How to Master the masala movie recipe: Anupama Chopra

Visual drama, the money shot, a happy suspension of disbelief— it’s time to bring back some of cinema’s giddiest pleasures
Vijay and Vijay Sethupathi in Master. The last hour of this film delivers the kind of larger-than-life moment you rarely get in Hindi movies any more. A reminder that it takes art, effort and commitment to add masala to the mix (Image courtesy: Seven Screen Studios)
Vijay and Vijay Sethupathi in Master. The last hour of this film delivers the kind of larger-than-life moment you rarely get in Hindi movies any more. A reminder that it takes art, effort and commitment to add masala to the mix (Image courtesy: Seven Screen Studios)
Published on Jan 22, 2021 06:34 PM IST
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In the last hour of Lokesh Kanagaraj’s Master, which was released in theatres last week, the two behemoths Vijay and Vijay Sethupathi — playing the protagonist JD and the antagonist Bhavani — finally meet. It’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for. JD is a reformed alcoholic, now putting his life on the line to improve the lot of children in a government-run correctional facility. Bhavani, a fearsome baddie with fists that can punch through walls, is using the same children as pawns in his criminal undertakings.

By now, the physicality and sadism of Bhavani has been so thoroughly established that you fear for JD, even though Vijay is shorthand for superstar and you know that he will emerge with even his carefully coiffed hair in place.

Lokesh understands that this is the money shot, but he constructs this meeting as a non-meeting. Bhavani and JD don’t come face-to-face. Instead (spoiler alert), JD holds Bhavani hostage from behind. He addresses his henchmen, leaving threats for Bhavani, not knowing that he has grabbed the uber-villain himself.

It’s a cracker of a scene that delivers thrills and makes you smile at the audacity of JD and the filmmaker. It makes this nearly-three-hour-long saga absolutely paisa vasool.

As I watched, it struck me that Hindi cinema no longer delivers this level of masala movie. In fact, masala has become a bad word, used to describe films such as Khaali Peeli or Coolie No 1, which are in fact sloppily written and badly executed — and not thrilling or masala at all.

In Mumbai, masala has come to mean freedom from narrative logic and actors posturing instead of performing. But in the hands of masters, masala means flamboyance, larger-than-life characters who project attitude without sacrificing emotion, lines and songs that become iconic, and patterns in the storytelling that allude to the larger battle between good and evil.

The best masala movies deliver an almost giddy pleasure. Master is too bloated to sustain that high, but there are enough scenes here to keep you pumped.

Why can’t Bollywood make movies like this anymore? I think it’s a lethal combination of lack of conviction and laziness. Masala requires a leap of faith. I remember Naseeruddin Shah saying that he couldn’t become a successful mainstream actor because he couldn’t do what the script required with the level of belief that Amitabh Bachchan brought to his work.

One of India’s finest actors couldn’t make peace with the lack of logic and commit to the larger vision. Contemporary filmmakers, raised on a diet of world cinema, perhaps hit the same hurdle. And those who venture into the mass film arena don’t put in the work required. A case in point is Salman Khan’s recent oeuvre — Dabangg 3 and Race 3 are both prime examples of how not to make masala.

It’s possible that filmmakers such as Rohit Shetty and Siddharth Anand will be the ones to revive masala in Bollywood. The latter, whose last film was the adrenaline-pumping War, recently announced Fighter, starring Hrithik Roshan and Deepika Padukone. It’s an action thriller with a reported budget of 250 crore. Meanwhile Rohit is creating the first home-grown Hindi film universe with Sooryavanshi, the promo for which plays before Master, almost as a reminder that Bollywood can do larger-than-life.

Masala is Indian cinema’s signature style. I say: give me more!

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Thursday, May 26, 2022