December 21, 2021
Think of a muscular hero buoyed by a barrier-defying love story or a long-held trauma kept alive by his perennially sentimental mother. Think of a villain, ruthless and powerful in equal parts, whom the hero must defeat through sheer smarts and many, many punches. Every time the hero’s fist punches into a body, you best believe that the body will somersault in the air from the impact before crashing on the ground. Sprinkle in some comedy and at least six songs suturing the dramatic tension together, and what you have is a bona fide Bollywood masala film.
Hindi cinema has never been a monolith. Over the years, it has sustained several genres, yet it is the masala film that has come to define it best. If Satyajit Ray is the most enduring Indian filmmaker to have left a sizable imprint on global cinema, then masala — a genre that is hard to define but is recognizable in its overt, excessive urges that contain romance, drama, comedy, action, and, most importantly, music — is, for better or worse, what people think of when they think of Indian cinema. India’s other great export, Salman Rushdie, describes it best in his children’s novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories: “It seemed all Rashid had to do was to part his lips in a plump red smile and out would pop some brand-new saga, complete with sorcery, love-interest, princesses, wicked uncles, fat aunts, mustachioed gangsters in yellow check pants, fantastic locations, cowards, heroes, fights, and half a dozen catchy, hummable tunes.” Masala, like the piquant Indian food it borrows its name from, has a bit of everything.
Some of the greatest Hindi films of all time have emerged from the genre — whether it’s the spaghetti western-inspired Sholay (1975), the action drama Deewaar (1975), or, more recently, the joyful and nimble-footed Main Hoon Na (2004). The masala was invested in stories culminating in happily-ever-after, in uniting audience of all ages and backgrounds in the movie theater. After all, that was part of its business model: the masala film had everything because it had to appeal to as many Indians as possible. Yet, this has all been thrown out the door in recent years. Purported masala films Sooryavanshi (2021) and Satyameva Jayate 2 (2021), for example, do more to segregate the audience than unite them. And not only is the masala film rare to find during the age of streaming, it is rarer still to find Hindi film fans talking about them. Is the Bollywood masala film dead?