Larger-than-life tough heroes. Larger-than-life vicious villains. Raw action. Song and dance. The masala action potboiler is back!
Scene: Hero Ajay Devgn, a strapping police inspector, is standing with his subordinates in a minister’s office. After an argument, Ajay decides to show the corrupt and criminal minister what a real cop is made of.
Ajay: “Tujhe aisi jagah maroonga ki aaj ke baad is kursi pe toh kya, kahin nahi baith payega.” He then kicks the minister on his butt, and his junior officers follow suit.
Audience reaction: A standing ovation and wolf whistles. After nearly two decades, coins or ‘chillar’ are thrown at the screen to show the audience’s appreciation.
But in the last few years, we’ve watched Ghajini. Wanted. Dabangg. Singham. Could it be that the action masala movie is back?
"It looks like it," says an exultant Rohit Shetty, director of Singham. Going by trade reports, Singham seems to have broken all sorts of box office records and even surpassed the collections of Golmaal 3, also a Rohit Shetty film. "The audience is loving the return of masala films," says Shetty.
Once upon a time, masala action films were all the films there were. The target audience was uncompromising: the masses. And heroes played right to the gallery.
Amitabh Bachchan was the baap of all heroes (remember the line ‘Rishte mein toh hum tumhare baap lagte hain’) in films like Deewar, Zanjeer, Shahenshah and Agneepath. Dharmendra had a great thirst for blood (think ‘Kutte, main tera khoon pee jaoonga’) in Sholay and many other films. And then there was Sunny Deol and his ‘dhai kilo ka haath’ in Ghayal, Ghatak and Gadar.
None of these heroes could ever have been called boys next door. They were heroes – in every sense of the word. Whatever they did, whether it was serenading the heroine or dealing with the villains, it was always larger than life. The hero’s looks, the way he spoke and what he said, the songs he sang and the way he fought… every move and emotion shouted for attention. And he got it.
Somewhere in the early ’90s, however, things changed. With films like Maine Pyaar Kiya, Hum Aapke Hain Koun? and the biggest of them all, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (DDLJ), the hero became the soft, sensitive, boy next door. Shah Rukh Khan’s Raj in DDLJ epitomised the suave but sensitive NRI who, though brought up abroad, had a heart that was purely Indian.
And the trend was set. From the angry young man who would do anything to challenge the system, the hero was now was just another guy. He talked, walked and even cried like us. Nothing about him was grand or larger than life. Everything was cool, casual and oh! so natural.
And so, even the action changed in Hindi films. No one fought with sticks and hands any more. The fights became slick, urbane and refined. Dialogues no longer had the attitude of masala flicks. They might have been ‘real’, but they were not filmi. In the last nearly 20 years, the action potboiler all but vanished.
Then, in 2008, Ghajini came. Though a huge hit, many people dismissed it as a one-off.
Till Boney Kapoor decided to produce the Salman Khan starrer, Wanted. Soon enough, films such as Dabangg and Singham followed. Each a bigger hit than the other.
Weapons of Mass Distraction
"I wanted to be different," says Boney Kapoor of his decision to produce the Hindi remake of the Telugu film Pokiri that had all the ingredients of a Bollywood potboiler.
"The audience in general had been starving for a masala flick," says Kapoor. "And in the industry, people seemed to have forgotten how to make pan-India films. Just like multiplex theatres, the industry had become divided, making films that alienated one kind of audience or another. It was really time to come out of the niche and make something that, at a certain level, clicked with everyone. Wanted did just that. It opened the gates once more."
The urban, urbane Hindi film of the last few years had also become elitist, adds poet and story-screenplay writer Javed Akhtar. "We were making films that only connected with the middle class (who had an urban exposure) and the elite," he says. "And even when we looked at the India living in villages in films like Peepli Live, we looked at them from the urban perspective."
There’s another angle here that may have influenced the return of the masala action flick, says Rohit Shetty. Just as the audience in the ’70s responded to the larger than life action heroes of Hindi films because those heroes were constantly challenging a system that favoured the rich, corrupt and powerful, the audience of today, the 2000s, also wants the rich, corrupt and powerful to be shown their place, he explains.
"The angry young man phenomenon reflected the mood of society at a certain point in time," says Shetty. "Then Shah Rukh Khan’s Raj reflected the globalised India of the ’90s. Now people are once again sick of corruption and the couldn’t-care-less attitude of the powerful. They really want something to be done. The scene in Singham where the minister is kicked on his butt has become a huge hit. People love it."
Watch your step
For the last 10 years or so, any argument about Hindi films has centred on the multiplex phenomenon. There is a certain ‘multiplex sensibility’, we were told, which means that mass audiences don’t matter any more. What matters is the niche. That’s why we don’t have action films the way we used to.
Boney Kapoor agrees with that, but only to an extent. "Don’t forget that the multiplex audience was not the same everywhere," he points out. "The taste of a multiplex audience in Amrawati is very different from the taste a multiplex audience in Nariman Point, Mumbai."
But Rohit Shetty demolishes the multiplex argument altogether. "For me, multiplexes are a myth," he says. "The same people who watched films on a single screen a few years ago are watching films on multiplex screens today. Except for a small section, audiences have more or less the same tastes in terms of appeal, entertainment, likes and dislikes. Naturally, when they get something they enjoy that they haven’t got in years, they’ll flock to it. Films like Dabangg and Singham are the biggest examples. The only difference multiplexes have made is that now, people who don’t like this kind of film, can choose not to watch it."
Shetty counts himself as a ‘typical’ Bollywood movie goer. Though he likes the Aditya Chopra, Karan Johar kind of films because "they offer a real connect", for him a real Bollywood movie is the kind of film he grew up with.
"Dance, action, and emotions, all pitched high, are what make a movie for me," says Shetty. "So when I decided to make an action film, there was no other way to do it than the old way. Yes, the Dhooms and the Races with all their slick action and super bikes were good. But for me, it had to be a basic bike with a real superhero."
That’s the key factor in any action flick. The hero. More precisely, a superhero.
"The world over, people want to see superheroes," insists Anil Sharma who directed Sunny Deol in Gadar. "From Robin Hood to Rambo and from Shahenshah to Chulbul Pandey, every hero had a strong pull. People like to see one figure who stands up and fights against the odds and emerges victorious. And if this figure comes from amongst them, nothing could appeal more."
Agrees Javed Akhtar, "People love to believe in someone who is an authority unto himself. There is a psychological bond with a figure like that. He makes the audience believe that anyone can cope with any challenge."
But filmmakers assert that not every actor can play this kind of role. Anil Sharma, who directed Dharmendra in films like Hukumat and Sunny Deol in Gadar, feels it takes a lot of machismo to play an action hero role. "You need to have the physique and the attitude to carry off the persona of an action hero," he says. "You cannot look like a boy next door and play a strapping policeman ready to take on the villains with bare hands."
Looks apart, the essential image of a hero also makes a lot of difference. "For instance, Ajay Devgn had made his debut with Phool Aur Kaante as an action hero. So even though he last did a hardcore action film some 10-12 years ago and had to work on his physique to be convincing as a cop for Singham, he had the intrinsic attitude of an action hero. It came naturally to him and was accepted by the public," says Shetty.
Image also works for Salman Khan. "He has a certain image of a ‘dada’ with a heart," says Boney Kapoor. "The kind of fan following that Salman has at the mass level is unparalleled. No one even comes close. So when he plays the Robin Hood or Chulbul Pandey sort of roles, people go crazy."
So if the audience is so hooked to action films, why did they ever go out of style? Akhtar explains it as an equal-and-opposite-reaction syndrome. "It was a reaction to melodrama," he says. "We suddenly became averse to too much drama. We perceived unabashed display of any feelings as unreal. Expressing emotions became ‘uncool’. Whether love or hate, we stopped shouting from the rooftops."
Anil Sharma, however, sees it purely as a cyclic trend that was brought in by sheer boredom on the part of filmmakers and the audience alike. "Too many action films came back to back. Then suddenly there was Maine Pyaar Kiya and that changed the direction for filmmakers," he says. "Then, for the next 20-25 years, all that we saw were softer films that were more modern in approach and feel. And now that is boring, so we really enjoy films like Dabangg and Singham."
So does this mean that this too shall pass? Certainly, say filmmakers. After some time, another phase of filmmaking will come in. But, adds Shetty, with some amount of intelligent handling, this time round action films may not disappear as completely as they had earlier.
For the moment though, for the genre to really regain its former popularity, a slight upgrade is required, says action director Sham Kaushal who has worked on an eclectic mix of films like Ravan, Rajneeti, Kameeney, New York and Om Shanti Om among others. "Today the action quality is far better," says Kaushal. "With heroes doing their own stunts, it is more honest and convincing than ever before. So in a way, it is a mix of ‘real’ and ‘masala’ that works better today."
And one thing that will really help the action film to survive?
Well, it’s the multiplex. (The same thing that Kapoor and Shetty dismissed.) A wider variety of films are being made now, so the audience has plenty to choose from and the risk of boredom is somewhat averted.
"For now though, reverse snobbery is sure to work," says Javed Akhtar. "While there will be enough and more takers for realistic and modern films like Dil Chahta Hai and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, there will be enough and more from that very same crowd who will find a Singham or Dabangg really ‘cool’."
Hero: Ajay Devgn
Ajay’s mean, macho, muscled Marathi cop act + full-on desi flavour = blockbuster
Hero: Salman Khan
Salman’s portrayal of a ruthless undercover agent + great songs-dances = big hit
Movie : Dabangg
Hero: Salman Khan
Salman as Chulbul Pandey + crowd-pleasing songs-dances + heavy duty action = superhit
Hero: Aamir Khan
Aamir’s six pack abs + graphic violence + sadistic villain + melodrama = hit action film
The Original Action Heroes
Iron man: Amitabh Bachchan played a costumed vigilante in Shahenshah
Muscle man: Dharmendra as the African Yakut in Razia Sultan
Gun Man: A tough Sunny Deol fought for justice in Ghayal
Dialoguebaazi: Getting the right punch
One of the most important factors in a Bollywood action flick is getting the dramatic dialogues right. “Language and dialogues set the tone of the film,” says dialogue writer Niranjan Iyenger who points out that it is only the dialogues – apart from songs – that generate a film’s repeat value. “And potboilers need exaggerated punchlines,” he adds.
Dialogues you’re going to hear all your life!
In kutton ke samne mat nachna Basanti – Dharmendra in Sholay
Hum jahan pe khade ho jaate hein, line wahin se shuru hoti hai – Amitabh in Kaaliya
Yeh dhai kilo ka haath jab kisipe padtha hai na… toh admi utthta nahi uth jaata hai - Sunny Deol in Damini
Rishte main to hum tumhare baap lagte hain, naam hai Shahenshah – Amitabh in Shahenshah
Jali ko aag kehte hai, bujhi ko raakh kehte hai... aur jis raakh se barood bane.. use Vishwanath kehte hai! – Shatrughan Sinha in Vishwanath
Main ek baar commitment kar deta hun to phir apni bhi nahi sunta – Salman Khan in Wanted
Body mein itne ched karoonga ki samajh mein nahi aayega ki saans kahan se le or p*** kahan se – Salman Khan in Dabangg