Saturday, March 23, 2013

In defense of masala and “mindless” cinema

“Sometimes with Indian films, you have to take out your brain, park it at the door, watch the film and collect your brain on the way out.”

That’s how a friend — an Indian friend — recently described typical masala. It is, in a way, right. (Of course, I’d argue that it doesn’t only apply to Hindi cinema and the stereotypical Bollywood masala; it applies to many “mass-entertainment” films in any language.)

But I have recently experienced a great deal of backlash among desis, especially those in the U.S., who consider such cheap entertainment like popular masala as worthless and even despicable, a black mark on Hindi cinema.

When I mention that I’m more than okay with the singing and dancing and wild, logic-defying antics (all hail the supernatural powers of Salman Khan’s muscles!), there are inevitably frowns from these high-brow consumers of cinema.

But why, I ask, must films always be serious to have merit?

What is the problem with cinema that is, in fact, cinema? Not overly serious, instead accepting of the fact that cinema is not real life?

Isn’t that what fiction is meant for? It is, after all, not reality. There is a reason we turn to fiction as escapism. Books, movies, television — the medium makes little difference. We all want to escape to another place, time, story. We all do it in different ways.

I know it would behoove the nose-in-the-air serious-cinema elite to admit that, but that makes it no less true. They would prefer to believe that they never try to escape reality through fiction, but I contend that everyone does in some form or another, whether they admit it to themselves or not.

Why is using literature as a means of escape more acceptable, more high-brow, than using cinema as a means of escape?

To a degree, the sentiment has its roots in film history. Commercial film began as entertainment for the masses, with motion pictures at fairs and nickelodeons. Early commercial film also evolved out of vaudeville traditions, and vaudeville got its name from voix de ville, literally “voice of the city.”

Literature, on the other hand, has always been the game of the upper crust since it requires literacy and often a knowledge of prior classics. The novel was a distinctly middle class phenomenon, but even then, it was often aimed more at an upper-middle class than what we would consider “the masses.”

Oh, yes, have I mentioned that this defender of mindless cinema has a degree in English literature with forays into early film studies? Indeed, I am a schooled and trained critical thinker. I have been taught theory upon theory, formalism, postmodernism, structuralism. I can throw around “mise-en-scène” and other fancy terms.

So, yes, I can apply theory, criticism and intellect to what I watch. (You might notice that in some of my reviews here on certain films and the themes of postcolonialism.) I can enjoy a good mental workout through film.

But I am also a journalist. I deal with the horrible dark side of reality every day. Poverty. Crime. Death. Destruction. I love journalism, but it is definitely a morbid business, inescapably depressing in large doses.

So I don’t go into a theater to relive the things I face every day in reality. I go in to enjoy watching a piece of fiction and yes, even to stop thinking about reality for a while. It’s not a leap to say that I am using fictional film as a means of escape, and it’s entirely possible that you will look down on me for doing it.
But then my question is — why not? Why shouldn’t I enjoy cinema that is not reality? Why must art imitate life to be of value?

Why must I always use my brain to enjoy something? Must everything I consume be in the interest of bettering myself? (I will point out to you that if you answer “yes,” you should never eat dessert again.)

Why can’t a person just enjoy something without stopping to think about all things serious and weighty? Why is a good laugh something to be discarded as cheap rather than embraced as a piece of simple enjoyment?

It is true that I love to laugh maybe a little more than most. It has a lot to do with growing up in a house with a father who could be Jim Carrey and George Lopez’s comedy lovechild and in an extended family where reunion shirts with the slogan “It may be crude, but we’re O’Conners” were proposed. This somewhat out-there sense of humor means I love desi comedies in which nothing is too ridiculous as long as it gets someone to laugh.

And, really, the ridiculous antics of masala are very much the same: nothing is too ridiculous as long as it brings someone joy. The antics are both meant to make you smile — shaking your head, thinking, “Only in the movies” — and also to laugh. Dismissing them with a sneer or an upturned nose as grotesquely ridiculous is so closed-minded to something that occupies a quizzically odd place where the appropriate reaction is somewhere between “laughing at” and “laughing with.”

And, really, their goal is to bring you joy.

What is so wrong with that?


  1. Nothing wrong except perhaps that some brains are more detachable than others ;) To each his own! It's a choice after all...

    I've never understood art debates, because to me the very nature of every art form is that it's open to interpretation and likes and dislikes are so often instinctive!

    Frasier makes me laugh, Govinda doesn't! It's just the way I'm wired :) Nice post!

    1. Haha, I never thought of that, but I suppose some brains are more detachable! A very good point. :)

      And I wish people would understand that just like one can't discount art forms simply because it's not their taste, the same principle applies to films as entertainment!

      Thanks for reading and commenting!