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Masala vs. genre

RECENTLY RE-SEEING Ram Gopal Varma's "Deyam" ("Pey" in Tamil) on video made me wonder why there aren't more genre films in India. "Deyam", one of the few exceptions, is the most stylish and scariest Indian horror flick to date. It has you in suspense and keeps you — from start to finish — nervous and amused.

You're giggling one minute, biting your nails the next. It proved so satisfying that it made me yearn for more Indian genre films. But where are our film noirs, thrillers, sci-fi and gangster flicks? We seem to have just one genre: the masala. The tyranny of our masala formula — six songs, romance, side-comedy, fights and family melodrama — has kept us from risking genre films.

"Deyam" has just one song and cuts right to the chase. What a relief. An Indian genre film has to be single-minded, taut, non-formulaic. Filmmakers don't want to risk that.

What a pity we don't have a tradition of genre films here. Because even the best and most enduring American films are genre — "The Big Sleep", "The Maltese Falcon", "The Postman Always Rings Twice", "Touch of Evil", "Chinatown", "White Heat", "Detour", "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" — and not those respectable, forgettable Oscar winners.

There are a handful of Indian films that have attempted genre cinema. A few that come to mind right away are "Manichitrataazhu", "Harikrishnans", "Kurudipunal", "Aparachita", "Parinda", "Jane Bi Do Yaro", "Sholay", (if you can forget the songs and the subplots) the horror films of the Ramsay brothers, the Feluda films of Satyajit Ray, and, of course, the films of Varma: "Raathri", "Antham", "Shanak Shanam" and "Satya". Films like "Baazigar" and "Gupt" fail because they want it both ways — to be both a murder mystery and melodrama. (However, there are some peculiarly Indian sub-genres within our masala genre: the mythological films in Telugu, the modest, offbeat dramas and soft - porn flicks in Malayalam, the village-exploitation theme in Hindi, the rags-to-riches story of the underdog in Tamil, the whodunits in Kannada and the talky, intellectual urban cinema in Bengali).

"Deyam" works particularly for an Indian audience because it evokes all the stock archetypes found in ghost stories we grew up hearing as children: the woman in a white sari with anklets, the house that can be reached only through a graveyard, the scary looking caretaker who knows more than he's telling and the lunatic who prowls around warning the family that has occupied the haunted house to get out before it is too late.

It opens with a spooky pre-credit sequence that sets the tone and mood for an Indian horror film: a lone cyclist riding past a graveyard in the thick of night. As the bicycle creaks away on a muddy, narrow lane (it's obviously a short-cut he should never have taken), he sees a woman in a white sari standing still by the roadside. She beckons to him and begins to walk — no, glide — into the graveyard. And he gets off the cycle and follows her. And that, of course, is the end of him. But not before he notices that her feet are turned outward. A few weeks later, a couple with their little boy move into the house by this graveyard.

The first time I saw it in a theatre, the audience were obviously tense and nervous but were hooting and giggling to cover it up. Varma's film is full of classic horror movie red herrings: you think something is going to happen, you brace yourself for it - and nothing happens. And just when you've relaxed and let your guard down - boom! Varma gets you with his sneaky steadicam work.

He has to be admired, for time and time again risking a genre movie when other directors play it safe. After "Rangeela" what? Every one was eager to know and the answer was "Deyam"!

If we are ever to break out of the masala formula to make (rather remake?) something new with our films, it can only be the genre movie.

(For a moment there I thought the Indian-English film or Hinglish was the alternative, the answer, particularly "English August" and "Hyderabad Blues", to our dying commercial and art cinema but after the ghastly "Bombay Boys", "Snip" and "Everyone Says I'm Fine" — or whatever that Rahul Bose film is called— I had to rethink that). "Deyam" succeeds precisely because it skirts the formula.


Visuals by Netra Shyam

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