The "Masala" Film Recipe

Jennifer Takhar

The renowned sociologist Ashis Nandy, firmly believes that "Only a handful of writers has matched the insight with which Rushdie speaks in Midnight's Children of elements of the new popular culture in urban India such as Bombay films." [In "Satyajit Ray's Secret Guide," East-West Film Journal, 4:2 (1990), p.15]

In Bombay films are produced in Marathi, the regional language, in Gujerati, Punjabi, as well as in Hindi, the most widespread of the Indian languages in the sub-continent. These popular high-budget movies reap better profits abroad than in India. Bombay's film supremacy is assured by the application of a magical formula. Each film must contain the following:

A superb parallel for this magic formula can be read in Haroun and The Sea of Stories in which the storyteller character Rachid employs the same classic masala movie recipe in his yarns: "It seemed all Rashid had to do was to part his lips in a plump red smile and out would pop some brand-new saga, complete with sorcery, love-interest, princesses, wicked uncles, fat aunts, moustachioed gangsters in yellow check pants, fantastic locations, cowards, heroes, fights, and half a dozen catchy, hummable tunes" (pp.16-17). This famous recipe is further clarified in Rushdie's "A Short Text About Magic" (1992), his tribute to the makers of The Wizard of Oz : "sex goddesses in wet saris (the Indian equivalent of wet T-shirts), gods descending from the heavens to meddle in human affairs, supermen, magic potions, superheroes, demonic villains...have always been the staple diet of the Indian filmgoer" (p.11).

At the end of the seventies this film genre was nicknamed masala, which in Hindi means an assortment of spices used to prepare what is commonly known as curry. The term masala alludes to the whole range of genres and emotions that one can expect to find in a Bollywood film. It is widely accepted that the spices used release different flavours, which find their parallel in what Sanskrit scholars call Rasas or "feelings." This concept was created by the theorist Bharata in his Natya Shastra, written 200 years B.C. He listed eight different rasas to which modern Indian writers have added another:

In The Ramayana Valmiki alludes to the rasas when he refers to the version of the epic which is sung by Rama's two sons. The rasa concept can be applied to all art forms and is perpetuated in masala films where all of the above mentioned states of emotion are incorporated.

The popular Hindi film is a unique blend of different moods and itself composes a specific genre because its constitution is so fixed. From the story line to the direction, these films are entirely grounded in melodrama. Plots revolve around twins separated at birth, children abducted from their parents, lovers torn asunder because of caste difference, all of which betray the strong influence of popular fiction on the genre. Along with these commonplace scenarios there are also some essential, still quite unoriginal, thematic concerns : the pure-heartedness of the hero, eulogising of the family and manichean conflict. The characters are strong stereotypes. These films are pure escapist material, blurring out the hard-knock reality of everyday life and what they do best is to provoke a huge emotional participation from the masses, who loudly manifest their reactions. The best example of this kind of film star adulation and audience emotional investment takes place in Rushdie's fiction when Gibreel Farishta, ex-movie star suffers an accident and pandemonium breaks out in India : The real life inspiration for this episode is of course Amitabh Bachan whose hospitalisation caused even Indira and Rajiv Gandhi to cancel appointments to be at his bedside. (See Salman Rushdie in Critical Quarterly.Vol 38, summer 1996.)

The whole of India was at Gibreel's bedside. His condition was the lead item on every radio bulletin, it was the subject of hourly newsflashes on the national television network, and the crowd that gathered....was already tearful...a mood of apprehension settled over the nation. (p.28).

This highly commercial Indian cinema provides a means of psychological investment for the South Asian diaspora all over the world. The two main characters from The Satanic Verses Gibreel and Saladin, evoke the prickly issue of immigrant identity, that is to say cultural disorientation, complicated readjustment and the Orpheus-like urge to look back at one's past and beloved home-country. These very same sentiments are experienced by the displaced Indians who try to adapt to their newfound environments, a process that inevitably involves suffering and guilt.

There are countless anecdotes about Bombay films and songs that have become a cultural reference and therefore a means of social interaction for Indians of the diaspora. A very good example of the importance of films for this diaspora can be seen in the Canadian film Masala by Srinivas Krishna. This film focuses on an Indian community in Toronto, where we witness an excellent parody of the popular film phenomenon through an old Indian mausi (maternal aunt in Hindi) who converses with the god Krishna (avatara of Vishnu) who inhabits her television. For the diaspora these illusory films represent a form of Indian reality. Krishna is enclosed in the TV set (he has managed to exit the audio-visual cassette which "contained" him, where he was acting in a mythological film adaptation of Vyasa's Hindu epic, The Mahabharata) and appears at opportune moments to voice his vichar (words of wisdom) in order to advise the mausi who has prayed for him to show up.

In The Satanic Verses Gibreel Farishta becomes a cultural transmitter by diffusing and captivating fragments of a collective national life. Above all he communicates political intrigues and sordid journalism. These 'pulp magazines' or Indian "bitch journals " (p.27) claim to reveal all about the private lives of Bollywood stars, the most popular (and most foul) of these being Stardust, the gossip nerve-centre of the Indian film industry.

Gibreel quite literally lacks spatial and psychological fixity, he is "mercurial " in the narrative world because of his deracination, his immigrant status, as in the filmy unreal world that he incarnates (p.27). Moreover one of Gibreel Farishta's numerous lovers, Rekha Merchant, accuses the actor of superficiality: She "accus[ed] him of being a creature of the surfaces, like a movie screen. " (p.27)

He exemplifies the hybrid being: he is both Hindu and Muslim, Muslim by birth but Hindu in his film-world, mythological character and romantic hero, both Amitabh Bachan and N.T. Rama Rao at the same time. This commercial world is the basis of The Satanic Verses. For certain purist critics the fact that a novel so controversial should focus on the most degenerate film industry to represent post-colonial consciousness, is difficult to assimilate. We are dealing with film narrative in The Satanic Verses since the novel contains flashbacks, curious peripeties and fantastic scenarios : "For Rushdie Bombay talkies have become the cultural ground for a national exploration that began in Midnight's Children." (Vijay Mishra in East-West Film Journal, p.22.)

Moreover Rushdie's collection of short stories East West is loaded with references to Bollywood, beginning by the tragic character Ramani in "The Free Radio." He is compared to great bollywood actors because he has a beautiful face, blessed with the good looks of none other than Krishna himself : "Such a handsome chap, compared to you Shashi Kapoor and Amitabh (arguably two of the greatest bollywood stars of the seventies) are like lepers only, you should go to Bombay and be put in the motion pictures" (p.22). He does realise this ambition but only at the cost of being deprived of his virility by the cruel hand of the "Widow". At the end of the story the narrator informs us that "he spent his days at the Sun'n'Sand Hotel at Juhu beach in the company of top lady artistes, he was buying a big house at Pali Hill (with) the latest security equipment to protect him from the movie fans" (p.31) In the story "The Courter," the ayah (nanny), Certainly Mary, mentions the cremation of Hindus at "Manikarnika-ghat...(where people) buy fire from a house with a tiger leaping from the roof - yes certainly, a statue tiger, coloured by Technicolor" (p.175). Mary comes from Bombay and she thinks in Technicolor, the colours of her native city. In Haroun and The Sea of Stories, when the protagonists arrive at the bus station, the background music we hear is "movie music at top volume" (p.29). The scene is reminiscent of the arrival of the young hero in Mira Nair's much feted film Salaam Bombay : on arrival at Bombay's train station, he is first struck by bollywood music blaring out of the speakers attached to the overhead vaults.

In Midnight's Children bollywood films lend the novel their melodramatic vein and are a strong part of the multi-layered story. Saleem's uncle, Hanif Aziz, "the only realist writer working in Bombay's film industry" (p.355), writes the story of a chutney factory, and the chutnification process which brings the novel to an end. In the same novel we come across another filmy ruse : alternate editing, which allows consecutive sequences passing from the night of prodigious births on August 15th 1947, from the streets of Delhi to Lahore, from Narlikar to Nehru; these consecutive episodes resemble TV soap operas. The announcing effects that Saleem calls "movie trailers...trumpeting COMING SOON" (p.346) are also previews. Certain chapter headings such as "Love in Bombay " ironically evoke popular movie titles and this chapter recounts Saleem's unrequited love with the American girl Evie Burns. The cinematic stylistics also allows for convenient narrative acceleration which Saleem explains, during one of his narrative digressions, his favourite indulgence: "(While Padma is holding her breath, I will allow myself to introduce here a close-up as in Bombay films -- a calendar blown by the wind (where) the pages...disappear marking the passage of years) " (p.346).

Postcolonial Web Pakinstan OV Rushdie OV Midnight's Children