Friday, September 16, 2011

The curious concept of masala, and a bit of Dabangg.

Carla's Dabangg review, besides being worth reading, got me thinking.

Whereas she draws comparison between this type of masala and the good stuff of the yesteryears, my go-to comparison is the action masala's from some of the Southern industries (Tamil and Telugu). Not that I've seen a whole lot of them, but enough to draw a general picture of what kind of tropes the films are composed of.

I was going to comment something along the lines of "Well, to me, the Southie industries have been keeping this sort of masala format warm all these years, so it's nice to see Hindi films going with this tried-and-true formula again."

Then I catch myself. Is this awfully reductionist and even for a personal interpretation tenuous at best? Probably. I mean, first of all, Southie films have their own history with their own stars and their own cultural context, which Northern industries and especially the supposedly pan-Indian Hindi film industry seems rather ignorant of. Who knows where the Southie masala took inspiration from? Rajnikanth was making movies around the time Amitabh was carving a place for himself. It seems weird to speculate when one doesn't know the full history of genres in Tamil/Telugu films.

At the same time, the Southie influence is clear in my eyes. Very few 70's masalas had a high skill in choreographing the fight scenes, or interesting in terms of camera positioning. The best cinematographers in all of India have famously come from the South, and the fight choreographies seemed to learn a thing or two from Hong Kong. You can definitely see that modern flare in Dabangg, and the realism in the violence.

Then there's the hero, of course. No longer the charming NRI whose dil beats for Indian family values even though he wears Western labels, Salman Khan's Chulbul Pandey is basically a certified badass rustic cop, assuming they give out such badassery certifications, and if they see him, they had better start. As Carla points out, he's not exactly morally sound, but there's a certain ends-justifies-the-means attitude that makes sure we don't stop believing in him completely as a hero.

The story's been called lacklustre and incoherent in the few reviews I glanced at, but I think what is interesting about these sorts of action masalas is that they are complete crowd-pleasers, but the perception of the crowd has changed a bit. Nowadays there's no one mass (was there ever, truly?) but multiplex audiences, NRI audiences, segments of the "mass" that don't necessarily care for the kind of cinema Dabangg and other such masalas are all about. I started thinking about the action masala hero and how strange it is that Salman, not Akshay Kumar, became the new box office king with these sorts of ventures. You'd think Akshay would have the skills and the mass appeal - and he certainly does. He's not an actor with mind-blowing range, but that's usually not what the masalas are looking for, either. And yet, starting from Wanted and culminating in Dabangg, it was Salman who has his renaissance with these action masalas.

Salman is the Marmite Hero, or Marmite Khan if we want to get specific. Aamir and Shahrukh inspire reactions ranging from lukewarm to passionate, but Salman seems to split people into haters or lovers. I'm more inclined to agree with the latter camp. Of course, now that I've said that you can all reminisce my Let's Talk About post about him, in which I write: "-- I like Salman Khan. I don't love him, I certainly don't enjoy him unconditionally, but the fact remains I do like him."

Isn't like a lukewarm reaction? Not really, not to me. The fact remains, when Salman makes good movies, I really like him. When he makes bad movies - which is often - I can't stand them or watch them just for him. These recent films feature him in roles that suit him superbly, suit his acting, his style, his core fanbase. The flicks are crowd-pleasers, and the crowd gets what they came for, unlike the crappy favour-for-a-friend films he's been known to churn out, with half-baked plots and disappointing action. You can virtually imagine the movie theater exploding when the shirt comes off - and you know for sure it will.

Some of you that are South Indian and know the industries inside & out, or those firangis who jumped the Tamil/Telugu gravy train in a big way and know your Vijay's from your Karthi's and can cite Allu Arjun's family tree by heart, will protest purely because there are things the legitimate Southie heroes can certainly do that Salman can't. He's an old guy who's not famous for emotional range, so when you've got young Telugu lads dancing their hearts out in limber moves to rival Hrithik's, charming heroines and kicking ass left right center and just right there behind them, it can feel wrong that Salman took influence from these types of movies and is now breaking box office records. But of course, Fair is not a word in the Indian film vocabulary, otherwise new talent wouldn't find it so difficult to break into it while son-of-so-and-so gets a debut role no problem.

And as for Dabangg? Well, if you can't tell by this post, I enjoyed it. Not sure whether it jumps ahead of the perfect-in-every-way Wanted (I hear some of you Salman haters protesting but ah, there you have it, Marmite Khan on display!) but it certainly comes close.


Filmi Girl said...

He's an old guy who's not famous for emotional range, so when you've got young Telugu lads dancing their hearts out in limber moves to rival Hrithik's, charming heroines and kicking ass left right center and just right there behind them, it can feel wrong that Salman took influence from these types of movies and is now breaking box office records.

I think I've seen people say this before but IMHO Salman may not have range but he has an odd sort of gravitas. He's kind of like the Helen of masala at this point - even when she was in her late 30s/early 40s (Don era) and maybe not as sexy as she was 20 years ago, people still responded to her items. It goes beyond the visual into the relationship audiences have with the actor. He's not just the hero, he's SALMAN-Bhai. You know?

Great stuff, as always! This post makes me want to re-watch Dabangg and write another piece on it!! :)))

Ros Francis said...

I'm more of a Salman hater than a lover so I didn't expect to be charmed by him in Dabangg. But I was! He did Akshay Kumar style goofiness very well and was absolutely sweet in his pursuing the object of his affections. Dabanng is so successful as a masala because it handles all the different moods very well and ends up being a balanced film.

veracious said...

FG - I completely agree, I think one of my go-to lines when I see a Salman film is "he doesn't act, he just is". One can hardly berate him for relying on that screen presence that he's got, because a lot of other stars do it, too. He's one of the most successful ones at it, though, of course.

Ros - Wow, surprised he won you over! I was under the impression that people's first impressions of him don't really change much. But I guess it shows that Dabangg was not just a good movie but a great role for Salman.