Masala Films & Bollywood’s Existential Crisis

There was a time when Hindi speaking audience used to mock masala movies of Rajnikanth (by the way, they still do). I’m talking about the period post 2000s where Aamir Khan single-handedly changed the face of Bollywood with milestone movies such as ‘Lagaan’, ‘Dil Chahta Hai’ & ‘Rang De Basanti’. Despite making formulaic romance movies (DDLJ, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai & so on) & silly action movies (remember the Khiladi series & those Ajay Devgn action flicks?) up to that point, Bollywood always used to play the superiority card. They made fun of the over-the-top action sequences and dialogue baazi in Rajnikanth movies. For them, south Indians were totally substandard species. 4 different states and four different languages – yet, South Indians were just Iddli-eating ‘Madrasis’ for Hindi speaking viewers.

I’m sure those who mocked South Indian movies have a hard time watching Bollywood movies these days. Not even Rajnikanth movies have such outrageous action sequences that we see in Bollywood today! How fast tables turn! Take a look at the most successful movies (or in other words, the list of 100 crore, 200 crore & 300 crore movies) in the last 10 years. You will see that most of them are masala flicks with gravity defying stunt scenes and over acting (except for couple of honourable mentions like PK, 3 Idiots etc.). Without thinking twice, this trend of mindless masala flicks have reduced the quality of Bollywood movies (I’m being generous here!).

When did this unhealthy obsession with masala movies begin? Blame it on Aamir Khan! It all started with Aamir Khan’s Ghajini in 2008! The same Aamir Khan who opened many new possibilities with new age movies started the masala movie trend as well as the unhealthy 100, 200 and 300 crore clubs! Aamir Khan proved that the south remakes can be a lucrative business. So who cares if the stunt scenes were little beneath your taste? Luckily for Aamir Khan, he quickly moved on with other genres once he was done experimenting with masala genre. Unluckily for us, Salman Khan took note of the vast untapped potential of the masala movies. That quickly led to spate of hugely successful masala movies from Salman Khan including ‘Wanted’, ‘Dabangg’, ‘Dabangg 2’, ‘Ready’, ‘Ek Tha Tiger’ etc. These movies created new records in the domestic market (it was a different story in the overseas markets, where they preferred mushy Shahrukh Khan romance & sensible Aamir Khan flicks). When viewers and trade pundits discussed about the 100 crore and 200 crore clubs day and night, every big star felt the pressure to explore the masala genre despite being unconvinced about it. Akshay Kumar and Ajay Devgn, who were part of borderline B-grade movies in the 90s (even in 2000s), got inspired quickly to explore the masala movies. Akshay Kumar gave us movies such as ‘Rowdy Rathore’, ‘Khiladi 786’ etc. in this period, where most of them turning out to be huge money spinners. Ajay Devgn also tasted success in the masala genre with movies such as ‘Son Of Sardaar’, ‘Singham’, ‘Singham Returns’ etc.

Shahrukh Khan, who was known for his romantic flicks, didn’t show much enthusiasm in the beginning. However, he finally succumbed to 200 crore pressure by doing Rohit Shetty’s ‘Chennai Express’. At least in Shahrukh Khan’s case, he insisted on a fresh script than a South remake. His gamble paid off and Chennai Express became his ticket to the elusive 200 crore club. Later he appeared in Farah Khan’s masala flick Happy New Year as well, which turned out to be yet another money spinner.

Even young stars are smitten by the masala genre. After a slew of flops, Shahid Kapoor had a hit in Prabhu Deva’s masala film R.. Rajkumar. Many critics felt that the movie was so crass that it trivialized rape. Arjun Kapoor – Sonakshi Sinha starrer Tevar, which got released last week, is yet another masala film from the young brigade.

Though masala movies lack quality, one cannot overlook the fact that such movies provide entertainment to a marginalized section of the viewers. India is still a developing country and only a small percentage live in the cities, which appreciate sensible, middle-of-the-road movies. The growing gap between the rich and poor in the country plays a major role in such polarising genres in Bollywood. Most viewers in the interiors find over-the-top action scenes, cheap dialogues and scintillating item-numbers entertaining. Bollywood came to realize that this section of viewers contribute heavily to the overall box office revenue in India (which is thrice as big as overseas revenue). So no wonder why Bollywood, where business takes precedence, is eager to please the masala loving audience – it’s all about money, honey!

But it’s convenient for Bollywood film makers to underestimate the intelligence of the viewers. The success of ‘P.K.’ or ‘3 Idiots’ is an example. This movie did well with all the sections of the viewers. A well-made movie attracts all sections of the viewers no matter what. They don’t need cheap thrills in the name of entertainment. Bollywood doesn’t want to acknowledge this fact and they care only about making money. Above all, they are lazy to walk that extra mile!

However, things are not as rosy as you would expect. Of late, few of the films in the masala genre got a dose of reality. Few of those movies failed to make it big at the box office. Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgn & even Salman Khan tasted failure in the recent times. Akshay Kumar’s ‘Boss’, ‘Entertainment’, ‘Joker’ etc. bombed at the box office; so did Ajay Devgn’s ‘Action Jackson’ & ‘Himmatwala’. Though Salman Khan’s 2014 release ‘Jai Ho’ crossed the 100 crore mark, the movie failed to live up to expectations, thereby giving a reality check to Salman Khan.

Right now, Bollywood is in a dilemma – whether to proceed with their masala films or not, considering the growing scepticism. But one thing is clear – Bollywood has realized that the usual tricks up the sleeve are not enough to survive!