Never mind the perceived wisdom that people on either side of the Vindhyas are chalk and cheese. They aren't — at least when it comes to a certain kind of cinema
The opening-weekend success of Rowdy Rathore has occasioned a few think pieces about Hindi cinema returning to its masala-movie “roots”, like a character in a Manoj Kumar tearjerker forsaking the decadent West and crumpling into the outstretched arms of his mother. But what we're seeing — with Ghajini, Wanted, Ready, and now Akshay Kumar's return to his “roots,” namely action-comedy — is essentially a transplantation. Hindi cinema was never rooted in this kind of masala, which has traditionally been ground in the vast cinematic factories of Hyderabad and Chennai.
Masala is a hugely problematic term to define, and it's most loosely (and lazily) used to denote any kind of cinema that's not “serious” cinema, but all spices are not alike. The masala of, say, the Manmohan Desai entertainers is far gentler on the palate than the masala in Rowdy Rathore. Both types of films feature a mix of action and comedy and sentiment — a combination that's at the bottom of all masala movies — but Desai's films were a form of primitive slapstick, both verbally and visually, and people of all ages could enjoy them, whereas these masala films are more primal. They hew closer to their origins in our good-versus-evil myths, and it's no accident that the weapon instantly appropriated by the protagonist in Rowdy Rathore is a saw-toothed iron disk — the chakra, in other words.
Rowdy Rathore is not Hindi film masala but Tamil/Telugu masala — though in another sense, there's definitely a sense of returning to roots. Hindi cinema has always looked towards Tamil and Telugu cinema, just as the latter have always looked towards Bombay cinema. In the decades following Independence, hits in one of these languages would inevitably result in remakes in the other two, and sometimes even the tunes of the songs would be retained (with only the lyrics being changed). At other times, films would be produced simultaneously in all three languages.
So what we're seeing now with this whole “phenomenon” isn't really new. It's just that back then, in gentler times, the kind of films that circulated amongst the three film industries were comedies and family-oriented dramas. Kaadhalikka Neramillai became Preminchi Choodu and Pyar Kiye Jaa, and Aalayamani was translated as Gudi Gantalu and Aadmi. Now the remakes are all of films with macho heroes baying for blood.
It is in the 1980s that this other kind of remake began to slip into Hindi cinema, and it was Padmalaya Studios who led the charge with an assembly line of remakes of Telugu hits. For the Hindi screen, this was a very different kind of masala. While the Bachchan movies like Zanjeer and Deewar were undoubtedly built with certain masala elements, they are essentially dramas. There's an organic core at the centre of these films which goes beyond plot, and that core (say, the drive of the dispossessed) is the film's engine.
Something like Himmatwala, on the other hand, is what I like to call a “set piece” movie — not in the sense of a series of formally constructed passages of film (the way we use the term “set piece” in the case of Hitchcock, for instance), but because the plot is essentially a loose clothesline on which to hang a set of action set pieces, comedy set pieces, and sentimental set pieces. These films truly need a special set of eyes to be enjoyed, which is probably why those who haven't grown up with this kind of cinema always end up celebrating them in somewhat patronising terms, often employing the word “kitsch” like a coat of armour safeguarding their superior taste.
That these generically constructed “set piece” films work in all three languages (and probably in other languages too) shouldn't come as a surprise, because a predilection for spice, in cinema as in food, is encoded into our DNA.
The real question is how a specialised kind of Hindi cinema — the “multiplex cinema,” for want of a more specific term — gets translated into other languages.
What will an unapologetically scatological comedy such as Delhi Belly, for instance, look like in its upcoming Tamil remake? A Wednesday was different. It had a dramatic core that was culture-independent. But will Delhi Belly find favour across Tamil Nadu?
That's a more interesting discussion than why Rowdy Rathore is such a success.