lunchtime poll #7: critieria for and choices of Foundation Masala Films

Superwow! Thank you for all the great responses to the Foundation Masala question! (This concept merits capital letters, I think.) I kept starting to write up my response and then someone else would post something that gave me more to think about. Like Temple said in the comments, your responses remind me how much I have to learn and how many movies there are I need to get my hands on. The overwhelming top Foundation Masala Film in the comments of the last post was Amar Akbar Anthony. Unfortunately, I've only seen it once and don't feel I knew enough when I saw it to appreciate its full impact and to talk about it intelligently much further. It is most definitely going on the rewatch list pronto. Do aur Do Paanch, Duniya Meri Jeb Mein, Geeta Mera Naam, Mard, Naseeb, Sholay, Suhaag, and Yaadon Ki Baaraat also got multiple votes.

On whom can we rely to deliver the goods? Behind the camera, Shweta voted for Manmohan Desai, GP Sippy, and Subhash Ghai. Interestingly, readers don't seem to be partiuclarly particular about who acts out all of the many required/desired elements (more on them in a minute) - Sanket just wants stars and a lot of them, and who can blame him? - but Rum crowned Amitabh as king of masala. I'm certainly down with that. And if you don't have Amitabh, you'd better have Vinod Khanna or a Kapoor - preferably Shashi, of course, and preferably he is with Amitabh rather than without him, for Shashitabh is jodi #1 of Masala Pradesh. Oh, and if you can possibly manage it, you should have Helen. I'm a little sad that no one mentioned my pyaare heroine Neetu Singh, so I'm going to say it: Neetu is the queen of my masala heart, whether she's opposite Shashi, Rishi, or Amitabh.

Collectively, we came up with an impressive list of what plot and production elements a masala movie should contain.
  • convoluted plots/high WTF quota
  • comedy
  • family drama
  • buddies
  • lost/found; more specifically, misplaced family members
  • criminal intrigue,cops/robbers, and/or evil gangsters
  • dishoom dishoom
  • reunions
  • unrequited love
  • tears (in the words of Todd, something that can "smash through my usually steadfast wall of ironic detachment")
  • double role
  • orphans
  • children: either helping their filmi ma or being adorable but suffering tribulations
  • ditzy heroine - although personally, I think the best masala films have strong, bright, sunny, competent heroines
  • antics
  • disguises
  • qawwalis and disco
  • quaint villagers / token minority characters living in peace and harmony
  • gangster lair
  • cabaret
  • shiny shiny and/or otherwise outrageous sets
  • shiny shiny and/or otherwise outrageous costumes
  • great songs
I'm not entirely kidding when I propose that it'd be a really interesting experiment to print off this list and sit with it and a pencil next time I watch something that is generally considered masala. I'm curious how common these common elements actually are.

Memsaab asked a good question: "Why do some [films] just not deliver, while having essentially the same ingredients?" It's in the balance, I think. While the optimum mix of ingredients will vary from person to person and be specific to each film, it has to be there - somebody needs to have paid careful attention to how much of each ingredient was added, in what sequence, and its effect on all the others. Good masala is far greater than the sum of its many, many parts; maybe bad masala is that in which the overall product is swamped by a particular component (or components). Perhaps there are some complex mathematical formulas that directors can use, like:
duration of revenge-driven dishoom-dishoom ≤ [(20% total run time of movie) x (# of original victims of principal evil leader)
- or -
△Heroes, Heroines, and Associates ≅ △Idealized Population of India
- or -
rate of change in the moral heart of someone who withheld information in the past ∝ adorableness of wide-eyed children
- or -
true masala shall exist ⇔ the condition of Kapoor is met, where Kapoor={Shashi, Shammi, Rishi, or Neetu Singh}

Any way you figure it, you know it when you see it.

TheBollywoodFan commented that good masala is more than a checklist. He proposes that successful masala has "applicability and/or appeal to the masses, transcending a collection of particular cinematic elements." Hard to measure? Sure, but certainly an admirable goal if the film does something useful with whatever common experiences or emotions it has tapped into....well, maybe not; as I write this, I'm realizing something could probably be masala even if it isn't masala in a good way. Appealing to the masses can definitely go wrong or fuel dangerous or destructive ideas. I hope Rum will guard the borders of Masala Pradesh and give the ol' dishoom-dishoom to any such film that tries to sneak in!

Sanket demands "a story that must be layered on top of several other stories but not to the point of being incomprehensible." "Incomprehensible," like "appealing to the masses" is another subjective concept; I probably agree with him most of the time, but my reliance on subtitles means that I don't understand dialogues that Hindi-speakers can, so I'm not the best judge of this quality. (Related to this is the comedy factor; I was relieved when theBollywoodFan said that Andaz Apna Apna probably doens't translate very well, because that movie left me completely underwhelmed.) Others prefer a lot of WTF in their masala. If the wackadoo, antics, and/or complications make me laugh, I'm all for them; if they make me confused to the point of distraction, then I'm unhappy.

PPCC describes masala as only PPCC can. "Messy, emotionally epic, telenovela, shambolic and dizzy and fun. Like a roller coaster that hasn't cleared any sanitary American safety regulations." I'll have to take the PPCC word on that one, since roller coasters, even the ones designed for little children, make me really queasy. But masala that makes me throw my hands in the air and shout "Wheeeeeeeeeee!!!!" with glee is definitely a success in my book.

My most favorite of favorite wheeeeee!!!!-inducing masala movies is...Manmohan Desai's Parvarish. I've watched it over and over and over again, and I always find something new to enjoy in it. The elements are orchestrated in thoughtful balance and sequence, with multiple reveals and backstories looping together, identities changing, and ultimate dil-pleasing reunions and luuuuurve. Many of the aforementioned elements are here, plus fake blindness, diamond smuggling, Kader Khan in a silly wig, and a qawwali with famous Indian landmarks, tons of guns, and a giant barrel. Parvarish also has some of the best heroines I've seen in any Bollywood movie, masala or not. Though Neetu and Shabana Azmi (in another fun masala component, "What the hell is this person doing in this movie?!?") do play love interests to the two heroes, they're also key to the plot all on their own, and they have their own arc and plans. The Laxmikant Pyarelal songs are super, illuminating the characters' thoughts and plans, and the picturizations are a treat. Scampy Neetu and Shabana bring their petty thieving socialism to the streets ("Sab Janta Ka Hai")! Amitabh and Vinod stamp in figurative and literal black and white, bellbottomed glory, all the while eyeing each other with sharpened perception as enemies (and the first 25 seconds of "Hum Premi Prem Karna Jaane" is some of my favorite Amitabh dancing ever). All four sing a sarcastic love song ("Jaate Ho Jaane Jaana"), with the girls threatening suicide and the boys egging them on, then walking off in a huff to make ever more dramatic attempts until the fellas capitulate and show their true affections. Plus the submarines! If you've seen Parvarish, you've pretty much seen it all. The movie should start with "Behold the dazzling variety, cinematic splendor, wacked out disguises, and the grooviesti villain lair ever made*!" If only it had Shashi and some lessons of religious or cultural pluralism, it'd be perfect.

Others at the top of my list are Teesri Manzil, Sharmeelee, Kaala Patthar, Don, Do aur Do Paanch, and Bunty aur Babli (you betcha I'm callin' it masala!).

Some subcategories inspired by your suggestions and by through my list of watched films:
socialist masala
Kaala Patthar, Roti Kapada aur Makhan
reform masala
Chor Sipahee, Imaan Dharam
grudge/revenge masala
Trishul, Duniya Meri Jeb Mein
yeh jhoot hai! misinformation masala
Aa Gale Lag Jaa

double your fun masala
Sharmeelee, Seeta aur Geeta, Don
Hollywood homage masala
Satte Pe Satta
disco masala
I hope to heaven there's at least one other example.
masala madness extravaganza (name courtesy of reader Temple)
decline and fall masala, a.k.a. teetering towards embarrassingly debauched and past its prime (possibly very similar to the above category)
Namak Halaal
, Shaan, Ajooba
There's a distressing Shashi thread here. Quick, somebody think of something that fits this category but he wasn't in!
modern masala
Bunty aur Babli, Jhoom Barabar Jhoom

For your shopping cart, here are the Foundation Masala Films mentioned by readers in the previous post:
Aa Gale Lag Jaa
Amar Akbar Anthony
The Burning Train
Chor Sipahee
Dil Hai Tumhaara
Do aur Do Paanch
Don (1978)
Duniya Meri Jeb Mein
Evening In Paris
Geeta Mere Naam
Hera Pheri (1976)
Hum Kisise Kum Nahin
Jhoom Barabar Jhoom (or not? not enough tears)
Kasme Vaade
Mister India (or not? no ma)
Muqaddar ka Sikander
Namak Halaal
Om Shanti Om
Roti Kapada aur Makan
Sholay (or not? too serious and samurai-y)
Teesri Manzil
Waqt (1965)
Yaadon Ki Baaraat

Many thanks to everyone who wrote in! This has been so much fun to think about, and I can't wait to add all these other things to my stack to be watched.

Oh! Blogger tells me this is my 500th post. There couldn't possibly be a better subject to write about on such a momentous day. Thanks, Indian cinema, for making so many things to think and talk about!

* As suggested by Todd, villain lairs will be the subject of the next luchtime poll.

Update to post (February 22, 2009, 11:00 pm ish CST): Should we add Slumdog Millionaire to this list? Oscar-winning classic-formula masala - who'dve thought it!


My, the poor shopping cart! Will it survive all Masala elements!? Will one DVD transform into Helen and dance on it?
Anonymous said…
Wow, the list your readers came up with pretty much matches the one I dithered out off the top of my head on my Chor Sipahee post. I guess there really IS a pretty standard masala recipe :-)

Parvarish is up there on my list too. Think I may be inspired to do a "favorite masala" post on my blog thanks to you and Rum.
Anonymous said…
some *masala* films from my side, not sure whats your take on them...

1. qurbaani
2. trishul
3. shakti
4. majboor
Rum said…
brilliant list, i think some new states have been created in my Masala Pradesh! obviously you must be the chief ministers of the masala states above, while i rule of the pradesh as a big sister type!
Banno said…
What a list. I didn't even add my 2 bits because I was so overwhelmed. Add 'Kabhi Kabhi' though. Pretty please. It has Amitabh, Shashi Kapoor, Neetu Singh, Rishi Kapoor, Raakhee AND Waheeda Rehman. And 5 love tracks! Intersecting. Lovely.

As for masala, it's a lot like cooking Indian food. In the hand of an inexpert cook, the multiple masalas kill the flavour. You need to handle them with a strange mix of subtlety and flair.
Kanan said…
You must add these to the list if you already haven’t done so. Of course, they’re the non-shashitabh kind but I’ve watched them over and over again and still can watch them on a daily basis if I want to. And out of the checklist of 23, I guarantee each one has 15 or more checkboxes checked. In no particular order whatsoever:

Phir Wohi Dil Laya Hoon [socialist masala]
Mere Mehboob [socialist masala]
Gunahon Ka Faisla (Dimple Kapadia) [grudge/revenge masala]
Appu Raja [grudge/revenge masala]
Marte Dum Tak [grudge/revenge masala]
Baadal (Bobby Deol) [modern masala]

Now I need to see Parvarish.

Oh and congrats for the 500th post!!! May that number reach beyond 500,000!
Temple said…
Hi Beth
Congrats on reaching the 500!
Thanks so much for compiling this amazing list - and thanks to everyone who posted their suggestions and comments. I have so much excellent (and essential) viewing to look forward to.
On the subject of Disco Masala - I would probably nominate Disco Dancer and Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki, both starring Mithun in disco inspired family revenge musical dramas. Just to keep Rishi company.
Filmi Girl said…
I love the list! My first thought on "Roti, Kapada, aur Makaan" was "Hey! That's a serious film." And then I realized that I have become v. v. immersed in masala because if that is my definition of "serious" than what do I call the 20 minute dishoom-dishoom sequence at the end? Or the evil gangsters who ruin Manoj's life?

When I think masala, I think of films with a few different tones all jumbled together but one of them has to be a little surreal for it to really pop masala for me. Surreal like the tightrope walking scene in Don or the bhoot in Karz...or anything with Pran, really. :D

I look forward to the gangster lair poll - don't foget the EVIL BURNING PIT in Victoria No. 203!

(And I would add Tashan as another modern masala film.)
ajnabi said…
Is Sholay really not masala? Maaan, I guess I've only seen one masala film then (the original Don). Oh yeah, two if you count Tashan... Can you count Tashan?
Temple said…
ajnabi - I think Sholay is masala although some of my firneds disagree. Which lead to me and one friend doing a mini re-enactment of key scenes in the street last night as part of the discussion. Our other friend remained dubious.

Filmi Girl and ajnabi - Tashan would make it as masala in my book and it has a Kapoor which adds a masala authenticity stamp to proceedings.
ligne said…
i was just reading something about amrita singh and I remembered chameli ki shaadi.. it was..a farah khan style movie of the 80s..and definitely far more hilarious :)

check it out if you have not seen it already..
Anonymous said…
fantastic post n very informative too, looking forward to more posts from your side.
houseinrlyeh - re: shopping car: it will not. Decidedly not. But it will be worth the battering. As for Helen, keep us posted. If we don't hear from you for awhile, we'll know the answer was "yes" and you have not been able to disentangle yourself from her wiles.

memsaab - Yep! Great minds, etc. :)

nitin - Always good to have more contributions! I have only seen Trishul from that list and don't really feel qualified to say much about it because my DVD's subtitles were basically incomprehensible, though I do remember a great deal of romance, revenge, and lost-and-found family!

Rum - Hurrah! I love the plan. We will rule benevolently and all citizens will be issued appropriate dance costumes for our daily parading.

Banno - Oh you must add! I know you have tons to say. Agreed re: Kabhi Kahbi.

And my experiments in the kitchen mean I should say faaaaaaar away from screenwriting or directing. Not that those were in the cards anyway. :)

Kanan - Oooh la la, what a list! And one starring Dimple! I liked her in Ajooba - she's good at being feisty. I'm not sure I can voluntarily sign up for Bobby Deol, but I know you wouldn't deliberately steer me wrong...hmm....

Yes you do need to see Parvarish and then tell me all about it.

And thank you!

Temple - Thanks!And I need to see this other Mithun movie, because woman cannot live by Disco Dancer alone, especially when her DVD is loaned out.

Filmi Girl - Your own post turned out fantastically. I might have to do something similar, discussing a few of the ingredients in more detail. Very fun to do, no doubt.

That is very funny re: RKM. The filters and swirling kept me from taking it too seriously right from the get-go. And oh that fight at the end - so rambling! So fun! Such a be-suited Shashi even when dishooming.

I must see Tashan. The Kapoor stamp is tempting indeed.

Ajnabi - I personally do not see Sholay as masala for reasons I'm having trouble pinning down. I think it's because it's not funny enough and because, as Filmi Girl said, nothing in it is particularly zany (over-the-top gross or violent or evil, yes; zany, no). But certainly some people feel differently.

And I firmly approve of Temple and crew's hands-on approach to debate of the matter.

ligne - That sounds fun! I must find it!

Reehaana - Thank you! And you shall get them :)

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