- More Cracked: After Hours
- Few clips from Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra and Kaliya Mardan. Surprised to find that one of my childhood photos dressed as Krishna has decades old legacy from Phalke’s daughter dressed up as Krishna in the very same pose. (will dig up the photo, if I can)
- Hell or High Water: Impressed with Chris Pine’s acting. And visually a beautiful piece. All Hail West Texas, I guess? Also, need to figure out where all the country music in the movie is from
- Laakhon Mein Ek, Biswa’s Amazon Prime series, released a trailer/song which looks amazing. I guess, a definite review post for when that binge is done.
- From future: Have to watch Blade Runner before I watch Denis Villeneuve’s sequel. Also, still need to finish American Gods, Baccano and Utopia season 2.
Correct me if I’m wrong but in my understanding but the biggest chunk of Indian movies, in terms of business that would be Hindi, Tamil and Telugu accounting for about 80% of revenue, does not have a native genre with substantial identity, scope or influence. The closest we have is… the Masala movie.
A little backstory here: I watched “Hell or High Water” (2016) today at Kaliedoscope, my college’s movie club. I went in blind, not knowing anything about the movie except the title and, unintentionally, the genre: a neo-Western. Western is like the genre of movies. An oddly constrained setting for narratives: set in 19th century Old West America featuring a nomadic gunslinger as a protagonist among many other conventions. And it was there since, the very beginning of cinema with The Great Train Robbery (1903) peaking in popularity in the 50’s and still being made. But that is not what fascinates me. What blows my mind is the scope of it– the wikipedia page of Western (genre) lists 22 subgenres like classical, sphagetti, churro and curry (what restaurant is this?) — and its influence. Here’s the deal, I have not seen any classical Western as far as I remember. No John Ford, no John Sturges and no Clint Eastwood (except the Gorillaz song). But, I know what a Western is and I have seen a lot of it. Like a lot *deep breath*
A Million Ways to Die In The West, Django: Unchained, Firefly, Preacher, Logan, Wild Wild West, Rango, Shangai Noon (fingers crossed for Shangai Dawn), Westworld, that one episode from Phineas and Ferb with the song “In The Mall” (and practically every other cartoon from 80’s and 90’s), Woody parts of Toy Story and all of this are things that are liked and I can list off the top of my head. I haven’t mentioned things that I have to watch like Cowboy Bebop, or things I won’t go near like Cowboys vs Aliens. Also, not mentioning the samurai genre like Yojimbo and Samurai Jack. Granted all of these things are genre hybrids and not “pure Western”, you have to admit the sheer influence. Even more so when you realize that perhaps the most iconic Bollywood film Sholay, is a fucking Western.
Let that sink in, for a second. And ask yourself, what genre do we have of that caliber? That we developed natively and not Indianization of genres that existed elsewhere. Is it the Mythological? Maybe, arguments primarily being that it was at the foundation of both fictional cinema and television with Phalke’s films and the two epic TV shows, but no will say that looking the current list of movies being churned out. There can be multiple answers but the obvious and the most time-tested answer is…
The Masala movie, the paisa vasool flick, the bheja-ghar-pe-aur-dil-theatre-mein picture. It is not one genre but all. Comedy, slapstick and no subtlety. Action, from the unreal to the surreal. Romance, which can be developed, sustained and wrapped up in three songs: a courtship dance number, a duet with montage and the dream-sequence to allow the spectacle. Drama, with quotable one-liners and melodrama which mess up you eyeliner. Because why make people choose between a ludicrous laugh riots and cry fests, just give one 300 bucks two and a half hour full unlimited thali? Why not appeal to the 14-year old juvenile, the newly wed couple and the family at once?
Now, this may seem as snobbish criticism, but this is me presenting my understanding of what it is and why it exists. I am not the one complaining. I am not forced to watch it, not anymore anyway. If I wanted more of identity and potential from a genre, I can watch Hindi parallel cinema or just go for anything else available to me in English. Movies are both art and business, and more often than not the latter determines the nature of the first. So, I shouldn’t complain; I cannot singlehandedly buy out the whole Salman Khan fandom and force them to watch Prakash Jha, also that would be cruel.
But I have the right to highlight a problem that exists given the pervasive existence of the Masala movie. What is the legacy of it? It will always be the stars, but more on that later. Decades since the 1970’s boom and perfection of the first Masala formula, how is the genre recognized and played up outside of Bollywood? Raj going “bollywood” in the Big Bang Theory, probably says more about American ignorance and racism on Chuck Lorre’s part, but even in culturally aware works like Master of None, by Aziz Ansari, where he manages to talk about whitewashing particular to brown actors and the second season of which is influenced heavily by Italian romances, does not even mention Bollywood or even Tamil films for that matter. In my knowledge, it is nothing except a racist stereotypical interpretation of the Indian musical. The best things to cite that I have are Slumdog Millionaire, which I would spend a separate post talking about, and Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!, the one thing I cannot forgive Ewen McGregor for.
Whether you love it or hate it, Moulin Rouge! (2003) is wonderfully made pastiche of the Masala movie blending in opera and contemporary pop, which is light on action and has traded traditional Indian values for Bohemian values. Luhrmann visited India and watched a screening of Bollywood movie with an item song (one the less crass ones) and was inspired to make a movie that moves the audience in a way that he saw. The song was Chhamma Chhamma, where my crush for Urmila Matodkar began (that or Rangeela), and the movie was China Gate. A good movie, if my childhood memory is to be relied upon, but… BUT it is not even a true Indian masala movie. It is a Hindi remake of The Seven Samurai, the 1954 Kurosawa flick. Here, you may say, okay, so… But before you say that, let me tell you that it was already remade in America as The Magnificent Seven in 1960. Guess what genre it was. Western.
Which brings me to my second problem with this monster of a genre. It does not have subgenres. I am not saying all masala movies are the same, but the differences are not drawn in conventions or narrative but, more or less, in style. Yaadon Ki Baarat, releases in 1973, is cited as the first Masala movie, establishing Salim-Javed screenwriter pair for next two decades to come. Except for those two, never would a Masala movie be sold under the brand of writers. Now, you know, that an Amitabh Bachan angry young man flick would be different from a Mithun’s weird I-don’t-even-know-what-to-call-this-surreal-mess, which remains true till date where SRK’s charm will generate a fairly different movie that Sallu’s charisma, but they are all still Masala movies. Yes, the directors can also be identified, Farah is different from Rohit Shetty which is away from late Kabir Khan’s, but still they are all still Masala. I am not forgetting or forgiving the Tamil and Telugu movies here, it is just that I am not informed enough to rattle off names.
Compare against all the Western hybrids. Let us take a Western and add space and aliens to it. You can still get two different things like: Cowboy vs. Aliens and Firefly. Again, if you go with a Western superhero story, you can still get Preacher as well as Logan. The formula usually goes: A Western except <insert genre/narrative synopsis here>. You cannot blend other genres in the same manner with the Masala genre. This is apparent in how we copy material into mainstream Bollywood. Let us take a neo-noir movie with a character with short-term memory loss, and add masala. Ghajni. Let us take a high stakes heist movie, and add masala. Players. Let us take a Spielberg scifi adventure, and masala. Koi Mil Gaya… Let us take a war drama with a character with childhood disability, and add masala. Tubelight. Let us take a subtle comedy stageplay and add Rohit Shetty level of masala. Golmaal. I am picking strawmen here, but even when it is done well, the formula always is <insert genre/narrative synopsis here> and add masala. If we do that with a Western and add masala we get, Sholay, Khotey Sikkay and China Gate.
After the comparison, it may seem obvious, why that might be. The Western, as I put it earlier, is oddly specific and you are left with the ability to bring in any other genre even when you have exhausted all tropes. While in a Masala flick you can’t do that when you always have a huge checklist to go through all the time. When you have to breeze through all the genre convention at least once, you can’t do a lot. On the other hand, when everyone is trying exploit all genres at once, we never fully allowed our movie-watching palates to expand to other genres (aside from the usual pure romance, dramas and thrillers, elements of which are already present in the Masala) to blend genres.
We are left with an industry defining monster genre which leaves little room for evolution. We are left with little scope to move in the direction to deconstruct or demythologise it because it is already absurd to a limit where parody is indistiguishable from the copy and grounding it in realism is totally inviable (or when we try it is a box-office and a critical failure, but more on that in another post).
It is not that Masala movies are not great, up to a subjective shift, but the fact that we have seen everything the genre has to offer. It is not that it is inherently dumb on purpose, but after putting the brain away time and time again, we want something to challenge us. Western was considered a lowly genre after a period of fatigue, much like the superhero genre currently, but it could be pushed and molded into novel avenues. With the Masala genre, that is not possible, but economics dictate that it should stay for long (I disagree, but more on that later.) The problem with the Masala movie is that it is immutable and cannot be killed. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but this sucks, right?
- A whole lots of Cracked: After Hours. Happily is surprised to find Winston Rowntree as one of the “brains”
- A half drunken listen to The Desaturating Seven by Primus and other assorted songs by the band. Love the bass. Will get into the lore later. Credits to sps for the initiation.
Never thought I would see an adult animated series with really clever writing which does not rely on absurdist tropes, actually gives you rich characters that you can know and like within a span of 10 minutes, with great detailed animation… and is on YouTube… for free. I mean, how did this cruel world let such a thing exist?
PeopleWatching is an animated webseries/show on the YouTube Cracked by Winston Rowntree, best known for his webcomic Subnormality (Don’t have anything to say about it, ‘cept have to check it out now). It is an anthology, so far 10 episodes with 5 to 10 minutes each in Season 1, about 20 or 30-something hipsters in some Canadian city getting brutally honest about their lives. Lemme illustrate.
The first episode is about a speed-dating session where Joanne, a stripper with 180 IQ (yes, that is an accurate character description), decides to be radically honest to cut down on the crap that comes with dating. Here’s a quote that you get 3 minutes into the series:
Hi, my stage-name is Kandi and don’t you hate it when you’re sliding naked down a pole in front of the kinda businessmen who are ruining the country and one of them throws a five and someone used a Sharpie to make the guy on the bill — I don’t know his name– look like Spock and you have to fight not to burst into laughter in the middle of your twerk routine in a way that is bad for business in a way your cellulite only dreams of.
And that is the point I was hooked.
The episodes, all titled like clickbait articles presumably due to Winston’s experience writing articles for Cracked, range in topics dealing with talking during movies and how friendzone was invented by F.R.I.E.N.D.S. to mortality and gender identity. The animation is great: each character is easily identifiable and unique, and, yeah, almost all of them great tattoos.
The characters are encapsulation of personal contradiction pushed to the limit just shy of caricature- besides Kandi, you have “the musician who has fright everywhere except the stage, and the pervy feminist cool nerd, and the right-wing progressive girl”. And the writing is so well done that even with all of that you are not alienated by them, heck you will relate to the ones you won’t believe under these simplistic descriptions. I mean, I related to a 32-year old trans-man multiple times over the season.
Which brings me to the point this series addresses in a manner I have not seen before: how to make your audience feel less alone while presenting the fact that each individual is uniquely different than anyone else? Right now, there are more humans on the planet than ever before (this fact won’t stop being true at least while so you can keep reading it over and over again) and you exist in a situation where technological and economical conditions (you are reading this on a smartphone or a laptop so…) allows you a potential to choose which would be considered limitless by the standards of, say, 5 decades ago. Future is more uncertain to us than it did to our parents at our age. We expect less tangible things from ourselves like job satisfaction and an engaging partner since we have no reason to stop at a job that pays and wife who can cook, which was already a “soul-crushing” upgrade from hunting/foraging and fucking whoever was around. I can go on contemplating the condition of the well-off millenial, but I would run the risk of rehashing things better put into words by Rowntree. Nonetheless, in this scenario, one must feel insignificant among billions of others, yet simultaneously alone.
So, how do you reconcile the two truths in a manner which is not crippling if not comforting? How do you acknowledge and internalize that everybody is wildly different from you, yet not spiral into a realization that nobody can ever understand you because you are that unique? How do you craft your identity if the only way you know how to live is learnt through imitation of a normal, that you constantly remind yourself does not exist? How do you make sure you do not die alone when you are on a personal quest of purpose, and everybody else is too? In all honesty, one does not expect such answers from YouTube, but surprisingly to a certain extent peopleWatching delivers.
The solutions range from outlook shifts, such as a radically honest outlook which me leave you without a date but give you a self-acceptance and understanding of yourself that no gf/bf can give you or to abandon the hierarchy of romantic and platonic love to broaden your avenues of mutual admiration and support which might be more lasting, to something simpler like abandon the tradition of not talking during movies to find people with similar or different perspectives (because like it or not movies/TV shows are the art form of our generation). Sometimes, the answer comes as a perspective into our lives, whether in non-religious confessionals or Secretly Loser Anonymous support group, that make you feel less alone or in others lives, as a peek into life of a charming performer with social anxiety to a dialogue between a depressed girl and her personified depression (this one hits close to home, a depiction of a depressed consciousness comparable to the one in BoJack Horseman). But, most of the times, there is no answer, there is just, “Get used to it, pal. Try to be happy.” but even those sentiments are delivered in such comforting and even inspiring manner, you feel connected to something in the world, even if that is bizarrely specific hipster cartoons in a first-world country.
But to do that it has to be more than your average couch sitcom, the message needs to come from not-just-your-everyman. It cannot be generic crap served up for the sake of it. It has to come from an honest place and it has to be visibly so, I need to believe that the artist is honest.
This is what Rowntree has to say about peopleWatching:
That’s the other thing I’ve learned— that one of the best things that art can do is to make people feel less alone, and to do that all you need is to tell the truth— even just your personal truth— regardless of the context. Even if it’s a 10-minute cartoon with swearing and time travelers and jokes about having no money.
This is taken from the IndieGoGo page for funding season 2 of peopleWatching, which closed it’s campaign very recently. Rowntree announced that preproduction is on and he is currently rewriting the scripts while also doing updated illustration work. I mean, we are very lucky that this precious thing will continue to exist, but I would just like to end on the reminder that about 1 in 1000 viewers backed the campaign (although generously with about an average donation of $ 64.36) and it only reached 48% of it’s goal. We are lucky right now, but there might come a time when we need to show our support back. Because it isn’t just the artist making us feel less alone in this world.