A Whirlwind of Thoughts – On Masala Films & Art Films….My Father’s Incomplete Screenplay Teaser!

(Includes the review of 2013 Shahid Kapoor Film ‘Phata Poster Nikla Hero’)

A Whirlwind of Thoughts – On Masala Films & Art Films, Concept of ‘Enrichtainment’, Indian Movie-Goers, Trends in Movie Serials&TV Serials, Franchise Films, Movie Experience & Audiences’ Perspectives, Film Criticism, Phata Poster Nikla Hero, Tarantino, Lady Gaga and My Father’s Incomplete Screenplay Teaser!  

A formula film (or in other words, masala film) is the quickest money-spinning mode of employment generation in the entertainment industry.

In Bollywood, it has turned the clocks by ruling the multiplex businesses and sidelining artistic ventures to single screens and festivals at an unprecedented rate. Even the educated audience now desires cinemas that simply satisfy their expectations – they no longer want films that challenge their thinking. It’s these audiences who choose to spend more on these films. The dumbing-down of cinema itself is only one side of the coin; it’s the audience which wants cinema to remain dumb.

My word of advice to Indian movie-goers, especially those feeling the pinch due to general price rise: Inflation looms like a shadow over our startled heads, giving a foreboding sign every now and then of darkness that may pass any moment. Any man of finance would advice to spend money wisely. Its time we reclaim our brains and reserve our expenditure on a luxury entertainment like multiplex cinema-viewing (especially the ones charging higher rates) for films that possess artistic credibility. Its time we relegate formula films either to cheaper multiplex or single screen or television viewing. It’s high time we appraise the money value/worth of art and of entertainment before we proceed to empty our pockets or reduce our bank balance.

Salman-Asin-Ready.jpgI exhort you to think ‘Is a movie like Khiladi 786 or Ready or Boss or Phata Poster Nikla Hero so rare, so exquisite, so important and compelling a film that I spend Rs.300–Rs.500 on it at a multiplex? Or should I rent the DVD/VCD and watch it at home with the whole family? We could openly chat about the film, predict the done-to-death-and-aftermath story and simultaneously finish other tasks of the day as these films don’t necessitate us to task our heads.

Why don’t I circumscribe the dearer part of my multiplex movie-watching budget for films that requires me to sit quietly and listen, for films that opens my mind to new possibilities, for films that transports me to the world of its characters, for films that rarely come to multiplexes especially in case of smaller cities, for films that provides me enrichtainment, a perfect blend of enrichment and entertainment– for films like The Ship of Theseus or The Lunchbox or even (at least, in my opinion) Shuddha Desi Romance? Such films get fewer shows and generally doThe Lunchbox poster.jpg not last beyond a week without audience support, so if such films are being recommended by critics, why don’t I listen to the experts for once and book for the better film? Even if I miss catching Salman Khan’s Ready in theaters, I’ll probably watch the masala films with Akshay Kumar and Shahrukh Khan that’ll come soon, plus Ready will make its premier on television soon and get played on the movie channels regularly. But what are the chances of watching Indian films as special as Ship of Theseus or Lunchbox? How often would they come on television? I’ll miss out the some of the best India has to offer in cinema only to watch another one where Akshay plays Akshay, where Salman plays Salman’. Now me give you a glimpse of how history has played a role in bringing these formula films to the fore –

To understand more about formula films, we need to go back in time to understand the history of film and specifically, the position of serials in film history. I’m not talking about trend-setting television serials or soaps like Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (Because the Mother-in-Law was once a Daughter-in-Law herself) or Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki (Story of Every Household) or Kasautii Zindagi Kii (The Test of Life) here; you’d be surprised to know that serials have their roots in Hollywood and not in Bollywood, and in film and not in television.

In the 1910s, serials were massively popular among audiences of the lower-classes who flocked to cheap, poorly maintained theaters to watch them at a low-price. The plots were usually lifted from cheap fiction in dime novels and stage melodramas of late 19th Century, and these serials usually had gratuitous violence, blood, thunder and sex. The surprising element was that women were usually chosen as protagonists instead of men, and the hero would be saved by the heroine in the end. The heroine’s father would either be assassinated in the beginning itself or kidnapped by the villain and blackmailed. A predictable rescue mission would ensue, where the heroine battles the villain’s men, defeats the villain himself, rescues her father and falls in love with a hero on the way. The mother figure, or for that matter, any other female figure except the heroine, would be completely absent. The plot will always follow a fixed formula with little changes; all these producers needed were a different cast for each serial they created.

As television had not been invented yet, these serials only played in cheap theaters. In order to draw repeat customers, the distributors wouldn’t release the entire serial at once, but would release one or two reels at a time, so each serial stayed for over three-four months at a cinema hall. Serials had a very poor reputation among critics and educated classes in those days. They were called ‘packaged sensationalism’, ‘the black sheep of the picture family’, ‘the child of commerce and bastard of art’ (New York Dramatic Mirror), and meant for the ‘most ignorant class of the population with the grossest tastes’ (Oberholtzer). In the 1920s, serials shifted their emphasis towards the adventures of traditional beefy heroes, and by the thirties, they were made as cartoons to lure American children.

Forward to 00s, the highest grossing films of the year in USA are franchise films belonging either to superhero, animated or adventure genre, and from adapted from comics and novels. Most superhero movies and animated movies are developed using a fixed plot formula; the protagonist overcomes his weakness and defeats the villain, earns the community’s respect and gets the girl (female protagonists are rarely seen, with only Angelina Jolie and Uma Thurman’s names associated usually with such films). The child of commerce and bastard of art is now the king of the box office and his slaves, the American audiences.

English: Fearless Nadia in the Indian movie 11...

Fearless Nadia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now Bollywood’s film history in general is not as well documented as Hollywood’s, but many Indians shall be familiar with the name ‘Fearless Nadia’. A cult icon in the thirties and early forties, Fearless Nadia was the lead character of serials such as Hunterwali and The Diamond Queen; it starred Austrialian actress Mary Ann Evans in the lead role who later married Homi Wadia, the director of Hunterwali. After the advent of television, serials became a common scene on Doordarshan, the only Indian channel in the 80s. But these television shows would generally refrain from extending a situation beyond one episode, and therefore each episode had freshness in terms of content and value.

Anand Gandhi.jpg

Anand Gandhi – Wrote the first 86 episodes of Kyunki… and Kahaani… in 2000, wrote and directed masterpiece ‘The Ship of Theseus’ in 2013; he’s both the bastard child of both commerce and art!

This would diminish after the uprise of Ekta Kapoor’s Balaji Telefilms, with shows such as Kyunki Saas Bhi… and Kahaani Ghar… striking a chord not just with housewives, but with the complete ‘Indian families’. It may have to do with the concept of joint Indian families and conservative values, something that was deteriorating with the changing Indian lifestyle. A campy, stylized, highly melodramatic nostalgia of earlier times was provided in the form of these serials to nuclear families, as these serials included up to five generations (and in Kyunki, maybe six to seven) living under one roof. Surprisingly, none of the good people died unless the actors chose to leave the show (so the ‘baa’ or ‘grandma’ in Kyunki…, who never left, would easily above 110 years of age) and no renovations were done to the house to accommodate the ever-increasing brood of children and grand-children and great-grand-children and their children! The formula here was usually ‘saas vs bahu angle’ (mother-in-law vs daughter-in-law) and when the two ladies reconciled after hundredth or so episode, the antagonist’s role would shift from mother-in-law to a rotten off-spring.

Bade Achhe Lagte Hai.jpg

Bade Achhe Lagte Hai

Having trashed story arcs ‘saas vs bahu’ or angles such as ‘resurrection of character’, the recurrent formulas of the current television serials include concepts as basic as ‘an unlikely couple (at least by Indian standards) falling in love’, like ‘a rich man loves a poor girl’, ‘an elder lady loves a younger man’, ‘two 40-year olds fall in love’, and angles like ‘kidnapping of a supporting character who is finally rescued by protagonists’, ‘character meeting with an accident and recovering after four-five episodes in hospital’, ‘female protagonist committing a simple blunder and getting cruelly chastised by her mother-in-law’ etc. The formulas haven’t changed. They’ve only gotten rid of some of the junk variables, that is, the story arcs/angles end sooner than they did in the earlier shows, but they returned after a cycle of other story arcs/angles, this time for another set of characters; hence if episode 102-110 dealt with kidnapping and rescue of A’s child, episode 211-225 would deal with kidnapping of A herself!

In case of films, the formula is meant for filmmakers and actors who are basically not artists but people from entertainment industry who want to make quick money, fans and… more money, lots of money, tons of money – basically money. These actors get to go around the world, fight on trains, ride on elephants, dance in front of the Louvre (with bemused foreigners gazing at them in the background), go deep-sea diving, learn up some moves of Taekwondo, hit on foreign ladies and if possible, even go to space. The only difference in their world tour is that there’s a crew following them with cameras, lighting and stuff, so they prepare a few lines of dialogue for each scene (usually snatches from older films of the same genre), blurt them out as their characters using a fixed set of expressions and dialogue delivery, and then get on with their lives. That’s perhaps why many of the television actors have nothing profound to say about ‘the art of acting’ or the philosophies of life, except the rote statement ‘I learnt a lot from … show’. The same applies to many film actors who either choose to work in formulaic films or are unable to get roles in films with greater artistic merit. Just try listening to an interview by Oscar winner Daniel Day Lewis and then a mainstream Bollywood actor’s interview and you’ll realize just how complexly intertwined the former’s life and work are; in the latter’s case, it’s all empty, self-aggrandizing ‘I did this’, ‘I did that’ talk that’s only being captured on cameras because of the person’s profession and popularity. But I’ll tell you why such actors and their movies get so much public support –

Most people who want cinemas that simply satisfy their expectations without challenging their thinking are generally unwilling to submit to any perspective that’s not in accordance with their own understanding of the subject. To an extent they feel emasculated when someone with a better, broader and a more comprehensive understanding of the subject (here, cinema) presents a work from his perspective. ‘The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations’ says Anton Ego in the animated masterpiece Ratatouille. I’d like to add that the world is also intimated by it, and the easiest and most foolish option here is to shun it completely. Cinema is especially a field where every Tom, Dick and Harry (and me) cannot wait to offer his or her opinion of how they believe a film should be. The medium offers a greater amount of interaction with the audience due to its ability to simultaneously stimulate multiple senses. And conversely, it can also narrow down our perception on the way we sense the medium itself! That is, we soon are wont to think that our mind should perceive and our senses should be stimulated in certain ways, and that especially happens when we limit our film-viewing only to certain kind of films, especially formula films. Anything that deviates from the set formula is alien to us and our understanding and our general human tendency is to reject it. In formula films, you feel smug that you are ahead of the film, that you are the smarter one. These films are called escapist films, but in my opinion they are anything but escapist as they never let you enter and experience the make-believe world yourself.  The gates to the world of the creation are open only in case of non-masala, formula-breaking well-made movies; you are not only taken inside their world but also allowed to muse on the themes of the film. In case of these formulaic, masala films, you being ahead of the film itself are never ‘taken in’, and remaining outside, you basically have nothing to do except a) mimicking the audience majority’s response only because you don’t want them to feel excluded b) trying to predict the entire story-line with your group and getting happy when the filmy formula (guy defeats villain, gets the girl, makes his parents proud, then marriage on the cards) remains unbroken c) judging in loose terms the actors’ performances from best to worst – ‘He acted well’, ‘She was hopeless’ – and having a barely credible explanation or justification of the same as you fail to realize just how ineffectual even the ‘good’ performance actually is in drawing your attention to the character and not the actor himself/herself or d) multi-tasking (texting/sexting on the phone, looking up the share prices etc). After you leave the theater, you give a mechanical ‘Film Accha Tha/Film saaru hatu/Film Avadla/Film Nanaa Irundada/The film was good’ or a negative response before forgetting the film for good. On the other hand, even if you hate some of the films that challenge your expectations, you won’t forget about them as easily as you would forget the formula films. All you pick from the formula films is the formula itself, and you copy it in your head and paste it while watching another formula film. The film makes for a passive viewing due to its predictability.

Such formula films, with adequate financial, technological and human resources, can be made by just about any committed non-artist who gets his/her big break in the entertainment industry, usually by mingling around with the established, in-demand non-artists of the industry. His/her story would be canned in Hollywood as an ‘amateurish and ridiculous’ even before its shooting script is prepared, but it will still have a bright chance in India when a well-known actor is associated with the film. Even the film’s crew need not have much talent as much as the ability to work long hours with little pay. I hope I’ve proved by now that these formula films are the quickest money-spinning mode of employment generation in the entertainment industry. You can predict the film easily because it’s written by someone like you, with the only exception that he/she is in the entertainment industry and has learnt the shallowness of formula films in depth. A truly artistic mind on the other hand won’t find anything credit-worthy about such films and shall rightfully reject them. A critic like me reasons with everybody in order to create a harmony between the two opposing parties!

Phata Poster Nikhla Hero Theatrical Poster (2013).jpgI somewhat understand now why the Indian critic Taran Adarsh speaks so highly of dishonorable films like Blue or Grand Masti, even though I still think he’s too over-generous. He and his little mind go to films expecting them to satisfy his expectations and nothing else. It’s a shallow, narrow-minded perspective, but it’s a perspective nevertheless. And majority of the audience goes to cinema with the same kind of perspective. This is what I felt while watching the Shahid Kapoor starrer ‘Phata Poster Nikla Hero’; I kept looking at the audience more and more as the film progressed, heard what they were speaking, noticed how they reacted to the dialogues, and formed an idea about how these people would be thinking while watching the film.

The film itself is absolutely silly, and seems like an extremely desperate move from lead actor Shahid Kapoor, who does a self-parody of his films the way Shahrukh Khan parodied himself in Chennai Express, except Shahid’s legacy isn’t memorable enough to make the parody workable. I don’t exactly know whether he intended to do so, but there’s an angle in the film that’s so much like Shahid’s earlier movie Fida that I thought the film was aiming at something like a (failed) homage to his earlier films. The actor’s last few films (from Dil Bole Hadippa to Milenge Milenge) have fared below-average to average at the box office, and maybe this man thought he needed to follow Akshay, Salman, Shahrukh, Ajay’s suit and make a formula film where he only needs to display an exaggerated, typical Bollywood hero “Shahid Kapoor” personality. His move, coming from someone who showed signs of improvement with Jab We Met and Kaminey, is one step forward, several steps backward as while his film may strike a chord with mass audiences, he will have the dead albatross with the words ‘sell-out’ inked on it hanging around his neck.

‘Phata Poster Nikla Hero’ has a very formulaic plot in which Shahid’s character Vishwas, an aspiring actor, dreams of getting his big break in Bollywood. Before his acting career takes off, he gets to experience an adventure of a lifetime that’s worthy of a film in itself when he is mistaken for a cop, the situation worsening when he plays on with the act.

First, its the leading lady Illeana D’Cruz (from Barfi! to this (sigh)…) whose character Kajal, a social worker, assumes he’s a cop when she sees him riding with a police uniform on; he wears the uniform, a stage costume because he couldn’t find his own clothes at the dressing room. She asks him to tail a group of men in a car who have kidnapped a young girl; he saves the girl, wins Kaajal’s respect and continues with his ruse so she can fall in love with him. But things get tricky when Vishwas’s mother sees his photo in the papers and visits him thinking her son is a cop. Also, the gang whom he butts heads with are members of a dreaded underworld led by a leader called Napoleon, whose face is shrouded in darkness and revealed only towards the climax. His henchmen are furious with the cops who work double shifts, in the police station during the day and in the gang-hideout at night, and demand that something be done to stop this man.

Vishwas meanwhile tries sorting out another situation that arises when his mother tells the Commissioner that her son is to capture Anees. This begins when Vishwas is on the phone talking about Anees Bazmi, the director when his mother overhears him; he ends up lying to her that he’s referring Anees, a don which, we learn from the Commissioner, is actually the name of a notorious don. When the Commissioner wants to meet this ‘brave-heart who’s ready to face such a big name in the underworld himself’, Vishwas in turn tells him that he isn’t a cop and is only pretending to be one as his mother shall die if she knows the truth. He adds another twist by lying to his mother that the Commissioner isn’t a cop but a madman pretending to be one. The mother in the film is such a yo-yo she actually believes this too. Later, when he sees her son slapping a girl violently in cop uniform, she storms up to him and in turn gives him a sound dose of slaps. Then it’s revealed its part of a movie scene and Vishwas was only acting; not able to bear her son’s lies, Vishwas’s mother faints and is hospitalized.

This is where the movie inexplicably begins a Fida-like subplot. The doctor says ten-lakhs would be required for her operation. He promises his mother that it would be the last lie he would tell before leaving to arrange for the money. Before he can do so, he’s arrested by the police who take him not to the police station but to the gang-hideout. Napoleon’s immediate subordinate Gundappa Das, who handles the operations in India, tells Vishwas he’ll be given ten lakhs if he’s able to get a CD from a dance troupe that’s essential for a ‘mission’ they’re planning. Vishwas gets to do an item number before getting the CD, but he kills two good police officers during the mission and is spotted by Commissioner. After delivering the CD, he is told that his mother never required an operation as she only had high blood-pressure; it turns out the doctor was a ‘gang-doctor’ who lied to Vishwas so he would be framed and arrested. The mother has been informed of his wrong-doings, and she refuses to accompany him. The mother is such a nut she’d rather stay in a den full of thugs than leave with her son. Gosh, the height of idiocy! Now, its Vishwas’ turn to win his mother over and get the girl, and so he plans a mission with the Commissioner.

The movie is evidently trying to parody a number of films of the eighties and nineties. There is a gang-member who’s actually called Biscuit, and these men laugh aloud in a pronounced ‘Ha Ha Ha’ manner that’s totally from the 80s. The secret mission involves the gang members planting chemical bombs at different points in Mumbai city, which is a nod to films like Mister India. Again, the film tries to parody long-forgotten eccentricities of formula films of earlier days which, as the article has already stated, aren’t exactly memorable enough to be funny now when they are being parodied. The film botches up its comedy by going too serious in the second half without making the seriousness look like a parodic take of the over-the-top seriousness of the earlier films. The similarities to a relatively recent film like Fida are distracting, especially when the rest aimed for films way earlier.

There’s also little to indicate that the actors, especially the leads, are parodying caricatures of earlier days. Shahid Kapoor does facial gymnastics and tries at times to imitate, I dunno, maybe a young Sanjay Dutt, but there’s little else to suggest who he’s trying to imitate. The dialogues he’s given are hardly fun and lack novelty, even for a parody. Illeana D’Cruz is… just not there. This film makes me realize even making parodies can be a tricky affair, and can get confusing when you don’t know if the film really intends to be a complete parody, and what its exactly parodying.

There are persons who work with a done-to-death formula and yet refurbish it completely to make it look altogether brand new. A famous example would be Quentin Tarantino, whose Django Unchained employs all the conventions of a spaghetti western and yet makes it totally Tarantino, totally awesome. And guess what Tarantino plans to do after he stops making movies? He wants to write books on films and sub-textual film criticism. I guess a critic really is the medium between the masala and the art.

Now I guess we all have to wait for Lady Gaga’s next offering ‘Artpop’, which I view in an altogether new light after this article. Her latest single ‘Applause’ is a dig at critics who jeer at her and a shout-out to fans who cheer for her. I think she fails to realize that it’s the critics who’d recognize her attempt of blending formula (generic pop beats) with art (Gaga’s personality and her uniqueness) before the audiences. We’ll have to wait a while to see if the Artpop album gets a round applause or is rejected as bad art. Now, its high time I get an applause for writing this monster-piece of an article (clap) (clap) (clap)…

“Can I talk my shit again? I said, can I talk my shit again??” Okay, here’s a formulaic script my dad had cooked up a few years ago when he was at the hospital where my grandma was admitted. I asked him during breakfast to recollect whatever he could about the story, and he actually thought I was going to develop it myself. I soon dispelled his expectations and joked that I was going to criticize it in an article. I hope including this piece in the article doesn’t make it look like any sort of criticism. I’m glad he thought of such a masala film for the audiences, and maybe it could get made one day, in India at least, if nowhere else (and by Farah Khan, according to my dad’s wish). The story goes like this:

“There are two principal characters; the good one played Abhishek Bachchan and the bad other by anybody. The good guy is a cop who meets up with a notorious mafia guy who’s locked up in jail and soon believes his claim of giving up crime for good. The mafia guy provides him with information about many of his underworld associates, and the good guy uses the lead to hunt these sons-of-bitches down. In one case, he kills a guy who had potential evidence against the mafia guy’s plans, and is therefore suspended pending inquiry.

(L-R) Abhishek Bachchan, Amitabh Bachchan

Guess Abhishek can follow Shahid’s suit and use this film to revive his flagging career!