Bollywood: The Overpowering Flavor of Masala

A group of four intentionally ugly, unkempt, repulsive thugs stand in an otherwise deserted field, snarling and sneering at a pitiable, unarmed, scared-looking fellow. (If you can’t already tell, these are some bad guys, and the yet-to-appear-hero’s less-able sidekick.) Mr. Pathetic Sidekick looks around frantically, finding many directions to run, but nowhere to hide. All of a sudden, the dashing hero, riding a gaudily painted autorickshaw, comes flying/crashing through a brick wall. He jumps out of the rickshaw at just the right moment, and in a well-planned move, lands firmly in front of the hooligans who begin to cast nervous glances at one another. The hero – the epitome of cool and chill – casually sizes up his victims, even more casually insults their collective manhood, and with minimal effort proceeds to beat the living daylights out of them. He deals many fatal-looking blows, causing the masses of men to fly about the landscape multiple times. Ultimately, no one loses their life or even breaks a bone, but every last bad guy runs away, faster than roadrunner fleeing the coyote. Mr. Sidekick showers praise on the hero, who’s back to his casual mode, pretending he’s not flattered. They begin to stroll, as you or I might do in a park, talking about something totally unrelated to what we just witnessed.

No one asks pertinent questions like, ‘How are they going to get home?’ (Because the autorickshaw tumbled apart soon after our hero jumped out.) Or why did the hero choose to break through the wall when it would have been more energetically favorable to drive around it? (Also, they would still have had a ride to get back to civilization.) Not to mention that Newton squirmed a bit in his grave when the lightweight rickshaw broke the brick wall, instead of the other way around. No one thinks to question how they got here in the first place. Neither do they care to shed any light – not even a dim one – on who said bad guys are, or what they have against our poor Mr. Sidekick.

This was taken from the opening scene of Dhoom 3 – a recent blockbuster Bollywood film of the masala genre. Calling masala a genre is somewhat counterintuitive, since by definition, it evades any logical classification. ‘Everything and the kitchen sink’ is as true a definition as any, also keeping with the clichéd style of the genre itself. You only know that the scene described above is from Dhoom 3 because I told you. If I hadn’t, even a Bollywood aficionado would have trouble naming the film, because such a scene is so typical of masala. Here, when I say typical, I also mean mind-numbingly profitable. Masala entertainers, when done right, draw hordes of people to “House Full” packed theaters, minting billions of rupees.

Dhoom 3 (2013)
The grand autorickshaw entry of Abhishek Bachchan in Dhoom3

What is Masala?

Masala, taking its name from the mixture of various spices, consists of many ingredients, any number of which may be combined to cook up a movie that will make its producer’s pockets considerably heavier. These include, in no particular order, a simplistic storyline (or an overly convoluted one, your pick), a brolic hero who can fight ten thugs simultaneously with his bare hands, a leading lady with nothing much to do besides look pretty, a villain more evil than Cruella Deville, an item-song (featuring a scantily-clad girl dancing suggestively to meaningless lyrics), a trademark dialogue for the hero to use whenever he needs to establish his awesomeness, and feelings (may come in the form of long-suffering mothers and/or cute kids). Not every movie of this genre has every ingredient; but one ubiquitous theme is the insult to viewers’ intelligence. Yet it seems like the audience as a whole doesn’t feel this insult. They consistently continue to provide the makers with a demand to supply.

Salman Khan action
Megastar Salman Khan performing a typical masala action sequence, sending a large group of bad guys flying about.

The movies themselves are reminiscent of the ’80s, a decade of films best forgotten for their illogical progression of events and heavy overdose of everything from drama to action. It was the time when moviegoers were recovering from a hangover of the angry-young-man revenge tragedies of the ’70s, but not yet ready for the candyfloss mushy romances of the ’90s. The time was appropriate for a new type of film that offered a little bit of everything: a couple of ill-timed, poorly choreographed dances (romance, check), gunshot sound effects provided for hand-to-hand combat (action, check), randomly appearing irrelevant humor (comedy, check), gory death of the bad guy at the hands of the hero (good prevailing over evil, check). Each item on the list would be checked off, but none would be sufficiently developed.

The Comeback

Masala made a huge comeback in 2009, when prominent ’80s producer Boney Kapoor decided to rope in the popular South-Indian director Prabhudeva to remake a hit South-Indian film, Wanted. After being rejected by actors in a position to show good taste, the lead role fell to ’90s superstar Salman Khan, whose career was now waning. (Wanted was a crime action thriller about a ruthless gangster who turns out to be an honorable undercover cop whose cover gets blown, and who then proceeds to avenge the resultant murder of his father. Phew. There’s also a pretty girl who has nothing to do with the main storyline.) Wanted went on to become the second highest grossing film that year, catapulting Khan into megastardom.

In the able hands of the experienced and well-versed Prabhudeva (also a brilliant choreographer and accomplished actor), Wanted was a surprisingly entertaining movie. It wasn’t cinematically brilliant, but it was fun – great for a one-time watch with friends. However, pretty soon, other, less able, often first-time directors jumped on this bandwagon. Playing it safe, they all hired Khan. Out came a slew of insultingly mindless, staggeringly profitable junk: Dabangg (2010), Ready (2011), Ek Tha Tiger (2012), Dabangg 2 (2012), and Jai Ho (2014). Dabangg set a box office record within its first week, and it continues to be among the top ten most successful Bollywood films in history. Bodyguard, Ek Tha Tiger, and Dabangg 2 also make this list, with Ek Tha Tiger having made a total of up to ₹3.5 billion ($58 million) including revenue from overseas markets, according to Box Office India.

Interminable Dross

Along this masale-daar journey, Khan realized that all he has to do for a movie to be successful is be in it. He admitted in an interview promoting Ek Tha Tiger, in translation, “I’ve been surviving on a single facial expression. That’s my thing.” The stunned interviewer understandably asked for clarification on whether that was deliberate. Khan obliged:

What is acting for me? I’m looking at you like this. (With a straight face.) Okay? If we go with the script, and if Katrina was sitting in front of me, this same look would seem romantic. If someone else was sitting here whom I hate, it would look angry. You know? If a scholar was sitting here who’s explaining something to me, my guru, my teacher, then I’d look like a student. When you’re convincing as just about anything with a single expression, then why…(bulges out eyes)…do more?

However, due to Khan’s unfortunate physical limitation of not being able to be in multiple places at once, many producers deigned to sign other less-super stars. Luckily for them, they were no worse off in terms of money minted. In fact, five of the ten all time top-grossers are not Salman Khan starrers. Dhoom 3 (2013) holds the number one position, with ₹5.6 billion ($94 million). The oldest film on the list released in 2009, which shows that these positions are constantly up for grabs. And each new masala film attempts to displace the rankings. A side effect of these attempts has been that moviegoers have been subjected to junk like Krrish 3Himmatwala, Boss, Joker, and many others. Responses to having one’s intelligence insulted may come in many forms, but they shouldn’t include rewarding the insulters with so much money that they now have to learn how many millions are in a billion.

Sahil Rizwan of CNN Go India expressed his frustration with one such film in 2011,

Bodyguard released […] to the biggest opening of any Bollywood film ever made. Fittingly, this Salman Khan epic beat the record formerly held by Dabangg, another Salman Khan epic. Of course, that isn’t a testament to the quality of his films so much as the stratospheric standards of Indian audiences, who would even flock to the theaters just to see Salman Khan flex his muscles to dhol-based music for two hours. And let me tell you folks – that movie would be infinitely more bearable than the interminable dross that was Bodyguard.

In all honesty, Bodyguard wasn’t half-bad compared to Krrish 3, which Raja Sen of Rediff described bitingly.

Best stay away from this beastly big-budget juggernaut, a film ostensibly made for kids but one so abysmal that you should be most concerned if your children (or your nephews or your neighbour’s kids) want to see this. If they grow up actually liking movies like this, well, there goes the next bloody generation, conditioned for mediocrity from the get-go.

But Why?

My question is why. Why, when equally entertaining films of superior quality are available, do audiences flock to see a Krrish 3? When Rang De Basanti and Lage Raho Munna Bhai came out in 2006, it seemed like Bollywood was taking a turn for the better. Both films were textbook examples of a well-developed original plot, realistically layered characters, strong production values, excellent direction, natural acting, and the like. The following years had gems like Taare Zameen Par, Chak De! India, Jab We Met, Wake Up Sid, and Kahaahi. While all these films were both commercially and critically successful, none of them broke financial records. The Lunchbox and Queen, both released this year, are even better than textbook examples; they are not expected to break records either. The upcoming Singham 2, Action Jackson, and Khan’s Kick on the other hand have a fair chance of making the all-time top ten, and an even better prospect of lowering the national IQ by a couple of points.

best Bollywood movies of 2012
Some of the best Bollywood movies of 2012

But perhaps to question the success of masala is fundamentally unfair without regard to social, cultural, and other contexts. Films have always been viewed with an escapist sentiment, particularly by Indian audiences – by the middle class worker having trouble making ends meet, with a family to feed and old parents to care for. He would take his wife and kids to a movie every now and then, and for three hours, they would be entirely invested in the characters’ lives, seeing how the hero’s problems greatly overshadowed their own. The business executive with a growing mountain of pending paperwork could for a change worry about the hero’s gritty, grimy, bread-and-butter problems instead of his own white collar ones. Procrastinating students could feel better about flunking class by impersonating the hero’s offhanded coolness. These factors could well be contributing to why there is such a huge market for masala. However, the need for escapism has been fairly constant since before the advent of the motion picture itself. What has changed is where the audience turns to satisfy that need. Every decade or so, as moviegoers’ tastes change with their ages, the masses as a whole get bored of the same kind of film. Something new comes along that seems like a breath of fresh air – even if it really is only stale moldy air.

Sick of the same old love stories and family dramas of the ‘90s and early ‘00s, filmmakers and -watchers both decided to move on to something else. Until the gravity-defying southern-style masala made its comeback, creative motors were grinding away. Unfortunately though, before excellence and artistry could become the new trend, the familiar formula film came back on a grander scale, packaged in sleek new styling and impressive special effects. Masala entertainment, like its namesake spice mix, has a strong flavor, which when used too liberally overpowers every other taste. It essentially tackled every other genre on the field with its bare hands. However, unlike the incompetent villains we encountered in Dhoom 3, these good guys actually stuck around. The forward momentum had been initiated, and gradually progressed to the point where today, for every Krrish 3 there is a Lunchbox; for every Gunday there is a Dedh Ishqiya; and for every Jai Ho there is a Highway.

Tavishi Rastogi, assistant editor at Hindustan Times Brunch/Brunch Q, offering her take via email, points out that

While the Hindi film industry is  making films such as DabanggSinghamGolmaal 1, 2, and 3, the same industry is also producing absolutely fantastic films such as KahaaniLooteraFukrey, Gangs of WasseypurBarfi, Rock On, Dirty Picture, and many others. While all these films remain in the same genre of commercial cinema, each of these has been widely acclaimed. both critically and commercially. Also, it is the same industry that has brought out films like Miss Lovely, B.A Pass, Shaahid and Ship of Theseus, which have been appreciated not just in the India but very widely in the International film circuit.

She goes on to assert,

I firmly believe this is the best time that cinema has ever seen in terms of creativity in India. We today are able to cater to not just the masses but also the classes at almost all levels, and also satisfy their need for cerebral entertainment. The Hindi film industry is seeing a phase of great assimilation in terms of all kinds of films without really upping any one genre. The Box office today is a clear indicator of how, now is the time for experimentation and appreciation. And more is to come.

This idea though makes the 100’s of crores (1 crore = 10 million) worth of success of masala films all the more perplexing. When filmmakers are providing films that are worthwhile, for which there exists a national and international audience, why should we, as spectators, even stand for a bad film? Whereas actually, we have gone far beyond mere tolerance by turning an entire genre of bad films into the most successful type in Indian history. Rastogi’s response is to weigh the masala movies “for their sheer entertainment value.” She tells me:

Who is to decide what is good and what is bad? We cannot forget that the good for one can be meaningless to the other. We need to understand that we are catering entertainment to all mindsets and sensibilities. While you and I may find solace and entertainment in a Barfi or a Lootera, there are 10 of those who will find [it in] Salman Khan’s Dabangg. We also cannot forget that more than 50% of our country lives in semi-urban and rural India. So films that cater to their sensibilities and milieu have a much greater impact on [the] box office, and generate much higher profits. No wonder then, it makes for good business sense to make movies that have a greater mass appeal.

Rastogi’s insight brings me back to the point of cultural context. The appeal of masala lies in its short-lived entertainment value, like that of read-once-and-chuck Mills and Boon romances. No one (if they’re in their right mind) goes to see a masala flick expecting fine art. A joke doesn’t insult those who are in on it. The audience knows exactly what it wants from a mass entertainer: entertainment. This may come as sheer star power (read Salman Khan), or larger than life action, or crude comedy, or anything else that can hold interest for a couple of hours. Those couple of hours, the masses have someone to cheer for and another someone to root against. I may lament all I want over my slighted intelligence, but the truly intelligent viewer knows to leave his brain at the door when entering the theater, and to carry no baggage when leaving.

Bangalore-based comedian Kanan Gill weighs in via Facebook message, provides some further context.

There are some factors that give [masala] movies an advantage in terms of sales, such as a wider and significantly larger domestic audience to reach, with more theatres than have existed in the past, coupled with a much higher international exposure as well. So movies have an unbelievable advantage over any Bollywood movie of the past.

Having established this, Gill then characterizes masala films as “self-aware,” giving some support to my idea of audiences being in on the joke.

The intention of making this a cheap, macho action fest is very deliberate, and not subtle in the least. An easy example is the poster of Rowdy Rathore, which is like many other masala movies now bordering on being self-parodies; and all of this is intentional. The masala movie formula was innocently discovered in the ’80s and slowly subsided, as it did globally. Now its resurgence is not accidental, but it comes from a place of knowing what works, what has worked in the past and using it unabashedly. No one is being tricked here. The movies sell exactly what they are, and people go and watch exactly what they want to. So the truth, then, is that this is a formula for a movie that works.

He cleverly shifts the burden of responsibility from the offenders to the offended.

You and I form part of the circle jerk of urban youth and our opinions. We live in this liberal echo chamber where everyone seems to agree that these movies are terrible and yet they do well. So maybe it’s safe to say that we aren’t intended to be the TG of these movies. Then in the vastness of our country lies an audience for these movies and maybe it isn’t meant to be the people who are writing thesis papers in foreign countries.

Rowdy Rathore (2012)
The poster for the film Rowdy Rathore, demonstrating Gill’s point about deliberate self-parody of modern masala films. The poster promises “maal” (a hot girl to ogle at) and “action” and not much else.

Point noted. Regardless of my personal tastes, the future of Bollywood is undoubtedly bright – both commercially and artistically. Yet as an Indian-American confronted too often with the Western stereotype of Bollywood as gaudy and over-the-top (i.e. not to be taken seriously), I am tired of trying to explain to my friends what Roger Ebert said best, “You have to know the right Bollywood movies.”  Luckily there is still hope for me and my sympathizers who eagerly await the time when masala will stop hogging the box office limelight and go back to being a fringe genre. Salman Khan himself, who can rightfully take much of the credit for the comeback of masala, is ironically the source of solace as he talks about its future.

This space will die totally. I think this was a beautiful format where we had films like WantedDabangg etc. Now everybody has overdone it so much that it might die away. These kinds of films are popular but the creativity is becoming less… It seems the same stuff is [being repeated every time in these films]. I don’t know which genre will click [next]. The whole thing where one person beats up 50 people flying around will remain, as this is part of our cinema. But there [should be] a reason why he is beating [them up]. Now, the way action is done will change. (Pinkvilla)

Let’s hope that Khan is right, and that we will soon realize we have milked the masala genre dry.

Works Cited

Box Office India. Top Lifetime Grossers Worldwide. 2013. 1 May 2014.

Ebert, Roger. You Have to Know the Right Bollywood Movies. Web. Chicago, 19 January 2009.

Khan, Salman. Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif exclusively speak to ABP News ABP News. 7 August 2012.

Pinkvilla. Mass entertainers are popular but the creativity is becoming less – Salman Khan. Web. 3 October 2013.

Rizwan, Sahil. “Worst Bollywood movies of 2011.” CNN Go India 15 December 2011.

Sen, Raja. “Review: Krrish 3 is a colossal waste.” Rediff 1 November 2013.

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  1. Myself and my husband are big Bollywood fans after holidays in India and watching them in the hotels – and I love SRK films particularly – I think the part he played in ‘My Name is Khan’ was brilliant and I think shows he can do more than 5 expressions! What we like about Bollywood films is the old fashioned romance – the lack of seedy reality and sex scenes- the gorgeous but real (curvy) women who dont have the same frozen botox faces – handsome men – and all the music and dancing. We also went to see a Shilpa Shetty show at the Albert Hall – it was such a glam and fun night out with a great buzzy atmosphere

    SRK has even got me turning on to IPL cricket. – hes a gentleman and a real star in my book.

    • Rod Crum

      Bollywood is getting more open with its depictions of sex while the general Indian public become ever more repressive and conservative (see India’s reversal of its landmark decision to decriminalise homosexuality).

  2. Saw The Lunchbox a few weeks back. Just brilliant.

    • It IS brilliant. Such a quiet, powerful film.

      The only music — for those of you who don’t like Bollywood production numbers — is in the background, plus a couple of little boys who roam though a train singing, presumably to earn a few coins.

      The thing I found unbelievable is that, in one scene only, there is an older woman standing in the train car the male protagonist takes. Sorry — but any woman, no matter her age, would be in a women’s car to be protected from the everyday sexism and assault which Indian men impose. The fact that daily assault is turned around by the director does not eliminate the “this would never happen” of the situation.

      But then again, “losing” a lunchbox within Mumbai’s brilliant organization (because co-workers’ religions demand different meals, and food is deeply family-related, office or building cafeterias are unworkable) just does not happen.

      • Amena Banu

        The Lunchbox was a wonderful film – a refreshing take on a love story!
        I don’t think every single woman rides the women’s car on trains; the situation depicted could very well have happened.

  3. The 1st Bollywood movie i saw had khan in it and I immediately fell in love with the genre and him as an actor! Not surprised! He is so charismatic and funny to watch.

    • Amena Banu

      My two favorite films with Salman Khan – worth multiple views – are Maine Pyar Kiya (1989) and Tere Naam (2003). I highly recommend them.
      These films show that Khan is quite capable of good acting. I suppose he doesn’t feel the need to work hard when his films break records without it.

  4. The number of movies Bollywood churns out is a well-known joke by now, and many are formulaic and terrible, but if really great films are immediately seen as inferior because they have songs and dances, then what’s the point?

    • Amena Banu

      I agree that Bollywood’s songs and dances are often seen as taking away from the films’ credibility. If they’re warranted, well-placed, and properly executed, I feel they add to the story, as is the case in many of the good films I mentioned in my piece. But my beef lies with sandwiching a bad song somewhere it doesn’t belong, just for the sake of having it.

    • Sparkles

      I was hoping to uncover an alternative mainstream that wasn’t necessarily beholden to western standards. Bollywood definitely counts, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t got its own problems.

  5. Perhaps one must turn to independent cinema to look for the really interesting films from all across the world. This is happening in India for sure where Bollywood is not really churning out life-altering films, but the smaller, niche films are making people sit up and take notice.

  6. Von Adair

    Bollywood has produced some very good love stories and also internationally acclaimed art movies such as Arth etc. There is also lot of crap as it is in Hollywood. Bollywood which was limited to love stories with dances in the background is really moving into action, thriller and comedy space. Bollywood has not really gone too far in horror movies as Hollywood has. I think Bollywood has its own identity.

  7. Amena Banu

    Thanks for all the love for Bollywood! I’d just like to point out that I’m a Bollywood-lover as well, and I have merely tried to express my disappointment with what I see as a step back after having taken two steps forward. After all, we only take the time to criticize that which we truly love and wish to improve.

    • Sunni Rashad

      Great piece, I loved that closing section. I look forward to you writing about something that you actually enjoy.

      • Amena Banu

        Thanks for your feedback! I’m thinking about what I should write next, and I agree it should be something positive 🙂

  8. MuchSaner

    Bollywood films (of which I have suffered more than a few) are brash and crude. Simplistic 2-dimensional characters, histrionic acting, embarrassingly stereotypical roles for women vs. men. They have the depth and seriousness of panto. And that’s even before the dance routines.

    This is not to say all Indian films are bad, but most ‘Bollywood’ films have all the cultural value of a washed up Elvis impersonator crooning in a Vegas hotel lounge.

    • Amena Banu

      Thanks for commenting. One of the points I make in my piece is that “most” of Bollywood is most certainly not as you describe. It’s just that the ones that are bad by your or my estimation overshadow everything else, especially in the eyes of foreign audiences. Like Ebert said, “You have to know the right Bollywood movies.”

    • I agree. There are some good non mainstream, low budget films but certainly Bollywood movies are generally crap. Sholay is about as good as it gets in Bollywood. It’s a brilliant movie but unfortunately most movies post Sholay are a mix of the themes presented in the film (masala movies).

      You could, to a lesser extent, say the same for Hollywood although there is a much wider genre scope in Hollywood than there is in Bollywood.

      The themes present in most Bollywood movies are very unfashionable to western audiences. Put simply the film producers, and the viewing public, need to grow up.

      • Amena Banu

        The great films I mentioned in my “But Why” section are mainstream Bollywood fare: Queen, Kahaani, Highway, Jab We Met, Taare Zameen Par, Rang De Basanti, and others I didn’t even mention. Most of Bollywood is not crap, and in fact, as I say in my piece, it has reached the point where for every “crap” film there are two brilliant ones in response.

        Sholay is an excellent example of masala done right – an intriguing plot, genuine acting, and full on entertainment 🙂

    • thats becasue the movies are not made for you. They are made for Indians.
      What you call decent we call prissy.
      What you call brash, we call alive.

  9. CherieHeadrick

    Great article, thanks for that. While not specifically related to this article, I do feel, that for anyone to label all indian cinematic genres under the umbrella of ‘Bollywood’ is ludicrous. Indian Cinema is great.

    • Amena Banu

      Thanks Cherie! You’re absolutely right that not all Indian cinema falls under the Bollywood label. Each of India’s many languages boasts its own well-developed film industry. It irks me quite a bit when I see a Tamil or Telugu film being referred to as Bollywood!

    • Tijerine

      The films of Hrishikesh Mukherjee are brilliant and I would recommend western audiences to watch his films if they want to watch quality Indian films instead of the usual Bollywood dross. Unfortunately there are no mainstream producers of his ilk today.

      • Amena Banu

        Hrishikesh Mukherjee is definitely brilliant! Some of my favorite films of his are Golmal and Chupke Chupke.

    • Indian cinema has produced some great serious films.

  10. DuffDuff

    Bollywood is definitely coming of age.

  11. Danny Cox

    Really interesting article. I’ve never gave much thought about Bollywood in general, but this definitely makes me want to explore some films from there.

    • Amena Banu

      Thanks for commenting; I’m glad you liked the piece. Definitely check out some of the gems I mentioned towards the end of my piece.

  12. I used to love the old Bollywood Movies, and even the classic cheesy ones such as Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham. However have stopped as the new films are just crap. They’ve lost their essence and are striving too hard to be western. Oh well.

  13. Kris Ed

    This article made me want to go watch some bollywood!

  14. I hope to see some more articles from you. Maybe do a list of great contemporary bollywood movies? Or actors to watch out for. That would be real cool!

  15. Bollywood is definitely developing better made movies these days, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t fond of some of the masala movies I’ve seen.

  16. Bollywood is definitely developing better made movies these days, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t fond of some of the masala movies I’ve seen. Nice article!

  17. Munjeera

    I like your point about escapism as part of the Bollywood masala genre. The fact that so many people want to escape into a fantasy life with unbelievable thrilling action and love stories is part of every movie industry. Hence the continuing popularity of James Bond. Perhaps as the quality of life improves for many Indians, they will feel less of a need to escape and be more open to various other genres. I just watched both Dilwale and Airlift recently and enjoyed both. Two very different movies though. Today all types of movies are being made in Indian cinema so hopefully there will be many directions that newer movies will offer. Also keep in mind that Eastern movies are made with Eastern perspectives and I believe always will. Even if Eastern movies try to imitate Western movies, it is inevitably Eastern in tone. With the success of Bollywood growing worldwide, I am sure that the bar for all movies everywhere will likely be set higher.

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