Vantage point

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

On Masala, Kitsch, and "Leave Your Brains Home"

Recently I met some friends after several years. These friends were going absolutely gaga over Dabangg, quoting lines from it and cracking up. They were aghast to learn that I found Dabangg extremely boring. One of them said,

"Of course it isn't "quality cinema". It is the sort of masala movie you should watch after leaving your brains home to truly enjoy it."

I've heard variants of this comment in reference to several movies that I have hated. And I really, well and truly disagree with the conclusion, for Dabangg and for many other movies.

Yes, there are movies...most movies...that require you to suspend disbelief, let your hair down, alter your expectations, and prepare for a baser, melodramatic, single-layered variety of entertainment. I have watched and enjoyed many such movies. But even then, there are masala kitschy movies and there are masala kitschy movies. Some movies, no matter how much slack you cut them, are just BAD.

But in recent years in India, there has been an exoticization of masala and kitsch. The exercise of "leaving your brains home" has gone from being an involuntary suspension of disbelief to a self-conscious, premeditated and elaborate effort in justification. You know how the typical tourists who come to India make themselves gets formulaically charmed by the cliched colorfulness, noisiness, chaos, yoga, and spirituality? Many Indian film fans are figuratively turning into fanny-pack wearing, camera clutching tourists looking in on Bollywood masala.

Kundera wrote about kitsch -

Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.

Although what he wrote was in a different context, the point remains valid. Most Indian fans who claim to appreciate really bad masala brainless movies are actually moved and impressed at themselves for appreciating masala movies. It probably makes them feel less snobbier than usual. Also gives them the pompous self-satisfaction of appreciating something in unison with the unwashed masses.

It probably started with Govinda and David Dhawan movies going from lowbrow to "cool". People found themselves having a good time watching some of those movies, were probably unable to reconcile this enjoyment with their supposedly "refined" tastes, and concluded that the enjoyment they derived was of a meta-kind, arising from kitschiness. So kitsch became "cool".

Then the Gunda phenomenon happened. Finally, India had its own Plan 9 From Outer Space, a bad movie that was "cool" to watch and discuss. And then Farah Khan started making movies. She well and truly made this kitschiness being cool thing mainstream.

Until then, people who made unabashed masala movies truly believed, like Johnny Depp's Ed Wood, that they were making quality cinema. Either that or they did a great job of pretending to believe that. Until then, "masala movies" was a pejorative. Farah Khan went a separate route. She admitted upfront that what she was making were masala movies. She also threw in some nostalgic intention, saying she made her first film Main Hoon Na to recreate the masala magic of the 70s and 80s that she grew watching up.

With Om Shanti Om, she went one step further. While the atrocious dress sense and melodrama displayed by Govinda in his movies was organic, the kitsch Farah pumped into her movies was calculated and deliberate. And announced. People went from snickering at the kitsch to all of a sudden appreciating the meta-ironic-brilliance of intentionally putting kitsch in there.

Om Shanti Om was watched by usually discerning and hard-to-please elites, not as a movie, but as an ironic statement of kitschiness and nostalgia. And as an ironic statement, they loved it. I watched it simply as a movie. And I hated it. Found it beyond boring.

Now this post enters subjective territory. I am not saying that we always enjoy masala movies to enjoy our own enjoyment of them. I am not saying we can't actually enjoy masala brainless movies just for what they are. Sure we can. If the movies, going past the masala, kitsch and logical leaps, have stories and performances that make those 2-3 hours fun, it's a good movie to watch.

Speaking for myself, some enjoyable masala brainless movies have been Judwaa, Deewana Mastana, Dulhe Raja, Khiladi, Love Ke Liye Kuch Bhi Karega, Mujhse Shaadi Karogi, and Awara Paagal Deewana (which I found a lot funnier than The Whole Nine Yards). What made them enjoyable for me was that I found their stories interesting, several situations funny, performances decent, and they held my interest till the very end. Sure, these movies had memorable one-liners and over-the-top scenes that became topics of water cooler conversations. But beyond that, the movies had, in my purely subjective opinion, enough steam in their plots to last 3 hours.

With Dabangg, I was bored in 20 minutes. The Chulbul Pandey one-liners and antics that my friends keep cracking up at, I failed to see even absurdist humor. To make an apple-to-apple comparison in explicitly absurdist humor attempts, Salman's faux fight with Shakti Kapoor in AAA was funny. His weird ringtone dance in Dabangg was just too contrived.

I thought Om Shanti Om had a very weakly told story, which was quite an achievement in bad direction, given that it was based on Karz, one of my favorite masala movies ever. I am usually not a Shahrukh hater but his performance in that movie was truly groanworthy. The so-called twist in the end was stupid. And at the end of the movie, I just felt annoyed and pissed off.

It is possible that you hated the masala movies I liked, and liked the ones I hated. Tastes differ. I have no issue with that. But I get peeved when people self-congratulatorily praise a movie they thought was bad, but which was enjoyable if "you left your brains at home".