (Blue!)

However, having said that, perhaps the issue is not "half-hearted middle of the road Hinglish" movies, it is the execution of it. Yes, audience like masala, but audience might (and do) also like other flavours in their viewing schedule. I don't mind some of that Rocket Singh after My Ajab Prem for sure. I guess most of these "Hinglish" movies (the term i think i should trademark now) are confused at what they are supposed to be. Even some "Hinglish movies" can be really good entertainment. For example, that chick flick "Wake Up Sid!", which i ended up liking, even though it had those montages...

Filmi Girl said...

@dishoom Very interesting!! I would be very curious to hear your take on Billa, which is the Telugu version of Shahrukh's Don and I found it much (MUCH) more enjoyable for numerous reasons.

Filmakers are increasingly self-conscious about their dance and song routines from a western sensibility, and it is giving us rather less than satisfactory movies. The identity Hindi film industry has carved over years and years is being diluted by a need for the "realism", which is ironic because the movies are still not realistic (Blue!)

This is 100% spot on. Hollywood isn't any more realistic than Bollywood - it just has a different set of conventions.

Even some "Hinglish movies" can be really good entertainment. For example, that chick flick "Wake Up Sid!", which i ended up liking, even though it had those montages...

I liked Wake Up Sid, too, in spite of the montages. It nailed the execution of the Hollywood romantic-comedy with an Indian sensibility but wasn't aimed (at least my understanding) at a general audience. If there were more films being made like Wake Up Sid, I would be thrilled but I have a feeling we're going to see more Blue's instead.

leeqa said...

Dishoom here. The wordpress link wasn't working when I was supposed to submit the comment.

Well being a capitalist pig, I would say that if films like Blue bomb at the box office, then the producers and the distributors (and eventually the writing staff and the directors) would realise that isn't the way to go. So relax, and let your wallet do the talking.

And I shall check out Billa! and shall report, Ma'am!

Though the new Don was one of the first Bollywood movies I saw, when I started to follow Hindi movies more intently. And I saw the ending first, and didn't realise that it was supposed to be the big twist! Anyways...

Nicki said...

I am glad you enjoyed Magadheera :)

Filmi Girl said...

@leeqa You know people keep telling me that and yet those films like Blue keep getting made... I don't know. Creative industries aren't always rational ones, you know?

And, yes, do report back on Billa!

@Nicki I did! I really, really did!

murali said...

I TOTALLY AGREE with what you say... HAD A BLAST watching Tashan.. and when I said that to people... got weird look... i can watch it again and again.. thats the beauty...

I can rewatch a Magadheera or a Tashan or a DDLJ or a Swarnakamalam..

Venkata said...

i too agree with u, watching magadheera in threatres i have experinced so many people are watching twice and thrice also. the thrills in the movie are enjoyed by the people...escepically background music by keervani garu is awesome.

Filmi Girl said...

@murali @venkata Thank you so much! I appreciate your comments!

And Murali, I'm glad I'm not the only person who loved Tashan - wow! What a film!

sai said...

hey filmi girl...awesome article...i felt in a long time someone had finally understood how the masses think...i would really be glad if your article appears in some indian that it can reach a wider audience..also looking forward to more such insights on bollywood!!!

Filmi Girl said...

@sai Thank you so much! I would love if somebody printed it but I think my ideas are not too popular among Bollywood film makers... :(

abhinaya said...

very well said "filmy girl".. i loved every bit of what u said cos u almost sounded like me.!! glad that someone thinks alike.
i really get irritated these days with hindi movies when the protagonists try to speak as if they are the only intellectual and Hinglish speaking guys around!! and more often the reason the movie or the characters don't stay with us for long is that most of us cannot connect with them.. its not our world.. but neither its out of the world... its somewhere confusingly in between and that's the problem.and that is where telugu movies score... the protagonists are very "indian" !!
also your point about film makers trying to make hollywood kind of stuff. i completely agree.. i m surprised that you didn't mention "my name is khan".i dont know if u liked it but i didnt at all.i mean what was karan johar trying to do?
and also you didnt mention about Wanted and 3 idiots...
Wanted was a super hit in small towns and single screens because the small town hindi viewers liked it.
and on the other hand there are movies like 3 idiots which are very entertaining but dont have the typical villains or over the top sequences of sorts yet very bollywood-ish in its approach!! and it worked both in multiplexes and s

Sujit said...


I am really excited that our film stars are liked by more people than I've expected. :)

You've watched really good movies from South India.

Do give a try for movies called Yama Donga, Kantri, Simhadri...

The male lead in these films is my favorite hero. I hope you'll like them. He is not as handsome as the hero in magadheera and Pokiri, bt, he gives stunning performances. :)

Kaitlyn said...

When I saw Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani, I thought of all the southern films and how people are worried Bollywood is moving away from masala fun. That movie was so much fun, and not too meta (Andaz Apna Apna memories at the end).

And Tashan! I love Tashan!

Chandi Chowk to China made no damn sense, but Akshay was hilarious.

Of course, I've heard nothing can beat '70s Masala. I tried describing the original Don in terms of disability* and just had to put in the part about Pran and the tightrope...

*How Jasjit didn't have an injury, but Pran did, so they threw it in. And how sweet it was (to me) that they kept it as part of Jasjit's character 30 years later.

No more best villain?! I first heard of this category while looking at the wiki page for Omkara. (1 guess who the nominee was) and best villain is the best award EVER.

(And maybe we need more Shakespeare adaptations, he was good playing to all levels - ie, masala. Omkara had sex, item numbers, murder, and comedy. Well, not too much, and most was dark...)

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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