Lights, Camera, Conversation… “The north-south non-divide”

Never mind the perceived wisdom that people on either side of the Vindhyas are chalk and cheese. They aren’t – at least when it comes to a certain kind of cinema.

The opening-weekend success of Rowdy Rathore has occasioned a few think pieces about Hindi cinema returning to its masala-movie “roots”, like a character in a Manoj Kumar tearjerker forsaking the decadent West and crumpling into the outstretched arms of his mother. But what we’re seeing – with Ghajini, Wanted, Ready, and now Akshay Kumar’s return to his “roots,” namely action-comedy – is essentially a transplantation. Hindi cinema was never rooted in this kind of masala, which has traditionally been ground in the vast cinematic factories of Hyderabad and Chennai. Masala is a hugely problematic term to define, and it’s most loosely (and lazily) used to denote any kind of cinema that’s not “serious” cinema, but all spices are not alike. The masala of, say, the Manmohan Desai entertainers is far gentler on the palate than the masala in Rowdy Rathore. Both types of films feature a mix of action and comedy and sentiment – a combination that’s at the bottom of all masala movies – but Desai’s films were a form of primitive slapstick, both verbally and visually, and people of all ages could enjoy them, whereas these masala films are more primal. They hew closer to their origins in our good-versus-evil myths, and it’s no accident that the weapon instantly appropriated by the protagonist in Rowdy Rathore is a saw-toothed iron disk – the chakra, in other words.
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When I watched the film, I was appalled to see so many parents bringing along their children. How can we expose these young minds to such stomach-churning violence – lashing, impaling, death by hanging, a general air of sanguinary slavering – and then pounce on Agneepath for allegedly fostering a juvenile delinquent? But that’s a different topic, and I’ve written about it earlier. Back to the “roots” issue, there is none, for Rowdy Rathore is not Hindi film masala but Tamil/Telugu masala – though in another sense, there’s definitely a sense of returning to roots. Hindi cinema has always looked towards Tamil and Telugu cinema, just as the latter have always looked towards Bombay cinema. In the decades following Independence, hits in one of these languages would inevitably result in remakes in the other two, and sometimes even the tunes of the songs would be retained (with only the lyrics being changed). At other times, films would be produced simultaneously in all three languages. So what we’re seeing now with this whole “phenomenon” isn’t really new. It’s just that back then, in gentler times, the kind of films that circulated amongst the three film industries were comedies and family-oriented dramas. Kaadhalikka Neramillai became Preminchi Choodu and Pyar Kiye Jaa, and Aalayamani was translated as Gudi Gantalu and Aadmi. Now the remakes are all of films with macho heroes baying for blood.

It is in the 1980s – after the arrival of Amitabh Bachchan, the staggering success of whose films redefined what was acceptable violence on screen (and I refer to emotional violence as well) – that this other kind of remake began to slip into Hindi cinema, and it was Padmalaya Studios who led the charge with an assembly line of remakes of Telugu hits. For the Hindi screen, this was a very different kind of masala. While the Bachchan movies like Zanjeer and Deewar were undoubtedly built with certain masala elements, they are essentially dramas. There’s an organic core at the centre of these films which goes beyond plot, and that core (say, the drive of the dispossessed) is the film’s engine. Something like Himmatwala, on the other hand, is what I like to call a “set piece” movie – not in the sense of a series of formally constructed passages of film (the way we use the term “set piece” in the case of Hitchcock, for instance), but because the plot is essentially a loose clothesline on which to hang a set of action set pieces, comedy set pieces, and sentimental set pieces. These films truly need a special set of eyes to be enjoyed, which is probably why those who haven’t grown up with this kind of cinema always end up celebrating them in somewhat patronising terms, often employing the word “kitsch” like a coat of armour safeguarding their superior taste.

One of the more enjoyable “set piece” masala movies in Tamil, recently, was N Lingusamy’s Vettai (which will soon be seen in Hindi), and several reviewers cautioned the reader not to “go in expecting logic.” It’s practically redundant to bring this up, because logic is the last thing on the mind of anyone familiar with this kind of movie, which works if its set pieces work. If the comedy sequences make you laugh, if the action is dynamic, if the dramatic scenes carry a sentimental charge, then the film has done its job – even if the action bits and the comedy bits and the sentimental stretches aren’t derived from the same organic core, and therefore exist independent of each other. (And in a lot of these films, there is no “organic core” to begin with, except the desire to entertain.) That these generically constructed films work in all three languages (and probably in other languages too) shouldn’t come as a surprise, because a predilection for spice, in cinema as in food, is encoded into our DNA. The real question is how a specialised kind of Hindi cinema – the “multiplex cinema,” for want of a more specific term – gets translated into other languages. What will an unapologetically scatological comedy like Delhi Belly, for instance, look like in its upcoming Tamil remake? A Wednesday was different. It had a dramatic core that was culture-independent. But will Delhi Belly find favour across Tamil Nadu? That’s a more interesting discussion than why Rowdy Rathore is such a success.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

Copyright ©2012 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

13 thoughts on “Lights, Camera, Conversation… “The north-south non-divide”

  1. “No one in this world has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.” – Henry Mencken

    just till the other year, the snooty northies (who have now casually replaced the mostly pejorative term ‘Madraasi’ with an equally careless term ‘south’) were looking down upon the taste of ‘south’ pictures/audience.
    as if their own ‘great masses of plain people’ had a superior taste.

    the joke is on them now.
    or, perhaps, sadder still, on all of us ? :)


  2. BR: How dare you mention Himmatwala and not Tohfa and Mawaali, full marks for the asli platform number 4 waala poster in the middle though :-) . Bring em on , i say.

    Vasisht : “just till the other year, the snooty northies (who have now casually replaced the mostly pejorative term ‘Madraasi’ with an equally careless term ‘south’) were looking down upon the taste of ‘south’ pictures/audience.” – Actually as someone who is a Southie and grew up in the North – this is a myth, there has always been an appreciation of “madrasi” cinema from the award winning early 80’s Malayalam cinema to MR and Kamal cinema. The joke was always the unfit , unstylish, “dark” heroes and the well endowed heroines. The joke’s on them now – the younger brigade of Tamil, Telugu heroes can give the “Northie” heroes a run for their money and as for the well-endowed heroines – may i present Miss Balan and Miss Sinha – i rest my case your honor.


  3. Indian audience have ridiculous taste, and don’t care a shit for realism. Look at some of the south Korean movies. Even the poor ones look more real than our movies. Forget rowdy rathore or ready, consider some of the so-called upmarket multiplex movies like dhoom or the Sanjay gupta movies, they are godawful shit.


  4. Raj Balakrishnan: While you have a “somewhat” valid point – South Korean movies are not more “real” , a lot of them, at least the ones that play on Foreign shores , are transgressive, deal with difficult subject matters, technically superior, deeply violent and are much better acted – but “real” they are not..

    As an example, in “Memories of Murder” – regarded as one of the best movies to come out of the New Korean Cinema , the village setting and the cop portrayals are not “real” , they are as caricatured as one can get, but of course the other aspects of the movie make it a must watch.

    As a side bar , a lot of South Korean movies are defiantly even wantonly tragic – this has apparently got to do with child hood stories taught in their school , majority of them have tragic endings.


  5. Venkatesh: the south Korean movies ‘look’ real at least. Maybe because they are better acted or because of better production values, whatever. Indian movies, not all but generally, look so fake. As I said even the upmarket ones are terrible, just think kabhi alvida na kehna – the characters are born and brought up in new York but have perfect Indian accents. Just an example, there are others too.


  6. Raj Balakrishnan : Ah the ‘look’ real is due to the larger budgets.

    South Korean cinema implemented a quota system in the early 90’s , something similar to what Kannada cinema has been doing , and as the country is linguistically much more homogeneous than India it provided a chance for larger budgeted films to be profitable. I think Indian , (Hindi, Tamil and Telugu specifically) cinema is getting there , give it a few more years.

    Re- KANK and perfect Indian accents – well thats just poor and who is going to accept SRK and Miss Mukherjee as true bred New Yorkians. Having said that , i really cant comment if South Korean movies dont do the same – i dont speak or understand Hangul ( except for choice words of course )


  7. Venkatesh: I would just not put it all down to the larger budgets. I am sure movies like Dhoom etc. operated on large budgets. The problem I would think is poor acting, bad plots, most of the films not being rooted, poor imitations of Hollywood (Race, Blue (you remember that shit), any Sanjay Gupta Abbas-Mustan movie), etc. Of course there are exceptions like Dil Chahta Hai, Luck by Chance, and a few others.


  8. I would love to see the day when the likes of Raja Sen/Rajeev Masand/NDTV-CNNIBN farts jump onto this tamil masala-remake bandwagon just like how they jumped onto the Rajni bandwagon after Sivaji. I bet they are about 2 successful remakes away. First you ridicule..”how could hindi movies copy these ridiculous Tamil masalas?, then you live in denial as you read success stories of these movies one after another..then you try to defend..”ah its just the village idiots who flock to these movies”..then you see a Bhansali or Aamir khan producing/making a movie like this..and finally you give up and jump on the bandwagon.Cannot beat them,join them. It happened with Rajni/North Indian media post-Sivaji, and I believe it might already be happening with South masala remakes, even though this might be a passing trend.


  9. Vijay : Just to add to that – if you look at the more than 100 Cr. gross club , the top-5 (other than 3 Idiots) are bona fide Tamil/Telugu Masala entertainers.

    It is a passing albiet highly profitable trend though.


  10. 100 crore? Hmm..cant be just from single screens, can it? Even the Mumbai multiplex crowds must be digging these movies then. What this has done is, this success has suddenly transformed B-grade localites like Prabhu Deva, Murugadoss into some sort of pan-India director celebrities. These guys were’nt in much demand of late even in their local pettais.The hilarity of it all.
    I can already see the likes of Ranbir Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra sharing the same podium as Perarasu during the Hindi remake of Sivakasi. And Anurag Kashyap might be producing it to recover the losses from Gangs of Wasseypur


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