Thursday, May 15, 2008

Missing Masala

Masala films have been an inseparable part of Tamil cinema since the days of MGR. Offering a little bit of everything(action, romance, sentiments and comedy) that typically go into movies, films in the masala genre constitute pure escapist fare whose only aim is to entertain. But lately, this staple of Tamil cinema has given us few good entries with reliable directors and popular actors letting us down.

So what makes a film a masala film? The hero must be a simple, good man (no dark side or even shades of gray to muddy things up) and someone the common man can identify with. He must have a strong, worthy adversary to go up against. The film should have a simple, linear storyline whose primary - and mostly only - goal is to pit the hero against the villain. The film should incorporate action, romance, comedy and sentiments, with action being the primary component. And finally, the hero should triumph over the bad guy in the end and get the girl. Those are pretty much the basic elements of a masala film and how effective each of them is and how well they are put together makes all the difference between a good one and a bad one.

The golden period for masala films in Tamil cinema was probably the 80s. S.P.Muthuraman, with AVM behind him and Rajni and Kamal in front of the camera, spearheaded the movement with a series of films that were unapologetic masala films. Murattu Kaalai, Sakalakalaavallavan, Nallavanukku Nallavan and Thoongaadhe Thambi Thoongaadhe were some of the blockbusters that this combination delivered. Directors like Rajasekhar(Maappillai, Kaakki Sattai) kept the genre going into the 90s. Dharani, K.S.Ravikumar and Hari are probably the directors keeping the masala genre alive today. The revenge theme, which routinely saw our heroes avenging the death of their parents or the rape of their sister, has gradually given way to the theme of the hero going up against someone more powerful than him. The bad guy could be a cop, a rowdy or a politician but all that matters is that he is more powerful than the hero.

I enjoyed all those aforementioned masala films from the 80s. But the list is considerably smaller if we go back only a few years. Excluding Rajni films, which fall into a whole different category, my Top 5 masala films in the past few years would probably be Run, Gilli, Saamy, Dhill and Dhool. Personally, I feel that its the violence overdose that's killing off the genre. Once the violence becomes realistic and bloody, the movie takes on a certain seriousness and it then becomes oddly disconcerting to see the comedy track or flashy duets. This was why movies like Aaru and Saravanaa didn't work for me.

Every actor dreams of becoming Rajni and since those masala films of the 80s were a key part of Rajni ascent to the top, every present-day actor treats a masala film as his ticket to superstardom. But its getting increasingly difficult tocraft really good masala films. Considering the last films of our top stars, both Kuruvi and Bheema flopped while Billa, which could be considered the antithesis of our conventional masala film(it had no romance, no comedy, no sentiments and the action was subtle and stylized) was a big hit. Could this be a sign of changing audience tastes? Are masala films, as we know it, finally losing their charm?


At 10:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wont agree masala movies are loosing sheen bb.However if we see in the last 4-5 years,hero delivering a heady mix of brain+brawns has been lapped up by audience.The top 5 movies you have listed confirm this.Only when its too much brawn things go wrong.
Regarding Billa,I dont think you can use it as an example to think that audience mentality has changed.Take out the Rajini factor from Billa.Now tell me what you think of that movie.I think the fact that for the first time a Rajini movie was being remade aroused a lot of curiosity amongst the people.They wanted to see what it is all about and this helped the movie a lot,IMHO.Add to that the slick presentation by Vishnu\Neerav shah.Most of the time I was feeling like watching a model show on 70mm.

At 11:19 PM, Blogger Bart said...

I too feel probably the masala fim taste in audience is changing.
If we look at a "Sakalakala vallavan", "Thudikkum Karangal", "Payum puli" or a "Kaaki Sattai", it would have quite a few illogical things, which we (I) lapped up enthusiastically (i.e.: the village bumpkin changing to a city-bred person, the hero in police joining the villain's team so easily, hero and heroine learning karate/ kungfu with some weirdo master in a weirdo place, item dances inbetween, garish sets etc).
Whereas more stress offlate is given to logic as well.. Even the recent hit movies that you mentioned, has normal characters in normal surroundings. Only some of the incidents might be over the top. So, I feel logic and realistic feel has started becoming very important. But people are very much open to the loud masala genre - else what could explain the success of Vijay, Vishal's few movies (Thiruppachi, Sivakasi, Thimiru, Sandaikozhi, Malaikottai, Vel etc)...
The recent flopped masala movies are more due to their staleness and lack of entertainment (Saravanaa, Aaru etc.). Billa being a hit is a different story as it was the 'Rajini remake curiosity factor', Relief from Ajith's continual run of bad choices (paramasivan, thiruppathi, aazhwar) and the base material being decent enough, the technical finesse pushed the movie along. (But technical finesse alone without strong base material is still a flop - e.g.: Nepali).
So, there is an expectation of higher percentage of logic and believability even in masala movies these days.

At 12:24 AM, Blogger Balaji said...

jey, on 'billa', i didn't think too much of the film. but i was just commenting on the fact that it was a huge hit without those masala ingredients. the curiosity factor worked to its benefit but that alone couldn't have made it such a big hit. I used it to say that it succeeded without any of those things traditionally associated with masala films :)

bart, good point. i too think the logic/realism factor has become more important these days and that's hurting the masala genre the most. and even among the movies u mentioned, the real big hit - tiruppaachi - was a few yrs ago while the other more recent ones weren't in the same league as the other blockbusters I mentioned :)

At 1:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Or maybe we dont have directors like SPM who could make a masaala movie work now.Seems Dharani was perfectly fitting the bill.But now he seems to have lost it with both Bangaram and Kuruvi(But still Kuruvi has collected almost the same amount that Billa collected after 1st week in CBO,baffles me).Hari showed glimpses of that in Saamy.Leaving aside these 2 you dont have anyone who churns out a typical masala movie.
Regarding the taste of the audiences people still do love watching thalaivar's 80's movies.However I dont want to use this as an example,as thalaivar is always an exception :-)

At 1:32 AM, Blogger D.E.V said...

hey how come you guys forgotten bout Shankar, his movies are also masala movies like the recent "shivaji", I think audience are already looking for a change in masala films.."Ghajini" was a big Hit, and i thought, that masala films now might be tredier and slicker but i was wrong...The trend has not cought in such a big way..we still have movies like "Bheema", "kuruvi", "Kaalai" being churned out. The message is already loud and clear that old fashion masala films would not work anymore....i hope that Directors like Dharani, Hari keep that in mind in thier future movies..

At 2:10 AM, Blogger Ramkumar R. Aiyengar said...

Aren't Masala movies the only thing Director Perarasu does? Not your cup of tea is it? :)

At 6:44 AM, Blogger D.E.V said...

Ramkumar, Perarasu does not make masala film But 'Mess'ala films!

At 6:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

bb, your description of a masala movie reads like a class library from which objects called films can be instantiated :) Now its up to the programmer (the director) to provide a proper interface to make it an interesting experience for the users (the audience).

The guy who played Ajiths father in kandukonden kandukonden said it best when he distinguishes between the kind of food white people are satisfied with ("just a chicken") and the kind of food that indians demand for a single meal (just about everything).

At 10:18 AM, Blogger Srivatsan Sridharan said...


It's not that masala films are losing their charm. One needs to pack the contents properly. I just want to bring to notice that Vel was a big hit :) and was watchable for 2 or 2.5 hrs easily while I can't sit through Kuruvi.

I'll have to admit that Pokkiri was way better and entertaining.

At 12:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

well the main things in masala movies did remain in billa. only the feel was changed. In fact billa is proof that the genre is still alive.

"bad over evil", "dance by sexy girls", adopted child "sentiment", "revenge", "action" and "hope that the disbelief is suspended" are all there.

At 2:08 PM, Blogger kumar said...

i agree with skanda & ramkumar .
rajini masala - an exception ?
why , does he work for aachi masala ?
velaikkaaran,annamalai,muthu - different dosai's with the same batter.

At 9:30 PM, Blogger Balaji said...

anon, yes the lack of directors who can make a good masala film is a big reason. like u, i too had pinned a lot of hope on dharani but he let me down badly :)

skanda, yes shankar's movies are masala movies but they somehow don't fit into the kind of masala film i was talking about here. the big budget and the socially relevant storyline probably have something to do with that :)
but u're right. the way the films r taken has become more imporant and our masala directors need to understand that :)

ramkumar, yes, u're right. he isn't exactly my favorite director but as far as the topic is masala films, he should be mentioned :)

skanda, good one :)

anon, lol. yep, what i wrote is pretty much the template and its upto the director to develop something good from that :)

srivatsan, yeah the packaging's the most important part. and i thot 'vel' was better than 'kuruvi' too :)

yasodha, i was just going by what i said in the 2nd para about the components of a masala film. just felt that 'billa' didn't meet most of them :)

kumar, rajni movies r definitely masala movies. since i'm a big fan, i didn't want to include his movies in my top 5 listing since it would've become heavily biased :)

At 8:01 AM, Blogger Ganesh said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 8:01 AM, Blogger Ganesh said...

It's good.Why worry about it?Tell me ,what's th need of an item number in good movies like Sethu/Pithamagan?If people have started loving movies which are straightforward and not attempting to venture into to many genres in 1 film like action,romance,sentiment etc.;that's good.I future,we'l not see a 'killathe killathe
' song in a serious film like Gentleman.We'l not see silly comedy in a serious film talking about droughts and famines.

At 6:49 PM, Blogger Vijay Kumar said...

To make a 'formula' movie or a 'masala' movie these days, the makers have to make it a 'retro' homage from the get go. I think this is happening a lot with Hindi movies and has just begun down south.
The movies that were the staple fare not so long ago are now 'retro'. I am getting old...

At 8:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Curiosity-factor made Billa a blockbuster! Really? Why couldn't Baba a Rajini movie become a Blockbuster? If a Rajini-remake can become a BB for curiosity factor, a direct Rajini movie should become a BB?

If that's the case, why'd they have to go to Malaysia, hire good technician to make this average film, Billa?

And even for a Rajini movie, it cannot become a hit for Rajini factor alone. We know what happened with Baba.

At 5:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

@ Anon -

Baba was a flop for a Rajini movie, that is to say it didn't make as much $ as they expected. i remember seeing somewhere that Baba did make more $ than the other movies that were released at around the same time.

Such is the draw of the 'superstar' :-)

As for the state of masala movies, I think as an audience, we've evolved (slightly at least). We still want the good guy to win over the bad guy but the bad guy has to be more than a stock, total villain. He's got to be smart and doesn't hurt if he's funny so that he's an actual challenge to our hero. And our hero (as someone above mentioned) has to be more than just good and strong. He has to be smart. Plus, we're more willing to accept shades of gray in our heroes now. At the end of hte day though, we still want the good guy to beat the bad guy to a just has to be more believable. I don't think directors today have found that balance between the campy-ness of the 80s masala that made it so much fun to watch and 'cool' factor of today...if that make any sense :-)

At 6:08 PM, Blogger Balaji said...

ganesh, masala movies have their own niche. i too am against unnecessary songs/fights in movies of other genres but a masala movie is pure entertainment and thats primarily what we go to the movies for :)

vijay, i think that is one way. but i think the space for a good, well-done masala movie is still open :)

anon, i'm with u on that one. curiosity factor alone cannot make a movie a hit and i'm sure a number of other factors worked for 'billa' :)

anon, actually that last line of urs makes perfect sense. well said! the campiness of the 80s is what made the movies fun and enjoyable and that has to be balanced with the style and technical advances of today to give us a good masala movie :)

At 11:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In view of the face of tamil films evolving in current times - thru sets, costumes, locations, technical gadgets etc - some elements of a formula remains. That is , from the days of MGR & Sivaji Ganesan (though MGR may be acceredited for this): 5 songs, 4 fights (with a final climatic showdown), mother / sister / lover emotions, a comedy track, and mix them all up for 3 hours of masala mayhem. That in a nutshell is our masala tamil paddum...

At 9:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes i will admit that i hate the masala genre, especially the violent kind. Billa's slick and soft presentation was a welcome refreshment for me.

I think masala films are not losing their gleam, its the style of presentation that has changed. The audience are now preferring a much sophisticated style of presentation due to the changing generation. Films like Billa, sivaji, ghajini stand testimony to that while vijay and vishal films really need a lot of improvement.

At 9:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes i will admit that i hate the masala genre, especially the violent kind. Billa's slick and soft presentation was a welcome refreshment for me.

I think masala films are not losing their gleam, its the style of presentation that has changed. The audience are now preferring a much sophisticated style of presentation due to the changing generation. Films like Billa, sivaji, ghajini stand testimony to that while vijay and vishal films really need a lot of improvement.


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