The term "masala" has been much bandied about in recent years, all-too-often by people with scant respect or understanding of its rhythms, of the precise contexts it grew out, indeed of how vanishingly brief its efflorescence was -- essentially coterminous with the arc of Amitabh Bachchan's and Manmohan Desai's careers, more accurately with the intersection of the two careers in the 1970s and 1980s. At some point, "masala" became a lazy stand-in, for films from any period prior to this century, for anything that pre-dated the Hollywoodization of the Hindi film aesthetic, for anything outlandish or spoofish, for films we were embarrassed about, for films we didn't just make any more. Until, that is, we did, when, after the path breaking success of 2008's Ghajini, a particular variant of popular (primarily Telugu) cinema was able to be married to The Big Bollywood Star, and has been a fixture of Hindi screens ever since -- in a particular way. For the likes of Ready, Kick, Rowdy Rathore, are not mainstream movies in the sense that they set the pace for the industry, exemplars of a tradition at its prime; rather, these films only make sense in the context of an industry that (commercially speaking) has moved on (to an extent because of changing tastes; but also, in no small measure, because of its ability to pitch products to smaller and smaller demographic groups. Unlike the industries all over the world that seek to broaden their footprint, Bollywood, wittingly or no, prefers to focus on smaller groups of more affluent consumers). Contemporary masala makes sense, and can be successful, only because there isn't very much of it, and what there is harkens to a general sense of Bollywood's history; it is thus essential that it be married to a veteran star, whose long career itself imbues him with an aura of authenticity. That context paradoxically means that the masala movie, however well-made, simply cannot mean what it used to: its excellence vis-a-vis other films might have brought success once upon a time (think of Sholay, as opposed to Khotay Sikkay); today, its rarity, its status as a kind of specimen (the Hindi/Urdu word namoona does come to mind) is crucial.
The above accounts for many of Salman Khan's recent films: unquestionably Southern masala in one sense, films like Dabangg, Dabangg 2, Ek Tha Tiger or Kick were also careful not to alienate the multiplex audience, packaging what they were selling in tongue-in-cheek humor, and Hollywood length (Dabangg, for instance, was under two hours in length). They were easy to consume, both for an audience that wanted "this sort" of film but couldn't get it anywhere else, and for an audience who needed escapist fare but was embarrassed by itself for being so silly. Kabir Khan's Ek Tha Tiger offered a fascinating glimpse of the potential and pitfalls of this sort of film could be: shorn of sexism or even the overt nationalism that one might have expected from its subject (an Indo-Pak romance between two spies), just as the film gets interesting, with the star-crossed lovers fleeing with RAW and the ISI in hot pursuit, it, um, ends, almost as if the filmmakers knew that you couldn't risk getting too serious, too, well, masala anymore.
Everyone deserves a second chance, and in retrospect, Ek Tha Tiger was the appetizer to the main course that is Bajrangi Bhaijaan: and a damn good meal it is (and, it must be noted, one not without some Andhra spice, written as it is by K. Vijayendra Prasad, a man credited with more blockbusters – including the continuing phenomenon of Baahubali -- than most have hits). By now everyone knows the plot -- good-hearted Hanuman bhakt Pawan Kumar Chaturvedi finds a mute Pakistani girl lost in India, and resolves to cross the border to re-unite her with her family -- but let's pause to acknowledge that this itself is a welcome relief from the nauseating flood of routine love stories packaged as something different; or the clothes, fashion, and lifestyle ads that masquerade as films in Bollywood. And then there is the question of the social milieu the film is set in: I found myself rooting for the fact that this film isn’t populated by people toting D&G and acting as if progressive cinema consisted of ripping off off-beat American filmmakers, rather than plagiarizing other sources. In Bajrangi Bhaijaan, people take the bus, eat at dhabas, drink tea from roadside stalls, not because the director is trying to tell us something (in far too many contemporary Hindi films, these representations would mean either that we are talking about the hinterlands of UP and Bihar, with crazy violence sure to follow; or that it’s a question of a film about some “them”, made for some “us” that is assuredly not “them”), but because that’s simply where his characters live and how they commute to work. It’s delightful because it’s so normal. (That I have to make this point at all testifies to the sad pass the industry has come to.) [In fact, Kabir Khan’s representation of the film’s worlds has led to some off-screen confusion with more than one urbane Bombayite puzzled over the use of terms like “Mohammedan” in the film – a sure sign of one’s unfamiliarity with certain North Indian milieus.]
There are other signs of a new normal: Pawan isn’t just a Hanuman bhakt but a rather closed-minded Hindu: he’s the son of a RSS shakha pramukh, is shocked by even the smell of meat wafting over from a Muslim neighbors house, and is completely disgusted to see the child he’s so fond of wolf down chicken. He’s also communal, pleading for Hanuman’s forgiveness upon entering a mosque, is shocked that the child in his care even wants to tie a thread at a dargah, and further evidenced by his desperation to come up with an explanation of the girl’s meat-eating ways that doesn’t have her be – shudder – a Muslim. Kshatriyas eat meat, he reasons, an addendum to his earlier reasoning that the girl’s light skin means she must be a Brahmin. And then there’s his literal-mindedness: much of the film’s comedy is centered on Pawan’s attempts to live his life according to the precepts of Lord Hanuman: never lie, deceive, or do anything under-handed. All this isn’t just director Kabir Khan and writer Vijayendra Prasad looking down at some simple-minded bigot who makes the rest of us feel better about our own “tolerance”. On the contrary, the representation of Pawan’s bigotry as completely, banally, normal, so much so that it’s Pawan’s lover Rasika who seems odd when she snaps that all this stuff about staying away from those of “paraaya dharm” is nonsense, stays with the viewer. Pawan’s attitudes aren’t abnormal or unusual, they are all too common across large swathes of Indian society, and the film doesn’t let us forget it precisely because it evokes that reality in a seemingly non-judgmental way.
This isn’t the syncretic Hindu that we are familiar with from a long line of Hindi films, but almost the first post-Modi Hindu film hero, one with a communal identity so clearly demarcated, so abundantly policed and vigilant of borders (witness Pawan about to step into a dargah for the first time – and this is on the Indian side of the border), one might mistake him for a monotheistic fundamentalist. The jibe against the Sangh is subtle, but unmistakable: what the new normal – an ignorant one, I might add: a second after Rasika asks Pawan if he’s read the Mahabharata she remembers who she’s dealing with, following it up with “you must have at least watched the TV serial?” – amounts to isn’t anti-Muslim so much as it is un-Muslim, a conception of India and Indianness that has nothing whatsoever to do with the likes of Muslims. The new normal, that is to say, aims at fulfilling the logic of Partition, by creating a Hindu Pakistan to mirror the Muslim one across the border. So while I celebrate Bajrangi Bhaijaan for its insight and appreciation of the stakes here, my appreciation is tinged with sadness: because the film also reminds us, in a way no Indo-Pak bonhomie at film’s end can undo, how complete the logic of Partition is for so many people, whether they live in India or Pakistan. Indeed that cross-border bonhomie reinforces the stability of the border, a point that seems to have eluded the filmmakers: stated differently, a more daring film would have tackled the Hindu-Muslim “borders” within a city like Delhi, and the challenges those frontiers pose to sustaining a genuinely pluralistic polity. The Wagah border can be oppressive, but it doesn’t upset either Hindu or Pakistani nationalism because it keeps everyone in their place (to be fair, this film does have a brilliant sequence where things are out of place, when India loses a cricket match to Pakistan and everyone in the house Pawan and Rasika stay in is distraught, with only Munni jumping up and down in excitement, and then kissing the Pakistani flag on the TV screen).
But -- and this is perhaps the best thing about this film -- Bajrangi Bhaijaan's magic lies in the sly way it upsets expectations by making an "other" of its lead protagonist, and, by extension, of the audience. The film’s second half is set entirely in Pakistan, and at one fell swoop it is Pawan who sticks out like a sore thumb: his name, the words he uses, his religiosity, makes him seem as aberrant in Pakistan as, well, a Muslim guy at a RSS shakha. I can’t think of another Hindi film that does so much with this trope, in the sense that Pawan isn’t oppressed in Pakistan for his religion, it’s just that his oddity is reinforced at every turn (the scene where Pawan asks for vegetarian food at a roadside dhaba was hilarious, and rang true, reminding me of more than one Muslim acquaintance), and he has to cope with being strange in a milieu that otherwise includes plenty of the familiar. This is a double estrangement, not simply borne of alien-ness, but of an alien-ness that also feels, in many ways, familiar. (Perhaps I should speak of a triple or even quadruple estrangement here, given that Pawan is played by Muslim Salman Khan; but a Muslim who can recite the Hanumanchalisa with no trouble at all, and one who is himself, in a perverse twist that would have done Proust proud, closer to the Hindu Right than just about any other Muslim celebrity in India.)
The second half of Bajrangi Bhaijaan introduces us to Nawazuddin Siddiqui, playing the rather shabby Pakistani journalist Chand Nawab, who becomes smitten by the story of the big-hearted Indian on an odyssey to re-unite Munni with her parents. Salman Khan’s character is strangely passive and quiet in the second half, and Nawazuddin propels the action here, with wonderful comic timing and that ever-present misery in the actor’s eyes. It isn’t often that one speaks of another actor in a Salman Khan film (Nawazuddin himself had no more than ten good minutes in Kick), but it must be said that he has tons of screen time, and holds the film’s second half together. I could see this film again just for him. That’s not a knock on Salman, but merely an acknowledgment that Kabir Khan hasn’t been as flattering to him here as he was in Ek Tha Tiger: there are fewer great dialogs, only one crowd-pleasing action sequence, the music – as one would expect from Pritam – is pedestrian, and no Sallu song choreography worthy of the name (E le le is not a patch on, for instance, Hum ka peeni hai from Dabangg; although the Kukdu ku song celebrating the charms of non-veg food, features delightful lyrics by Mayur Puri).
What is the film’s message (apart, that is, from, as Baradwaj Rangan has noted, the notion that Salman Khan is a wonderful human being)? That we should all get along, for sure, but there’s another, more sly thread here: what happens to Pawan illustrates the limits of literal-minded adherence to religious or moral precepts – if you keep admitting you crossed the border illegally into Pakistan, expect to be beaten by the police and border security personnel, however pure your intentions – and on more than one occasion, Prasad and Kabir Khan evoke the Mahabharata: Rasika does it most explicitly early on, trying to explain to Pawan that he needs to add some Krishna to his Hanuman bhakti. “Never tell lies” is not just a moral precept, it’s a sure way to make one’s life unlivable. By film’s end, Pawan seems to get it: he still won’t tell lies or deceive, but will mislead and enable others to do so to serve a good end. Chand Nawab has never heard of the Mahabharata, but the writer ensures we are reminded of it in the latter half of the film: as every good Hindi film fan knows, Natwarlal is the most masala-friendly of all Deities.