Screening Room Movies

Masala redux

Aamir Khan has starred in a jaw-dropping string of hits. A still from ‘Dangal’.  

In the ‘Koffee with Karan’ episode featuring Aamir Khan last December, aired before the release of Dangal, Karan Johar asked his guest about the ghost-directing accusations that have often been flung at him. As some conspiracy theorists claim, what else explains certain filmmakers (Ashutosh Gowariker, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra) making their best film with Aamir Khan — quality-wise, reception-wise, box office-wise, op-ed worthiness-wise, post-release legendariness-wise — and failing to repeat this with other actors? Khan refuted the theory. He said something to this effect: “The director is the one whose vision we are all following. I believe in helping the director achieve that vision, [and] not having my own vision and going off on another route. If I was following only my own vision, then all my films would have been very similar.”

There is some truth here — at least post Lagaan, which is usually seen as the film that demarcates the two eras of Aamir Khan, the point where he’s generally perceived to have transformed from actor for hire to shaper of cinematic destinies of his projects. Each of the post-Lagaan films is, at least on the surface, different. We have masala thrillers (Fanaa, Ghajini, Dhoom 3), investigative mood pieces (Talaash), social-issue dramas (Taare Zameen Par, 3 Idiots), satirical comedy (pk), underdog sports sagas (Lagaan, Dangal), (quasi) historicals (Mangal Pandey: The Rising, Rang De Basanti), and, of course, the engenderer of the modern-day multiplex movie (Dil Chahta Hai). No other Indian star-actor has such a jaw-dropping hit rate with such a diverse range of films. (Akshay Kumar, in recent times, comes close, but his hits aren’t that big, and his films aren’t that unique.)

But dig deeper, and you find commonalities. Each of these films is an ‘Indian’ film — the beats are Indian in a way they aren’t in most of today’s multiplex films. In the Koffee with Karan episode, Aamir revealed that his favourite song was Oh re taal miley nadi ke jal mein, from Anokhi Raat (1968) — it’s a very ‘Indian’ song, and it’s not something you instantly see many actors claiming as their favourite. But it makes sense. The song has the qualities you see in a Dangal: a charming folksy-philosophical air; pronounced dashes of noble-mindedness and do-gooderism; and an implicit trust in a higher purpose (if not intelligent design). In other words, the ingredients that make up our pre-multiplex-era commercial cinema.

Dangal, in fact, is the rousing masala movie we’ve almost forgotten how to make. (I use the term ‘masala’ rather loosely, as a kind of catch-all for our pre-multiplex-era commercial cinema.) It features a hero (Mahavir Phogat) on a mythical quest (a gold for India). It has an ideologically opposed villain (the sports coach). It has a long-suffering wife/ mother. It has a scenario of separation/ reunion (Mahavir and daughter Geeta), even if it’s not the ‘lost-and-found’ situation from the Manmohan Desai movies. It features a prodigal child (Geeta) who loses her way from the good path, the right path — her father’s path — realises her mistake and returns to the fold. It has a comic sidekick (Geeta’s cousin), who’s always getting slapped like a clown in a circus. And look at the songs. What is Hanikarak bapu but a variation on Na main bhagwan hoon from Mother India? If the latter ‘cutifies’ Sunil Dutt’s ‘bad deeds’ (stealing, gambling, smoking pot), the former makes Mahavir Phogat seem less like a tyrant, more like a lovable eccentric.

The genius of the Aamir Khan movie is in reshaping these Old Hindi Cinema elements in a way palatable to fans of ‘Bollywood’. Take Taare Zameen Par. The broad narrative arc is that of the archetypal masala movie (say, Mera Gaon Mera Desh): white knight charges in to save the oppressed from dacoit’s den/ boarding school. But the narrative style is more multiplex-y. The filmmaking is muted (more ‘realistic’, if you will). The soundtrack has a rock-album feel. The surroundings look posh. The lines don’t smack of ornate dialogue-baazi. The film looks classy and appeals to snobbish multiplex crowds that would sneer at a Mera Gaon Mera Desh, and yet, because of the inherent Indian beats, it reaches out to the single-screen audience as well (at least, to a greater extent than the average rom-commy multiplex product).

Whether Aamir Khan’s films work for you or not, it’s fascinating to see how they play around with archetypal stories and characters. In Dangal, for instance, we get a hero with grey shades we recognise from the real world – but the villain is more from the world of cartoons. In Dhoom 3, we get an antihero from the Salim-Javed days, a man out to avenge the wrongs done to a parent — but the film is set in a James Bond universe. In pk, a stranger rids a place of long-festering evil. It’s the classic Yojimbo narrative — but played as comedy, and with the stranger a very literal outsider, from outside earth. And depending on how you look at it, Talaash is either Madhumati or yet another Salim-Javed tale of a hero with a history of loss, out to set right a wrong. Only, the helpful Pran character is now a ghost.

The major difference between these older films and the Aamir Khan movie is that the former were overtly hero-centric whereas the latter often situates the hero amidst a ‘team’ (whether a literal team as in Lagaan, or a figurative one in Dangal, where the family works as a team towards a goal, or even 3 Idiots, with its trio of friends that turns into a duo on a mission). So there are long stretches where the hero isn’t on screen at all (unheard of in our older commercial films), and yet, these stretches are still about the hero: about locating him (3 Idiots), about winning a medal for him (Dangal), about the wait for him (Taare Zameen Par). Aamir Khan has reshaped the hero as a terrorist (Fanaa), as a modern-day Manoj Kumar (Mangal Pandey: The Rising), as an amnesiac (Ghajini, remade from Tamil), as even a supporting character (Rang De Basanti).

Yes, there are films like Dil Chahta Hai that yank at the chain of this narrative, and even this contention of Khan updating the commercial/ masala movie needs more analysis. For instance: Does this ‘updating’ end up diluting these narratives? After all, the Aamir Khan brand of cinema does not pack the subversive punch of the Bachchan-era masala movie, which was more single-minded in conception and execution. Khan’s subversions are more on the surface. His films are smoothies to Bachchan’s tequila shots. But I go back to his favourite song, its feel-good simplicity that appeals to everyone (even if they don’t want to delve into the deeper meanings), and its very ‘Indian’ sentiments that cut across single-screen and multiplex audiences (in the sense that even if this very song doesn’t find many takers today, then a modernised, or Aamir-ised, version of it certainly will). Khan may not be ghost-directing his films. He may be guided entirely by the director’s vision. But his films, at the end, are very much his.

Baradwaj Rangan is The Hindu’s cinema critic.

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2021 7:19:10 PM |

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