What is a “masala” movie?

The Hindi film industry produces films in every genre: comedy, drama, horror, romance, documentary. However, the type of movie the industry is most known for is probably the “masala” movie. The term “masala” literally means “spice.” What does this mean in cinema? Masala movies are a bold mixture of many different genres, usually romance, comedy, and action accompanied by songs. When most people picture “Bollywood” they are thinking of a masala movie.

One effect of putting so many genres into one film is that there can be several sudden, sharp turns from comedy to tragedy and back again. However, a formula quickly appears. The film will open with the hero going about his daily life, with hilarious antics. Likely his family life is exaggerated. Early on, he will catch sight of the heroine and decide immediately to pursue her. This is sometimes more tastefully done than other times (see, eve teasing). The first half may be dedicated to their love story and the second half to an insurmountable issue. This can be between the male and female lead, or it can be something else entirely. An example of this might be the very recent film Simmba (reviewed here). In Simmba, the first half is about a lovable crooked cop who falls in love with a caterer. The second half is about a hardened police department that goes after perpetrators of a vicious rape. Not all movies have this 180-degree turn. For instance, there is one of my favorite movies of 2018, Love per Square Foot (Netflix). Love per Square Foot is masala done gently.

Interspersed throughout the movie will be songs, and the songs also follow a pattern. There must be an opening dance number, a dance number with the male and female lead, and a credits song that is there really only for the radio. Among these will also be the love song, sappy and probably set in Switzerland. Some masala movies lean toward action, some toward romance, some toward comedy. But they will have these songs and they will all have some kind of coupling with a man and woman.

The Raichand family house in Kabhi Khushie Kabhi Gham

A defining feature of a masala movie is its lack of realism. The action sequences especially throw the laws of physics completely out the window. People fall in love over a song. The wind is always blowing in the direction of the heroine’s luscious locks. In the nineties and noughts, masala movies were known for featuring families of incredible wealth. Recently, they have been moving back toward depictions of middle and even lower class people, to whom some extraordinary things happen. I, for one, like the fantasy. People often get interested in Hindi cinema because of these movies, because they are so different from what they are used to.

What do you mean you don’t dance in fields while on a trip to transport your maid’s ashes?

The first masala movie I watched and the second Bollywood movie I saw was Veer-Zaara, with Shah Rukh Khan and Preity Zinta. I have since found other movies that I like much more, but I can’t deny how much I enjoyed this one when I first saw it. People will say it was Shah Rukh’s “chocolate boy” antics, or the cross-national love story, or the songs…I really can’t tell. I just know that watching it felt like seeing a different, weirder, but more pleasant world. And that’s even with the fact that Khan spends the whole second half in a Pakistani jail.

In 2002, a writer for The Hindu wondered where the non-masala, what he calls “genre” movies had gone. He may be pleased with the direction that Bollywood seemed headed in 2018. Many masala movies are of course still being made and bringing in loads of fans and money and topping the charts with their songs. However, “genre” movies have seen an uptick in popularity. In my opinion, this is because viewers crave a more serious and what some may consider more respectable kind of movie that sticks to a theme and does it very well. Actors are known for doing both. Ranveer Singh just starred in Simmba, but earlier this year he received accolades for his role as Alauddin Khilji in the historical epic, Padmaavat. It is not a coincidence that the breakout actors of the last couple of years have a wide-ranging repertoire from films that could be considered quite niche to total crowd-pleasers. Look at the career of Vicky Kaushal. He is absolutely terrifying in horror film Raghav 2.0 and then he is sweetly wooing Angira Dhar in Love per Square Foot on Netflix, then he is Sanjay Dutt’s best friend in the highly popular masala flick, Sanju.

The actor that could give a master class in this kind of flexibility, though, is Alia Bhatt. I saw her for the first time in Badrinath ki Dulhania, a modern masala movie that updates many of its attitudes about women while still maintaining the masala formula. But Bhatt’s breakout rule is usually agreed to be the moving “road” movie, Highway. And in 2018 she stunned in the spy drama Raazi (which Kaushal was in as well).

Some of the worst Bollywood movies I’ve seen were masala, but so were many of my favorites. Bollywood will continue to be an industry that produces films across a diverse array of genres, but will likely always be known for its own unique masala.

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