It’s becoming increasingly apparent, with each passing year, that Bollywood today is populated with a raft of writers obsessively weaned on the masala movie. I’m not talking about pompous, masala-wannabe outings like Ghajini, which take themselves so seriously, you’d think they’d set out to recreate King Lear. I refer to the true masala movies of yore – the ones where scenes of comedy and drama and action jostled together for space and were integrated in such a rudely slapdash fashion, the logical viewer would end up with whiplash while tracking the course of the narrative, moment to preposterous moment. These weren’t the efforts of filmmakers so much as flimflam-meisters, determined to hoodwink an undemanding audience with a procession of vaudeville vignettes (or closer to our culture, nautanki items).
With the gradual arrival of directors who grew up worshipping Hollywood and European cinema – all that depth, all that meaning, all that gravity, all that class – the disreputable masala movies (namely, our grindhouse fare) died a well-deserved death. But absence, clearly, makes the heart grow fonder, and these writers today, despite their relative refinement in matters of cinema, appear to miss the tawdry pleasures of their childhood. And because we’d laugh them out of a living if they attempted to revitalise those moribund filmmaking traditions, they’ve devised a workaround that requires, above all else, the tongue to be pressed firmly against the cheek. They make masala movies that wink at masala movies, gleefully getting their hands dirty and yet distancing themselves from disrepute with hipster layers of ironic detachment.
Nikhil Advani’s Chandni Chowk to China is so crammed with nudge-nudge memories from the masala era that you could entertain yourself simply with a guessing game about the various references. Isn’t the device of Deepika Padukone playing good-and-evil twin sisters a nod towards Sharmila Tagore playing good-and-evil twin sisters in An Evening in Paris? Isn’t that why the evil twin here is named Suzy, which was the name the earlier evil twin went by? And when Suzy also goes by the nick of Meow Meow, is it a jokey dig at the French actress Miou-Miou, who perhaps fanned the adolescent flames of one of the writers? And maybe, like most young lads from a certain time, they were fans of Zeenat Aman as well, for what else explains the invocation of chanchal-sheetal-nirmal-komal?
The “Dancemaster G9” gadget is no doubt a tip of the hat to Mithun Chakraborty (who plays a smallish part here), but could the archvillain’s name (Hojo) hark back to, of all things, the Mandrake comics? (How cheeky, then, that the antagonist is named after a chef in a film where the protagonist is a cook.) And how could anyone who grew up in the seventies not see that Hojo is played by Gordon Liu, who burst into our consciousness as the awesome star of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin? And how could a fan of the earlier James Bond adventures not chuckle at Hojo’s choice of weapon (a killer bowler hat) and the cheesy-nifty gadgets like a Chinese-to-Hindi translator? (As this device is introduced, a roomful of scientists burst into a song along the lines of the eighties’ Bajaj ad that went Jab main chhota ladka tha.)
The big question, however, is whether memories alone can make a movie – and the answer, based on the evidence of Chandni Chowk to China, would have be, well, perhaps every now and then.
The review also taught me a new word 🙂
Deepika Padukone, surely the fullest figure that’s ever been poured into a cheongsam.
Like me, if you are floored by cheongsam, here is the wiki entry on the word. Have fun!