The "Masala" Aesthetics of Indian Films and Indian Culture

One of my old Indian friends recently posted a picture in our chatting group with a picture of two Hollywood stars stating that just those two represented the acting talent more than all of Bollywood combined. As someone groomed in Indian culture and Indian films, I was awestruck with such a blanket disparaging statement. Since I had heard similar insinuations from him earlier (and many other Indians), I had some idea of his utter ignorance of Indian classic films and started asking him questions if he had seen great Indian films such as Devdas (1955, starring Dilip Kumar), Ardh Satya (1982, starring Om Puri), Drohkaal (1994, starring Naseeruddin Shah), Arth (1982, starring Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil), Saaransh (1984, Anupam Kher), Alaap (1977, starring Amitabh Bachchan), Pyaasa (1957, starring Gurudutt), Nayakan (starring 1987, starring Kamal Hassan) and the great Bengali classics by Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, and Aparna Sen.

Since most of his responses were negative, I merely re-requested him not to disparage something without a serious study/experience. IMHO, one should not pass judgment about Indian cinema without thoroughly studying/watching it. Unfortunately, we the viewers have little patience and dedication to appreciate great films of India but some of us have the nerve to ridicule Indian cinema even as the great filmmakers such as Bimal Roy and Gurudutt remain aliens for us. Some of us are from the generation of 1970s and 1980s in which Amitabh Bachchan dominated the Hindi films for far too long and the entire "art films" movement became the scapegoat at the altar of commercialism. The great filmmakers who had led the alternative film movement in 1980s, such as Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihlani, and Mahesh Bhatt, had to resort to commercial films like Zubeida, Dev, and Aashiqui respectively because of lack of commercial success of their "art" films. Thus, the blame for poor quality of Indian films in and after 1990s should go to us viewers who are stuck with films of Khans, Roshan, and Bachchan that are high on commercial values but low on innovative thought-provoking ideas.

Art is a matter of subjectivity judged and experienced through individual tastes, intellect, and sensibilities. Hollywood and Indian films are not comparable as sensibility for entertainment is different in both the countries. Indian films are based on the nine rasas (flavors) just as Indian food is based on simultaneous mixing of different flavors. Indian food is to be enjoyed in a large plate (thaali) not in a buffet style. Indian food typically includes different tastes of spices such as hot, sweet, salty, and sour, all together simultaneously unlike the buffet style of meals in the Western culture. Similarly, Indian films have all the "masalas" mixed up that could be hard to digest for someone new to the world of spices. No wonder that India has been the spice capital of the world for the last 5000 years. On a lighter note, in Italian American restaurants, black pepper is a big deal where special waiters come to the table and sprinkle it on the pasta as if it is a very special offering while this is just another spice in Indian kitchens.

However, the tide seems to be turning about Indian films where many Christian American weddings and other sports events have started including "Bollywood" style dances and music. Now it is becoming cool to dance like Hindi films so hopefully the Indian critics will eventually stop attacking Indian films. There is at least one academic article that goes a great length explaining the unique aesthetics of Indian cinema. ("Is there an Indian way of filmmaking" by Professor Philip Lutgendorf at the University of Iowa). This article wonderfully connects the Indian filmmaking with the Natya Shastra written by the sage Bharat more than 1000 years ago. This is an alternative aesthetic theory that drives the Indian way of filmmaking that the urban Westernized Indians need to study and appreciate before ridiculing Indian films as too "masala" based. Finally, how many of us have seen these Indian entries to the Academy Award nomination, a nudge to you dear reader to enjoy some of these classics: