A brooding Ajay Devgn, breakneck action sequences and a gang of misfits trying to rampage their way to a royal treasure. Sounds like a great recipe for a ‘masala’ movie? Yes, if you are still stuck in the 90s. Masala movies are a staple genre in Bollywood which try to cram in every emotion fathomable, into a 2-hour long catering of audience diversity and taste. They date back to the 70s when Salim-Javed used to fit in all raw ingredients considered indispensable to the narrative and garnish it with machismo and grandeur which were sine qua non to the plot and serve it hot to the star stuck audience. A-listers used to be referred to as Platinum stars, Jubilee stars based on the longevity of their movies in the box office.
The genre is in itself not a new one, as Hollywood had already mastered the art of producing movies with as much style as the raw display of masculinity with multi lingual stars and helmed by international production houses. Clint Eastwood emerged as a guiding beacon of such movies for the international audience and the common elements of pathos and cunning of the protagonist received worldwide acceptance. Such movies were termed Spaghetti Westerns. Sergio Leone was the flag bearer in taking this kind of storytelling to the masses. His Dollar trilogy (starring Clint Eastwood as main character) – A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) is still considered a benchmark in the genre.
Indian directors soon realized the potential in such a languid yet action packed method of narrative and introduced ‘desi’ elements to the ‘formula’ and presented us with what came to be known as Curry Western movies in India. From Yaadon Ki Baarat to Amar Akbar Anthony, these movies started gracing the big screens with regular frequency and the success of it all was for everyone to see. Nasir Hussain and Manmohan Desai made some of the most loved Curry Westerns in Bollywood history and gave us stars like Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra.
If one wants to nitpick the genre basis storyline, then the elements common to all these movies come to the fore. A calm opening with introduction of secondary characters, sudden breakout of disruptive elements and the introduction of antagonists, which leads to the introduction of the protagonist in a sequence which plays to the gallery and culminates with action packed second half. Oh, there is also some sprinkling of love, but even the audience knows that it is not a means to a cause but simply a ticking of the checklist.
Masala movies dominated the 70s and 80s Bollywood as they satiated the common fantasy of the audience to watch something larger than life. Remember that those were the times of a lot of internal unrest and India going through long duration of tension with it’s neighbours. Therefore, a Dharmendra screaming from atop a water tank received whistles from the audience and an over the top Villain received as many one liners as the heroes. Infact, stories were written keeping in mind the characters and pivotal sequences to be shot rather than the flow of the narrative.
Which brings us to last Friday when Baadshaho released across India with a stellar cast and a story which reminisced the 80s Bollywood template. Over the top heroes, worthy antagonist and a hair brained mission to steal gold. I would like to commend Milan Luthria for the novelty of attempting to transport us to the good old times. But the utter lack in conviction in, firstly the narrative and then the character arcs made it a pale shadow of it’s predecessors. The director tried to capture India during the Emergency period of 1975-79 but comically abandons the idea almost half an hour into the movie. The initial discussion of Emergency and the sequences of it’s implication on the people in general is swiftly done away with and is replaced by can-do-no-wrong heroes and paper thin plot twists. Even the camaraderie of the characters is not explored to the full satisfaction of the audience. Unlike in this movie, emotional connect was paramount in the movies of the 70s and the 80s. the story fed of the travails of the loved ones of the hero and made the audience root for him unflinchingly throughout the run time of the movie. Baadshaho never even tries to connect us emotionally with the characters. Even the love story is left half baked and the ladies reduced to hollow eye candies.
Bollywood used to master the art of Masala movies, but that was last century. In today’s world of easy access to world cinema, I highly doubt how such experimentation will pan out for directors, unless they focus on the story as much as they focus on the styling. After all it all comes down to how engaged is the audience in knowing the climax and invested in watching characters come full circle. Till then, we have the promising genre of movie focusing on social cause and awakening which have received acceptance from the masses.