October 30, 2016

REDDY | A Little Less Masala

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Getting to India is the struggle. With each year that passes, my parents renew their interest in travelling back to the country they spent the first half of their lives in. They have nostalgia for practically everything they used to do; my mom missed sampling the seemingly endless supply of street food along MG road in Bangalore, and my dad missed playing cricket at his agricultural college he attended in Coimbatore, amongst a million other memories they formed during a time fondly recalled as ‘the days before the kids were born.’

India pleaded with my parents to make arrangements for a return every year, and without fail, the travel agent listing the hefty costs of such an endeavor as well as the complaints of how incredibly busy my sister and I were with middle and high school responsibilities answered. Excitement was always tempered, but never lost. A trip to the decent Indian buffet alleviated any case of home-homesickness, followed with what has now become a staple in my house: a viewing of a Bollywood film. It kept the uncultured American children at least minimally informed of their heritage.

Over the years, I have grown to cherish a number of Bollywood films, but they are definitely an acquired taste. If you were, for example, a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, then you probably wouldn’t nominate a Bollywood film for an Oscar, consider it as a nominee nor even be asked to consider it. Bollywood has established a tried-and-true template for films shot out of Mumbai: several exhausting musical numbers, religious adulation for the legendary heroes and a plot that manages to defy logic and reason simultaneously and consistently. We liken the extent of this framework featured in a film to how much “masala” it has. Masala is the spice paste used to give curry an array of tastes. It is an ingredient used liberally in B-grade Indian restaurants, usually at the expense of the food quality, but if you’re Indian you’ll still eat it for the overdose of familiar flavors.

The recipe has been a hit for decades, and it continues to churn out the “masala-bangers” that almost immediately dethrone each other in the all-time box-office collection records for India and amongst overseas film markets. People love it, I love it, but the lovable mess has been venturing into territory it just isn’t equipped handle.

India is currently in a state of movement. The new crop of passionate and social-justice oriented young people has taken to spreading awareness for the social and political issues that plague the country. Young men don sarees to protest the government’s passivity to the rape epidemic and a young woman’s rap set to the tune of Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” exposing the negative health impacts of industrial pollution, especially as they relate to the working class, has gone viral. Filmmakers have taken notice and are doing their part. They are creating movies to partake in the national dialogue, but are failing to adjust their format to respect them.

One of the most socially and politically charged issue that has remained fixated on the Indian consciousness is the tension between India, Pakistan and their respective citizens. Consequently, elite Bollywood directors have sought to depict the volatile tensions arising from the conflict in their films. Bajrangi Bhaijaan, a film I watched with my family shortly before leaving for Cornell, is now the second highest grossing Bollywood film ever (third if we include all Indian languages, with “Bollywood” referring to those in which Hindi is spoken). It discusses the continuing hostilities between Indians and Pakistanis, but does so in the most Bollywood (worst) way possible. It starts with the simple story of a man trying to return a mute little girl home, and ends with what seems to be the entire populations of India and Pakistan plastered along the fences lining their countries’ border, chanting “Bajrangi Bhaijaan!” (the strong, honest Indian man) as the little Pakistani girl screeches “uncle!” (her first word ever). Bajrangi runs to embrace her while the billions of people surrounding them are losing their shit. The message of unity is lost in the saturation of theatrics ironically used to get the point across. Director Kabir Khan ends up bludgeoning the audience with it and in the process drains it of any meaning or impact. There was a lot of miscellanea during that final scene, but an authentic, realistic account of hostile Indian-Pakistani relations was one particular thing not present. A depiction of the realities people face as a result of this toxic, nationalistic hatred was not filmy enough to make the cut.

The highest grossing Bollywood film of all time released in 2014, PK, deals with the divisive interactions between religion and society, especially as it relates to a predominantly Muslim Pakistan and a predominantly Hindu India. The similar theme with Bajrani Bhaijaan, however, is not the only thing the two movies have in common. The climax of PK is a nationally televised debate (with everyone in the country tuning in) between an alien (from outer space) and an unethical Hindu leader in which the alien’s argument that modern-day religion only creates conflict between individuals and exploits them for profit, a respectable opinion. However, this is a Bollywood movie. Validation of his argument wholly depends on whether or not Pakistani Muslim Sarfaraz will return Indian Hindu Jaggu’s call (spoiler: he does) and once again, everyone loses their shit. Once again, the chance to raise awareness to an important issue was neglected. PK could have given voice to the number of people who have been brainwashed into extremism, swindled of their life savings, and/or have become sexual assault victims to self-proclaimed avatars and prophets. Instead, Rajkumar Hirani opts for the tired recipe designed specifically and only to pack cinemas and yield massive dividends at the box office.

I implore Bollywood directors who want to illustrate the country’s many challenges to move away from how it has always been done to how it should be done, out of respect for social responsibility and for those that live the subject matter these films attempts to portray. Cramming the complexities typical of multi-faceted issues of societal importance into the Bollywood entertainment machine is disrespectful, it exploits them for entertainment value and calls attention to the bombast of the film itself as opposed to the seriousness of the themes woven into the film’s plot. A paradigm shift isn’t necessary, but a major adjustment is in accord. These films may produce a smaller margin of profit, but ultimately will make up for it with the much greater outcome of spreading awareness to the multitude of issues that may not be so visible to the average filmgoer and actively moving those filmgoers to act on them. Besides, sometimes less masala tastes better anyways.

Narayan Reddy is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at nreddy@cornellsun.com. Reddy Set Go appears alternating Mondays this semester.

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