Laxman Kumar’s Masala Padam opens with a commemoration of Tamil cinema. We see leading men down the years – MK Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, MGR, Sivaji Ganesan, right down to Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth. This, combined with the title and the fact that ‘RJ’ Shiva plays a role, made me expect a sly take on heroism. Instead, we get a takedown of critics, those annoying creatures who are everywhere – right here, writing this review, but also on the web, where they swarm like bees, waiting to sting new releases. And slowly, the semblance of a plot takes shape. The stung producer of a “commercial film” named Sooravali (“redefines the term marana mokkai,” screams a review on Facebook) challenges some of these critics to make a movie – a commercially viable movie that will satisfy all audiences, and not just the TamBrahm mama who keeps chanting the names of Kim Ki-duk and Majid Majidi.
To get on board the film, we need to ignore the false dichotomy at its core. No one says commercial films – or masala padam-s – are automatically bad. It’s only the bad ones that invite jabs and jeering. Who’ll complain if the industry keeps giving us an Agni Natchatiram, a Run, a Dhool? Still, on with the story. Or the lack of one, in case of the critics (played by interchangeable newcomers). How to dream up a narrative that will silence that producer? Perhaps by taking inspiration from reality. They ask their photojournalist friend Dia (Lakshmi Devy) to ingratiate herself with three types of men and mine these lives for material. The amiable middle-class loser (Shiva) will provide laughs. The Royapuram gangster (Bobby Simha) will take care of action and drama. And the romantic type (Gaurav) will generate the Gautham Menon moments.
There’s a quirky meta dimension here. Those scenes between Dia and the gangster – don’t we see those in the usual girl-falling-for-a-rowdy movies? Those bits between Dia and the loser – aren’t they familiar too? In other words, these critics seem to be discovering that life isn’t all that different from the movies they so vociferously denounce. Masala Padam has its moments, but it’s too scrappy to amount to much. It keeps hinting at darker truths – say, that the movies are a part of us in ways we cannot fully understand (a sundal seller recites Vijay’s “vaazhkai oru vattam” line from Thirumalai as though it were a mantra)– but it’s the light stuff that really works. Shiva shines in a part that’s right up his comfort zone. The scene where Dia visits his home is a riot, with at least one meme-worthy line. (“Mom, can you arrange coffee for the guest?”) The cleverest aspect of Masala Padam may be its dare to the critics. If you diss the film, it’s because you’re offended at being shown in a poor light. If you praise it, it’s because you want to appear cool, above it all. I’ll take the meek middle road.
- Masala Padam = masala movie
- marana mokkai = deadly bore
- “vaazhkai oru vattam” line from Thirumalai = see here
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