Will Masala Films Survive the Content Revolution?

In the past few years, we’ve seen the rise of the slice-of-life drama in Malayalam cinema. These are films typically set in local backdrops, having realistic characters and situations. This ‘realism wave’ has definitely brought in a host of super-talented actors and technicians into the industry, and has earned the attention of cinephiles worldwide. I recently came across a feature on Kumbalangi Nights in the Guardian, so I guess the sky’s the limit now. 

But this trend has sparked a fascinating general opinion: that true skill lies in portraying this gritty realism. The moment someone tries to deviate from this trend, their product is deemed ‘not sophisticated enough’, especially when the attempt is to create an out-and-out commercial fare.

With the advent of small, high-concept films, will the big masala films die?

One tangible change we have had in the content space recently is the rising prominence of OTT streaming platforms (like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video). And many feel that with affordable pricing, the OTT market can outgrow the theatre segment – that “entertainment within the comforts of one’s home” would become the norm. 

OTT platforms give people a more personal experience, and this would really help in getting the small, contemplative films across to larger audiences. But cinema is not just about intellectual stimulation: there is a big social aspect as well. The thrill of getting entertained collectively is something that has got ingrained in our social fabric. The big films provide exactly that, and so it makes sense to believe that both OTT and theatres (read, small films and big films) will coexist. 

Long story short: the mass films are here to stay. Having said that, can we say that the legacy system – the “tried-and-tested formula” – for these mass films would continue to work in today’s day and age? 

If, say, Valliettan released today (the way it was originally conceived and produced in 2000), would it have got the same level of acceptance? I doubt. A lot of water has flowed under the content bridge since then. The internet became ubiquitous, which meant content consumption became ubiquitous (keywords: Jio, YouTube, OTT). And this time, content consumption was not limited by geographical borders. Also, by the 2010s, the New Wave of Malayalam Cinema came in a big way. Add to all this the PC debate and many such moral dilemmas creators have gotten into. Keeping all this in mind, it’s safe to presume that the average intelligence of the audience has increased manifolds. So logically, every genre should step themselves up. But this applies particularly to the potboilers because they are under increased scrutiny today – thanks to a long list of recent colossal disappointments (Mr. Fraud, Odiyan, Mikhael, Kalki, Big Brother, Masterpiece…should I go on?). 

So how can these potboilers be updated to suit today’s audiences? 

I thought of listing down a few basic necessary-but-not-sufficient conditions for an enjoyable commercial film. Truth be told, it’s difficult to pick an earlier film as the benchmark for the genre, because there have always been compromises – especially on plot logic and screenplay consistency – keeping the audiences in mind. However, most films did get some aspects right, so I’ve tried to mention a few of the good examples for each scenario. 

In case a budding commercial director comes across this article and gives it a thought, I might just be the reason we get a New Wave of Mass Cinema. Lol. Anyway, here’s presenting the Ten Commandments for a Wholesome Masala Film in 2020! 

  1. The hero can be big, but he can’t be bigger than the script. 

Having a charismatic larger-than-life hero helps. After all, he fills up the frame for 75% of the film’s runtime. But the audience’s intrigue at the hero rises only up to a point and then stays plateau – from there, it’s only the plot that can elevate their interest in the film. Ekalavyan was a Suresh Gopi star-vehicle, but its success lies in the fact that the viewer was more invested in the bigger picture: the constantly progressing plot. If the makers rely only on the hero’s quirks and style, without developing interesting conflicts, the film becomes a redundant mess that no superstar can save. 

  1. However over-the-top the hero is, he needs to have an emotional core.

At a subconscious level, the viewer tries to find the pathos of the film. The characters’ actions should be driven by a comprehensible emotion. If not, people fail to connect with the story. Rajamanikyam is as over-the-top as it can get, and yet it’s a film with a heart, because it makes us feel for Bellary Raja’s unrequited maternal love. But then nine out of ten such films cash in on the ‘family sentiment’. Do they all work? No. So maybe the real skill lies in weaving the emotions convincingly.

  1. Toxic behaviour can be shown, sure, but not glorified. 

Stars have the freedom to choose their roles. They can play anti-heroes. The characters they portray can do morally unjust acts. Only clause being: there should not be a general nod of approval to these acts within the film’s universe. Unfortunately, many celebrated films of the past are rooted in regressive ideas. For example, in Narasimham, the hero’s sexist dialogues are shown in a celebratory fashion. Such glorification should be avoided, because ultimately it is a film for the ‘paavam janakodikal’ – many of whom may not think twice about imitating their heroes and being misogynistic, homophobic douchebags. (This is partly the fault of a gullible audience, but until that is fixed, makers need to be mindful.) 

  1. Surprise the audiences. Don’t give them exactly what they want. 

Fans would usually have a checklist of things they expect from their hero. But the minute the makers resort to out-and-out fan service, the excitement plummets. Entertain them in ways they don’t foresee. Rajamanikyam came at a time when people didn’t think Mammootty could pull off comedy! Similarly, Big B released at a time when a mass hero had to speak punch dialogues at length to make his point. People were awestruck at Mammootty’s dry, game-changing portrayal of Bilal (“Otta Peru!” gives goosebumps even today). There’s a wide range of ways to surprise the audiences. Make actors play characters that go against their stereotypes. Bring shades of other genres like sci-fi (convincingly). Build interesting cinematic universes! 

  1. You don’t always have to cast a non-Malayali actor as the villain 

This is mostly an after-effect of the 90s: a time when many popular villains like Ravuthar (Vietnam Colony) and Hyder Marakkar (Dhruvam) were played by faces unknown to Malayalis. But today, it has reached a state where a Hindi actor (cast in a Malayalam-speaking role) says his lines in Hindi and Vineeth swoops in to dub it into Malayalam. Why waste so much effort when you could rather spend those resources on writers who could write a good villain? When the villain is as deftly written as the hero (like Devasuram) it automatically calls for an interesting face-off. Moreover, protagonist-antagonist characters need not be black and white. They could both be righteous people, but with shades of grey? 

  1. Give the supporting characters some agency

Barring the occasional Lucifer, star vehicles these days are just plain bland when it comes to the characterisation zone. In the past, even though the films were typically centred around the main lead, and supporting characters are either the hero’s aides or the villain’s aides, we have had a fair share of memorable supporting roles. This is probably because they got their individual arcs that ultimately tied in with the script (like Vikram and Suresh Gopi in Dhruvam) or their characters had a handful of powerful scenes that challenged the actors playing them (MG Soman in Lelam, Vijayaraghavan in King). In fact, supporting characters could be given even more agency, to the point that they become indispensable to the central plot. 

  1. Punch dialogues have a dichotomous effect, so use wisely. 

First of all, every dialogue cannot be a punch dialogue. There needs to be an exclusivity. It’s super difficult to watch Praja today: in that universe, if Zakirbhai wants to pee, he’d say ‘As a citizen of this country I can freely release nitrous excreta, mind you!’. Not cool anymore, Zakirbhai. 

From “Just remember that!” to the recent “Thande thantha alla ente thantha!”, a crisp and clever punch can bring the house down and become part of pop culture. But, but….unwarranted and not-so-subtle punches like “Njan cool aa. Mass cool!” don’t go a long way in exciting audiences anymore. Rather, they end up making the film an object of “mass ridicule” on the internet. 

  1. Slow motion and BGM are just tools, not the foundation for mass appeal.

We had so many iconic slow-motion + BGM sequences by the early 2000s, that there’s even a gag about it in CID Moosa (2003). But in addition to these two factors, these films also had well-etched out lead characters, great dialogues and strong performances – which were instrumental in cementing the character in our hearts. One CANNOT rely on the aforementioned 2 tools to elevate an underwritten film. One cannot have “Mass da! Boss da!” play in the background for the entire duration, and expect to hypnotize people into believing it’s a ‘mass’ film! 

  1. There isn’t a need to forcefit comedy bits and dance sequences. It’s 2020. 

This is one bit that seems unanimously outdated when we watch older films. Maybe it was done keeping in mind the audience of the time: Comedy, song-and-dance and fights attracted different demographic segments. Corollary to what I mentioned earlier, today the audiences’ tastes have changed. They have exposed themselves to the best screenplays in the world. They can’t sit through a lag now. If comedy or romance doesn’t go with the milieu of the film, chop chop please? 

  1. Why haven’t we had a ‘mass heroine’ yet, by the way?

At a time when female-oriented films have found their footing, is it too outlandish to expect an out-and-out masala film with a female lead kicking some ass? We’ve seen potential in earlier films, right from Manju Warrier in Kannezhuthi Pottumthottu to Rima Kallingal in 22FK and Vani Vishwanath in most films she’s done. The Tamil industry has already ventured into this territory (and achieved moderate success) with Jackpot (2019). Mollywood, are you listening?

It’s almost ironic that I’ve written this piece in the midst of a lockdown, at a time when theatre viewing has been put on hold indefinitely. However, there’s been constant online support and good buzz for Minnal Murali, Lucifer 2, Priest, Lelam 2 and other big films in the pipeline. So here’s to hoping that when things bounce back to normal, we are treated to some insane big-screen entertainment.

 “Athu vare, nee poyi oru chaaya kudichittu vaa. Have a tea break!”

You might also like: The Real Reason Why We Don’t Have Good Malayalam Horror Movies

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