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Are masala movies dead?

May 28, 2019 15:01 IST
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'What we have is 'masala redeemed' as opposed to just 'masala resurrected',' argues Sreehari Nair.

IMAGE: Rajinikanth in Petta.

Can there be a greater proof for the death of masala cinema than people declaring outright that they are tired of going to violent movies?

Our Masala Films or Mass Films have traditionally expected the audience to come to them 'slugged', and watch cars and heads being blown off, or watch a solitary hero beat up 25 nameless, faceless men.

I find it rather distasteful when Guardians of Nostalgia mourn the growing irrelevance of this particular class of cinema, which brooks no emotional or sensory participation from an audience: When the Guardians talk as though such movies represent something of our Golden Past that deserves preservation. (There's also a hint of paradox when lovers of Masala Films shout Anti-Modi slogans: For the man is, in point of fact, the biggest masala leader we have).

It is, perhaps, a response to the impassivity of the violence in such movies (regurgitated every now and then by a Simmba, a Petta or the latest Mohanlal film Lucifer), movies which reduce human beings to nonbeings, that people settle for emptily objective fares like Gully Boy, or prefab novelties like the Netfix special, Soni.


One of the modern tragedies of our cinema has been that the audience, fearing a further deadening of their ability to feel, end up preferring 'safe movies' (ones which ask all the safe questions, and allow the viewer that safe distance) over movies like Love Sonia or Omerta which try to intensify our experience of violence and make us care about their characters and what happens to them.

As for me, I am strongly drawn to violence, and almost as strongly repelled by it; and some of the finest Indian films of the last few years have goaded this sharp conflict in my sensibility.

These films are *participatory* -- they expect us to come to them with our senses working at full capacity. And as with everything in them, the violence in these films, too, isn't something to be viewed from a distance.

Most importantly, however, these films don't treat violence and brutality as just one of the many elements contributing to the ironies in their plots. (Which is how those new-age Tamil films of Ram, Vetrimaaran and Kumararaja, or the movies of Amal Neerad, with their celebration of 'cool killings', and 'general sadism', treat it).

IMAGE: A scene from Village Rockstars.

On this subject, it's worthwhile to note how four of India's best film-makers -- Raam Reddy, Rima Das, Chaitanya Tamhane and Dileesh Pothan -- approach acts of violence (however small), and *how much* their approaches tell us about their artistry and larger humanity.

Tamhane's Court ends with the scene of a man slapping a mute kid; the kid, the man assumes, had jolted him out of his daytime reverie.

That slap, in addition to becoming a metaphor for our country's legal system, also expands our perception of the man, who we know is a judge in a low-level court -- or someone who is expected to have a balanced view of Crime and Punishment.

In short, the slap broadens our understanding of the movie's many themes and helps multiply its meanings.

There's a slap in Rima Das's Village Rockstars also; the unexpectedness of which breaks a moment of serenity for the protagonist, Dhunu.

The horror in the smack -- and it's one we share with the little girl -- is in its laying bare of the social and class-based differences that Dhunu seemed completely unconscious of, up until that point.

IMAGE: A scene from Sudani From Nigeria.

To think of it, it's not that difficult to pick out film-makers who do violence well: For one, they don't disassociate carnage from suffering.

A good film-maker, as a rule, would never shoot violence in a 'conventional' manner.

Careful that the recipients of brutality aren't made subhuman, a good film-maker is someone who, in his gut of guts, knows that violence is a two-way street.

Also, it's a dare; but I can pretty much tell which young movie directors -- never mind if they are yet to photograph a scene of actual violence -- have it in them to do violence well.

The Malayalam film, Sudani From Nigeria, for example, features one of the most violent sequences I have seen in an Indian film in recent times; albeit one in which not a drop of blood is shed.

Soubin Shahir, playing Majeed, comes home, and upon finding his stepfather noodling around with a glass of tea and a plate of snacks, pissily walks into his bedroom and slams the door shut. The shot continues, and you see the old stepfather finish off his tea, see him take a bite, and you finally hear him inform Majeed's mother that he would now leave.

It's in Director Zakariya Mohammed's decision to not take the easy way out, to not cut to the old man's sullen face, to not get him to break his routine, that the emotional violence of the scene gets communicated to us in its entirety.

Though the cloying sentimentality of Sudani from Nigeria is what won acclaim, Zakariya's true talent, I believe, lies elsewhere: The man has a feel for violence which can have true resonance with the audience.

I suppose the drive of a film-maker, who has tasted violence first-hand or has been affected by displays of violence -- and hasn't simply received it by way of Tarantino's hand-me-downs -- will always be able to push his audience into a state where nothing, absolutely nothing, can be taken for granted.

IMAGE: A scene from Angamaly Diaries.

In Raam Reddy's Thithi, I experienced intensely, even the act of a character chopping trees down. I could hear the careless hacking away of the axe, long after the picture was over.

Most people who don't wish to give themselves over to a movie this way, those who go to dull, polite movies while skipping the genuinely powerful ones, are, I think, only showing their blind affiliation to the whole 'Violence is Bad' line -- a classic exhortation of prissy schoolmarms.

And yet, if there's anything that life teaches us, it's that our schoolmarms, who would say 'You shouldn't hurt anybody' and 'You should try to win at all costs' in the same breath, never quite had the acuity to comprehend the contradiction in those terms.


IMAGE: A scene from Gangs Of Wasseypur.

In the most exciting Indian films being made today, you can see both: A recognition that man is violent by nature; and a commitment to showing that the violent acts of violent men come at a huge price.

In Dileesh Pothan's two films, and in Lijo Jose Pellisery's Angamaly Diaries, (and much before that, in Gangs of Wasseypur), what really throws the viewers off balance is watching characters who have been fed the innocuousness of masala movie violence, 'get it'.

The shock is in watching these characters discover the real-life messiness that comes with a bomb hurled, a punch landed, a punch missed, a threat issued, a nerve frayed.

This comical innocence in the face of brutality isn't a minor note: It is a note that purifies the violence in those films of all sadism.

And it's this note that Sriram Raghavan, too, constantly hits -- when he sets us up for scenes of mindless action, scenes made familiar to us by our tradition of masala movies, and then interjects some very commonplace, everyday considerations into the mix.

What we then have is 'masala redeemed' as opposed to just 'masala resurrected.'

In his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker argues, and I think correctly, that violence in the world (contrary to what social media and 24X7 news channels would have you believe) has been progressively declining.

The caveat accompanying this reality is that human nature, by and large, is a constant. And so, despite the numerous clampdowns imposed, the thirst for violence ought to be lying dormant, somewhere deep inside us (Is the Internet Hate Culture a manifestation of this thirst?).

Cinema, with its dream-logic, and its ability to talk to us directly using the power of moving images, is probably the medium best equipped to construct a model in which, the violent man and those affected by his acts of violence, become equally deserving of our attention.

This is how movies which 'do violence well' define and refine the consciousness of our time. And this is how they help make us more emotionally accessible.

If you stop going to such movies, for fear of being upset by them or being overpowered, you aren't subscribing to a higher aesthetic; you are merely imprisoning your senses.

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