Saturday, September 11, 2010
Reflections on Masala Cinema and DABANGG (Hindi; 2010)
In recent times, Bollywood has tried to shake off some of the industry's contemporary distaste for its masala roots, with periodic salvos in the form of films like Bunty aur Babli (2005), Jhoom Barabar Jhoom (2007), Tashan (2008), and Chandni Chowk to China (2009). Looking back, it is not difficult to see why all of the films named (barring the first) failed miserably at the box office. Although I liked more than one of these, their attempt to resurrect masala cinema itself testified to the corpse in our midst: these films typically began with the premise that there was something drastically wrong with, not just masala films as the tradition degenerated over the course of the 1980s and 1990s into cliched set-pieces and moldiness; but the masala mode itself. That is, even the directors who purported to love the old masala cinema saw that way of approaching films -- rooted in the mythic; and other to both the neo-realist rhythms of Hollywood-inspired fare as well as the greeting card cheesiness of the NRI romances, that had swept all before them in the Hindi film industry from the late 1990s-onward -- as irremediably past. The specter of masala, it seemed, could only be summoned if the medium was funny, held at a distance by irony, or rendered homage to by spoof. Films like Lagaan (2001), seeking to incarnate masala in a more urbane and globalizable, yet also perhaps more bland, garb, promised new paths, but the film was too good for its own good: the message the industry seems to have taken to heart was that serious masala could work only if the film were as good as Lagaan. Which did wonders for the reputation and career of the film's leading man, Aamir Khan, but made an aberration of the film itself (an effect intensified by Khan's subsequent career trajectory, that has led far too many to equate the "different film" as one only Aamir could pull off, and hence as one that need not be emulated by others). In retrospect, it was a different Aamir Khan film, a far more embarrassing one for the industry's multiplexie filmmakers and audiences, that sounded the bugle: Fanaa (2006) was a mediocre film, but above all else, was a throwback of a film, hearkening to the cinema of Rajendra Kumar and even Rajesh Khanna, with only the flimsy patina of Kashmir militancy to clue the audience in that this was supposed to be Our Own Time. The film was a smash success, and Aamir had his formula (i.e. alternate more "serious" fare with "massy" cinema hearkening to Bollywood's past). The actor followed up the middle-brow (and thoroughly multiplex) Taare Zameen Par (2007) with the pan-North Indian smash-hit Ghajini (2008). While too early to say for sure, the latter's eye-popping box-office receipts finally seem to have made the truth impossible to deny: that films like the sort that had become synonymous with Yashraj and Dharma productions were not simply motivated by commercial considerations but by ideological ones. Audiences excluded from the new Bollywood paradigm were not simply "backward" folk who would, in time, see the light, but were simply not going to the cinemas often enough. In short, a film like Ghajini, by amassing crores and crores beyond what even the biggest Yashraj and Dharma films had managed to earn in the domestic market, irrefutably demonstrated that contemporary Bollywood was very far from maximizing audience share -- that millions of fans just did not care for candyfloss films set in NRIstan for no good reason, that paraded brand names and product placements with breathtaking vulgarity, making the display of consumption part of their drama. That millions of fans, in short, wanted a more authentic cinema, or at least wanted more of it than they had been getting.
Did I just say "wanted"? Salman Khan's 2009 blockbuster of the same name was an unabashed celebration of the masala mode, in both its thrilling and its ridiculous (even unsavory) aspects. No matter. Its authenticity, its lack of pretention, made for a successful box office run for a film that many hadn't expected to do much. Much of the credit had to go to the leading man of Wanted: Salman Khan's off-screen bad boy air, combined with a refusal to bullshit about his career or the industry (a disease with most of his colleagues), and a self-deprecating twinkle that winked to the audience "you think I don't get this is ridiculous?!" while simultaneously standing by the legitimacy of the film, made for an irresistible combination (it certainly got me to the cinema for a Salman Khan film, a phenomenon much rarer than a leap year). But so what? From a different perspective, both Ghajini and Wanted testified to the paucity of Bollywood masala: both films were remakes of Tamil and Telugu blockbusters; and both were directed by successful directors from Southern film industries. Both films, that is, were barely products of Bollywood at all.
That didn't make them any easier to ignore, but it did raise questions in my mind as to whether I could hope for a genuine Bolly-filmmaker -- that is to say one not simply seeking to translate a successful Southern film -- to follow in their wake. Salman Khan, apparently, was also paying attention to the fate ofGhajini and Wanted, as was Abhinav Kashyap, brother of enfant terrible -- and dean of a (yet another!) new, "indie-ishtyle" Bollywood that is neither masala nor Hollywood-lite nor Hallmark-drenched -- Anurag Kashyap. The result is Dabangg -- for me, a Sallu film in the theaters for a second consecutive year (this time with a better title: the word means brave, fearless, perhaps even reckless, and -- for all these reasons -- manly, the sort of title the late Feroze Khan would have approved of. None of this sissy Love Aaj Kal stuff for him). Not for nothing is it Eid ka chand.
Abhinav Kashyap attempts to answer my questions. Acting like it's 1983 won't do, but neither will spoofing all the way to a gag-fest -- leaving everything else aside, masala-as-slapfest just isn't funny. Nor does the tongue in cheek cleverness, or rather, the cinematic presentation of cleverness (a la Bluffmaster!), sit comfortably with a mode the very lifeblood of which is "as if": masala cinema takes the absolute significance of the story and characters that it is presenting for granted, as if nothing mattered more. What's left, then? In a word, the world of Robert Rodriguez (something like Desperado), the exaggerated gesturality of which, combined with the complete seriousness of purpose, makes clear that this world must be taken seriously, even if it seems a bit like kabuki, sending us missives in a language that is no longer completely retrievable, evoking a mode that can only be viewed through a screen. Kashyap must walk a tightrope: self-consciousness -- the curse of recent attempts to resurrect masala, and unknown to the Southern remakes -- cannot simply be wished (or willed) away, but too much of an emphasis on mode can itself betray that one is at a wake, with the films focusing almost exclusively on the hero's gesturality, to the exclusion of everything else (to the extent Tamil and Telugu masala cinema has itself fallen into a rut, it is this one). To the extent Kashyap has to come down on one side, he does so on the latter, but not before maintaining his balance for longer than most others on this terrain. Dabangg, in short, is good fun: in an old-school way, it takes its narrative seriously, evoking the traditional tropes of mother, paternity, and dispossession; while its representation of a cheerfully corrupt, amoral hero, looking out above all else for himself, is of more modern vintage. Bridging the gap between the two, the one who holds it all up, is Salman Khan, never more charismatic than he is here, and whose Lalgunj Inspector Chulbul Pandey is cleverly drawn by Kashyap to give full rein to the audience's skepticism -- if we succumb to this film's charms, Pandey's own eccentric antics will stand for and sum up everything that can't be happening on screen. Leaving us to imbibe the rest of the film as is, freed as it were. Sure, we can never feel for Chulbul Pandey -- that isn't his function. Instead, Salman is asked to function as a medium for the ghosts of a certain kind of hero; by making the character's --and the actor's -- oddity explicit, Kashyap enables us to stop asking the question.
If the above makes Dabangg, sound like a somewhat bloodless, even abstract, film, despite the star at its core, that is my intention. For, in a nutshell, the film, while quite enjoyable and never less than engaging, and certainly no film that I can think of has (with the possible exception of Saawariya) showcased Salman Khan better; lacks something. Perhaps it is what desi audiences call an "emotional connection" with the film. Perhaps it is simply that the film comes across as an interesting concept given form, rather than a distinctive vision or a compelling story. Don't get me wrong, I laud the concept -- the film's relentless embrace of a dusty U.P. milieu, of a hero who isn't (a shocker in these Bollytimes) a gazillionaire, and of Indian popular cinema's heritage -- but the film needed more. Such as, oh, some kind of moral core: the film simply has none; for all the promos announcing Dabangg's protagonist as "Robin Hood Panday", there is precious little of that in the film. What there is oodles of is a casual attitude toward police brutality, corruption, encounter deaths, and even the use of false arrests as an excuse to get Inspector Panday's lady-love to the police station. All of these can be material for humor -- of the bleak, not guffawing, sort, even if the last-named of these moments provides guilty consolation by segueing into an energetic "Hum Ka Peeni Hai" song that is one of the film's highlights.
To recap: Chulbul Panday grows up a second-class member of his step-father's household, and into the sort of cop who will fight criminals only so he can steal their money. This naturally runs this descendant of Bachchan's Shahenshah-cop afoul of Lalgunj's politicians, specifically Chedi Singh (Sonu Sood), the guy behind at least some of the gangsters. Along the way to a reckoning with Chedi Singh, Panday meets and falls for potter Rajo (Sonakshi Sinha), reconciles with his estranged family, faces tragedy, and, by film's end, triumphs. And becomes the only man ever to hook his shades on the back of his collar.
The best of the rest of the cast certainly deserved better: Sonakshi Sinha's Rajo isn't asked to do much, but we see glimpses of something interesting in her, a flash of quiet anger and resentment here, a wary look there, that leads us to want more. With the exception of a hilarious moment with Chulbul Pandey on her wedding night (the only gender-bending moment in a rather sexist film), we are disappointed, as Sinha is barely present as the film wears on. Not to mention that her Indian look, squarely at odds with the sort of "size zero"-blandness that seems to be par for the course in contemporary Hindi cinema, was easy on the eyes. Sonu Sood's villainous Chedi Singh suffers from the opposite problem, appearing at the beginning and towards the end, but barely present for much of the film's middle as it takes a detour toward resolving Chulbul's conflicts with his brother Maakhan (Arbaaz Khan) and stepfather Pandayji (Vinod Khanna). The film could have done with more of him, and more villainy (less simpering) from him.
The music was better than I expected: the title song "Dabangg" is pungent, despite the "Omkara" hangover, and the very fact that Sajid-Wajid were able to rescue the utterly conventional "Tere Mast Mast Do Nain" from staleness is reason enough to be impressed (not to mention the zany video). Malaika Arora-Khan's item number "Munni Badnaam Hui" was popular leading up to the film's release, and certainly features a fun video (wherein, it must be said, Sonu Sood is the scene stealer), but the song suffers from poor placement in the film, diluting its impact. There was another song, set in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, but it was so generic I can't for the life of me remember its name.
I can remember the action sequences, though, but not because they were memorable: there are too many sequences marred by poor SFX and close-ups (i.e., close-ups designed to mask the inadequacy of the SFX), a grave sin in a film with this title, and it is hard to square these with the verve shown by Kashyap at several other points during the film. This is not, visually speaking, a pedestrian film (even if it comes most alive during the various bazaar sequences), making the inadequacy of the action scenes mystifying.
Should you see it? That depends on what you want: if, like me, you've been casting about for signs of a disturbance in the reigning cultural hegemony within Bollywood, Dabangg might be one of the clearest signs yet that the prospects for greater diversity aren't dead. And, despite the film's shortcomings, that will thrill you, as it did me, and you won't regret watching it. But even if you aren't sympathetic to this kind of cinema, it still might be worth checking out. Along the way, you will certainly get glimpses of the sorts of people who have been marginalized for years in Bollywood's Big Films. Sure, none of this might matter to you -- perhaps you prefer your dish bland, or laced with saccharine -- but I'm betting most have enough of a weakness for spice, and Dabangg is light enough and Salman Khan certainly funny enough, that they probably won't regret watching it.