(A word of caution: You like chai, I like kaapi. You like Nadhiya, I like Amala. This list is as simple as that. Do not tell me I didn’t warn you.)
If there is something we, as humble citizens of India, need to be proud of about our cinema, it has to be the invention of this understated genre called ‘masala’. In a recent roundtable discussion hosted by Film Companion , Ranveer Singh made an interesting observation about the lack of appreciation for masala movies — the sentiment was concurred by others in the panel. While critics wrote a thesis about his remarkable performances in Padmavat and Gully Boy , he said he was taken less seriously for a movie like Simmba ...why? Because it was a ‘masala’ movie. Now, whether Simmba falls under the masala -movie-done-right category or not is debatable. But you get the point he was trying to make, right?
Masala as a genre is either looked down upon or ignored altogether when it comes to film appreciation. We don’t celebrate masala movies with the same fervour of a slightly ‘auteurish’ filmmaker. But even in the masala universe, there is as much difference between ‘masala’ and ‘mass’ as there is between cinema and movies. So, what constitutes a masala movie in the first place? It is simple; it employs archetypical tropes — it could be anything from the rise of the underdog template, rags-to-riches story to having mythological subtexts — in the most entertaining (this being the keyword) fashion.
There’s a certain level of screenwriting (and by this, I don’t mean Prabhas’ “screenplay” theory) that goes in writing masala movies, as opposed to say a mass movie, which, basically, offers happy-ending services to a star’s fanboys. Trust me when I say this; a well-made masala has the healing power of watching a Kieslowski or a Bergman movie. Tamil cinema, in this decade, has produced an assortment of masala movies, made with genuine vigour and passion. This list is to acknowledge the contribution of auteurs of the other kind.
Hari is one of the rare filmmakers who had been consistently giving us enjoyable masala flicks, until he ran out of fresh ideas. Singam as a standalone movie was so perfect and so tightly-written that you wish it hadn’t been turned into a franchise. Right from the casting to writing the cat-and-mouse scenes between Suriya and Prakash Raj (who, by the way, was the spine of Singam ), Hari almost got everything right — something he couldn’t achieve in the preceding movies. Durai Singam as the astute and equally stubborn cop was perfectly tolerable before he was recognised as the loudest cop by the Noise Control Board of India. The number of times this movie has been remade goes on to explain why Singam is a strong contender for the decade’s best masala movie.
If Mani Ratnam comes from K Balachander’s school of filmmaking, Shankar hails from SP Muthuraman’s. I get what you are thinking. Enthiran ? Seriously? The sci-fi tag is just a façade. Look beneath its surface, and you will sense a strong flavour of masala — it is what you get when Shankar’s visual sense meets SP Muthuraman’s screenplay. It’s basically Rajinikanth going against his alter ego, played by...Rajini. The first half is painfully boring and you wish they had given you a red pill instead of blue. The plot kicks in only in the second half, when Chitti gets a new lease of life, thanks to Borah. What Shankar failed to realise when he made the sequel, 2.0 , was that Chitti: The Red was the superhero the audience rooted for and not the banal, Chitti: The Blue.
Raghava Lawrence single-handedly created what’s now popularly known as horror-comedy, the single most viable sub-genre that will come back to haunt the audience. Nowhere else will you find a wild mix of genres; comedy, action, romance, social message, Kovai Sarala and so on. As much as you hate it, you can’t diss the fact that Kanchana was a paradigm shift in the way horror was approached in Tamil cinema. All the movies in the Kanchana series tread a common line: spirits use Raghava Lawrence’s body as a medium to take revenge, with the (spiritual) presence of Kovai Sarala. If someone had told you that Kanchana would become a multi-million franchise, you might have let out a chuckle or two. But now, the joke is really on you.
Will I not be lynched with hate messages if I don’t include Mankatha , the terrific anti-hero movie, which exploited Ajith Kumar’s solid screen presence to the fullest? A Tamil cinema hero can never be the bad guy — this is an unwritten rule in the industry. Even if you’re a Velu Naicker, your actions are determined by the number of good deeds you do to the “naalu peru”. But Venkat Prabhu broke this notion by fleshing out a character that carried devil-may-cry attitude right from the opening sequence. Every frame in Mankatha had a purpose. And the purpose was to capture the star who’s both good-looking and carries the ‘I am the one’ aura around him. Venkat Prabhu constantly toyed with how Vinayak Mahadev (Ajith Kumar) was perceived by the audience. You’d expect the director to make him the good guy in the end, thereby restoring Tamil cinema’s fascination for dharma and karma . Thank heavens, Venkat Prabhu gave no room for such notions, and Mankatha was a celebration of the anti-hero.
AR Murugadoss gave a masterclass on how to reinvent an archaic template — wherein the hero is pushed into becoming a saviour — in what could be argued as THE best masala movie of the decade. In another Vijay movie, he would have been introduced with slow-mo shots exposing just his legs followed by different body parts; hands, eyes and then the face. That happens to a large extent in Thuppakki too. At the same time, it was a rare instance where Vijay was in the character when he makes an entry. The movie is very much about the hero who finds himself at the wrong place and at the wrong time, thereby reducing the villain to nothing more than a buffoon. The scene where Vijay emerges out of a room full of smoke is a textbook example of how to write a mass scene, without compromising on the craft. All of which is to say that “I am waiting” to watch Vijay go back to his Thuppakki zone. He was an absolute delight to watch — the same cannot be said about his recent woke movies.
Kamal Haasan, the writer is more fascinating than Kamal, the actor. Given the political climate, can you imagine a Muslim protagonist saving the world in Indian cinema? Allow me to rephrase it: Can you imagine a vegetarian protagonist-cum-Kathak dancer-cum-RAW Agent saving the world? Kamal has a fetish for mythology and you’ll always find mythological references/characters in his movies. In Vishwaroopam , he mounts the story of Arjuna when he cross-dressed as a woman in the Mahabharata , on the backdrop of third world politics. Kamal doesn’t subscribe to straightforward narration and has great regard for the audience’s intellect, even though he’s often dismissed for his overt intellectual-ness. As a genre, you could say Vishwaroopam is a spy-thriller. However, the sensibilities are still Kodambakkam. It’s essentially about a man trying to prove his nationality to his mother (read: country) and masculinity to his wife, who thinks he’s a “w**s”. No wonder she calls him Wiz. That smashing transformation stretch during the interval block was testimony to that.
Velai Illa Pattathari (2014)
I have a theory; any film that employs amma sentiment as a strong emotional core will invariably be a blockbuster. That’s how Tamil cinema has conditioned the audience. In Velai Illa Pattathari , director Velraj milked this phenomenon to the film’s betterment. The pay off was huge and we got a satisfying, unpretentious masala movie. Dhanush plays Raghuvaran, channelling the inner aggression of an Angry Young Man — reminiscent of Kamal Haasan in Sathya , another great masala movie about a man revolting against the system. Also, how refreshing was it to have the presence of a heroine, who for once, wasn’t reduced to a must-have? There’s a quiet moment between Dhanush and Amala Paul that comes after the affecting ‘Amma Amma’ song, that speaks volumes of how good writing elevates a simple scene. VIP had everything it its favour — the amma sentiment, the comedy track from Vivekh, the shirtless-six-pack-show-off scene and the croon-able songs by Anirudh.
Goli Soda (2014)
This sophomore film by Vijay Milton is a classic example of the rise of the underdog. But it is also about the survival of the fittest, in a quest to find an identity. Goli Soda tracks the lives of four boys who get their ‘breaking point’ which, in turn, makes them undergo a transition from being boys to men. When you are stripped to bare bones, what do you do but rise above your oppressors? Yes, the action scenes towards the end are over the top, but Vijay Milton showed remarkable tenderness in the way he told their story.
When the director himself is a self-confessed fan of masala universe, you’ll get an irresistibly fun movie like Maari . A mischievous don with a bunch of sidekicks, who, actually, are funny for a change; a loosu ponnu who looks gorgeous and a thara local number from Anirudh...this is Balaji Mohan at his best, pumping (read: senjifying ) every masala staple into the narrative. But, I would any day defend Maari 2 over Maari — the latter had poor Vijay Yesudas screaming for attention. Of course, Maari 2 had Rowdy Baby aka Sai Pallavi, which made it all the more reason to sit up and join in the madness.
Writing a cop film in Tamil cinema means two things; a) it’s a shot of testosterone and b) elevating an actor to the position of a star. There is no middle ground. But Vijay Sethupathi brings a certain amount of vulnerability to his performance in Sethupathi , a refreshing masala movie by SU Arun Kumar that humanises the lives of police officers. That scene where Vijay Sethupathi’s son handles a revolver to evade bad guys is a brilliant mass scene. Rarely do you get to see a level-headed police officer in Tamil cinema. Sethupathi is one and hence the line: ‘Kulirukkum neruppukum naduvula niruthuriyae’.
A big-shot businessman masquerades under the identity of a beggar to fulfil a prophecy, in order to save his dying mother. How ridiculous is the premise, right? But Pichaikkaran showed us what it all it takes to convince the audience into its madness. Here too, there’s amma sentiment, there’s action and a case of the mistaken identity and above all, a filmmaker who understands our masala sensibilities. A whistle-worthy scene that comes to mind is where Arul (Vijay Antony) gets out of his car, adjusting his shades while showing the world his real identity.
Double-hero subjects are a ploy. You know the nicer twin will meet with his/her eventual death. In that sense, Kodi isn’t any different. But RS Senthilkumar makes it up by writing a powerful female character, Rudhra (Trisha Krishnan). She is a powerful character NOT because she goes against a man, her lover. But because she was given a voice, more importantly an arc. Dhanush and Trisha were too good in their characters, especially when Rudhra leads Kodi to his own death.
Vikram Vedha (2017)
If Thiagarajan Kumararaja gave an explanation as to what ‘dharmam’ meant in Aaranya Kaandam , Pushkar-Gayatri took the tales of Vikram-Betal, exploring the concept of morality in Vikram Vedha , an ordinary but effective cat-and-mouse game that worked big time for its superb casting. As Vedha puts it simply, both Vikram and Vedha are cut from the same cloth and are a product of society. The narration presents two perspectives to the case of Good vs Evil, and makes the audience consider these two opposing views without taking sides — the interrogation scene is a hoot! Not to mention Sam CS’ rollicking background score.
Kadaikutty Singam (2018)
Looking from a broader perspective, the thing about masala is; if put together to proper use, it can fit into any movie. More than understanding the pulse of the audience, Pandiraj knows his audience. Kadaikutty Singam is a big, fat family drama that resonated with families across borders. Yes, it is bloated and clichéd at the same time. But, who cares about all that when the movie turned out to be the biggest blockbuster of 2018?
A three-hour love letter written by a fan to the Superstar. Petta is an exploration of a masala sub-genre called Rajinikanth. Though it typically follows the Baashha formula to a large extent, the second half is where Karthik Subbaraj, the man who gave us the pulp gangster-drama Jigarthanda , takes control of the narrative — where it plays out like a black comedy, when the whole Rama and Vali story sets in. From the gate-opening sequence in Apoorva Raagangal to the ‘Raman Aandalum’ song from Mullum Malarum , everything about Petta felt meta. After a set of ‘serious’ movies, Rajinikanth returned to familiar territory — a path he created and mastered over the years, and it was absolute feast watching Rajini have fun. If anything, Petta is a cautionary reminder. That none of today’s stars can ever come close to the enigma that is Rajini.
Baahubali and Spyder have been excluded from the list, given both films are bilingual.