What’s in a name? Everything of course. Why call India’s popular cinema Bollywood when there is a perfectly good name that most Indians have grown up with? Bollywood suggests that Indian popular cinema is derivative of Hollywood. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Indian popular film is a completely different artistic product than Hollywood. And there’s a word that captures this difference perfectly—masala.
I grew up watching and loving masala movies, not Bollywood. (I love India’s alternative cinema too, but that is grist for another blog.) A movie is masala when it gives you hours of spicy entertainment for your hard-earned rupees. This is the recipe for a masala movie—a little melodrama, a little song, a little dance, ground together for a visual extravaganza that stimulates every one of your artistic taste buds. In the hands of a great director and great stars (as in, for example, Yash Chopra’s Hindi-language Deewaar with Amitabh Bachchan as Vijay) the result is a spectacular work of art.
There is no shame in melodrama, a genre with deep historical roots. And there are other kinds of artistic integrity than that prized in Hollywood. When I teach Deewaar, I often focus attention in class on that great scene in which Ravi (played by Shashi Kapoor) and Sumitra Devi (played by NIrupa Roy) storm out of Vijay’s palatial mansion forever without stopping to grab even a single personal item (toothbrush, change of clothes, a necessary document like the ration card, a beloved photograph).
Psychologically implausible? Of course. No Hollywood film worth its Oscar ambition would ever have such a scene. But the masala movie would—because the grand truths it pursues (if it is a work of art, not all are of course) would be diluted by a slavish and narrow adherence to psychological plausibility.
So don’t call it Bollywood. Call it a masala movie. Indian popular cinema cannot be understood by reference to Hollywood. Masala is an Indian word comprehended all over India, and increasingly outside. There is a history of applying the word to Indian popular films. As far as I am concerned, these are reasons enough to jettison the tendentious Bollywood and go back to masala movie.
(Next blog—return in a couple of weeks for notes on Tamil masala movies, about which so little is known amongst international audiences.)