Thoughts On: Sholay - The Masala Film


Sholay - The Masala Film

Thoughts On: Sholay (Embers, 1975)

Made by Ramesh Sippy, this is the Indian film of the series.

Sholay is a classic Indian film of almost legendary proportions that is contested by only one film in the box office and in terms of popularity: Mughal-e-Azam. It is a prime example of a 'masala film'. This is the kind Indian film that typifies Bollywood in the eyes of many; it combines romance, action, dance, comedy, music and epic scales of drama in one huge package of spectacle that will draw the largest possible audience. The masala film is considered to have be born in the early 70s when filmmakers began integrating more genre elements into the classical Bollywood film - which would usually integrate dance and music, sometimes action, into a melodrama. Despite its phenomenal success in India and other markets, this mixed cinema can often appear alienating to audiences not familiar with Indian film and more familiar with European or American film.

European films, generally and stereotypically, are tonally strict, which is to say that genres, if they even play a major part in a narrative, do not mix too often; this would be especially true in European art cinemas. American films on the other hand mix genres much like Indian masala films do. However, there is often a sense of wholeness that separates American and Indian cinemas. In such, Hollywood films so often require a sustained tone that helps plots flow and relate to one another whilst characters change. If you then take a film such as The Godfather and compare the opening scenes to the final scenes, you will find that there is an atmosphere and tone that remain consistent. To be more specific, The Godfather so often juxtaposes two atmospheres as to create a new one; the sphere of a family and the sphere of organised crime as to manifest a new sphere that exists some place in between the two. This is done in the opening few scenes with a juxtaposition of the wedding and Don Corleone's meetings, and also Michael's date with Kay and the meeting of the 'family friends'. Mirroring this, in the final scenes, there is the juxtaposition of murder and the rise of Michael to the head of the family with the christening of his sister's child. Throughout the film you will see family collide with deception, togetherness with destruction, and so this manifests a tone that remains relatively constant.

It is with techniques such as this that American films strive to be tonally whole and unified, and I think this has much to do with Americans being somewhat straightforward and demanding with their cinema. A film is a film, it's trying to do one thing and it manages to do it or it doesn't. A filmmaker or a critic expecting American cinema to deviate from this paradigm is not often received well by general audiences. To juxtapose this with European films, or to provide a more specific answer, 20th century French cinema, one often finds that tone is subservient to theme. It then matters less what a film is doing in a literal sense as the logic and meaning of a narrative can be felt abstractly and without definition. Such is particularly true in poetic realist films such as Port of Shadows or even the rebellious New Wave films from Truffaut and Godard. To juxtapose American cinema against another cinema again, however, we can come back to Indian cinema and the Bollywood masala film.

Tone shifts dramatically, but nonetheless fluidly, throughout masala films. The only sense of wholeness and unity derived from a film such as Sholay then does not come from a film serving an audience, but an audience stepping into a film. There is then a sense with Bollywood movies from the last 40-odd years that you must live in the emotion of a moment; if a character feels joy, so do you; if a character feels hatred, so do you; if a character feels love, so do you. This is particularly true with the musical elements of Bollywood narratives. These so often step outside of the realm of a story, breaking the cinematic space to step into a character. An example of this can be seen in Sholay with the first major action set-piece that, in a flashback, sees a crew of bandits attack a train and the criminal protagonists of the film defend it with their captor. Moments after this semi-serious, semi-comic action sequence - which formulates the moral centrepiece of the movie as the two criminals choose not to betray the officer that has captured them - we dive into a song and dance as the two criminals ride along the road in their motorbike and its side-car. Whilst there were consequences, physical rules and danger in the action sequence, much of that is thrown out of the window as the side-car goes on its own journey and the motor bike defies gravity. Alas, whilst the two cinematic spaces aren't exactly congruent, the statement made by both scenes is a moral one, which is to say, it is attached to who the two main characters are. Whilst they are criminals who can engage huge gun fights, they also are brothers to one another. Both scenes exemplify this, among other things, in two differing but resonant ways; one scenes deals with behaviour and action, the other emotion and relationships.

Later Bollywood films have developed this approach to filmmaking by juxtaposing the psychic, emotional and physical world under one body that the audience must come to represent. Two brilliant examples come with Dil Se and Mr. India. Dil Se is a romantic action-musical that sees a radio executive fall in love with a terrorist. Its primary cinematic space is then defined by its two characters; the radio executive embodies romantic comedy whilst the terrorist embodies tragedy and action. These two conflict and so the cinematic space is torn between being funny, romantic, tragic and serious. This conflicted space is severed occasionally, however, with the musical numbers. These so often delve into the characters' psyche to show them as one; either battling against tragedy or in love. In Sholay a very similar structure is adhered to. One of the criminals is brooding and serious whilst the other is a romantic drunkard; from them comes different tropes, genre elements and atmospheres. In the musical numbers the cinematic space is harmonised through the destruction of this perturbed baseline, but, for the majority of the narrative there is a conflict between the serious and the comic that is never truly unified. Because of this, in both films, we see characters represent emotion through the drama that manifests between them and invite us into their psyche - often in the musical numbers - whilst action sequences bring back a physical element. This is something that is quite unique to the Bollywood film. That is not to say that other forms of cinema do not represent the psychic, emotional and physical spheres, just that Bollywood films represent them uniquely.

To look to another example, we can come to Mr. India. This is probably one of the most extravagant and broad-ranged masala films as it contains within itself action, science fiction, romance, dance, music, tragedy, crime and comedy. It follows the large family of a widowed father and their new house tenant, a reporter, who are threatened by an evil cooperation who want to take their house and destroy the world. The father finds hope, however, when he happens upon a formula that will turn him invisible. Whilst he then becomes a vigilante of sorts, he must also remain a father and a lover. So, simultaneously he takes on roles that, in Hollywood, would demand three separate actors; Amrishlal Puri is then a Christian Bale, Steve Martin and Ryan Gosling all at once. And this is within a film that will effortlessly jump between being a Bond or a 90s Batman movie and The Sound of Music. Contextualised and explained with reference to Hollywood, this may seem absurd - and, admittedly, Mr. India is to some degree - but, when pulled into the flow of the narrative, everything feels natural. Despite the fact that it is less radical in this respect, the same can be said of Sholay. Whilst you could then describe this as Once Upon A Time In The West meeting The Princess Bride, when watching the film, these two opposing forces feel harmonised and so not as incongruous as you may initially think. And this is due to the fact that there is always some kind of logic embedded into the representation of the emotional, psychic and physical journey of characters. Each strand may be represented in radically different ways - an argument, a song and dance, a gun battle - but they always have a logic that presides over them (assuming that the film is written and constructed well).

On a philosophical level, Hollywood and Bollywood cinemas seem to be based upon pragmatism and idealism respectively. The Hollywood film is then so often logically direct. It forms an argument with the arcs of its characters and it pulls together one or two domains of theme to deliver a philosophical statement. On the other hand, Bollywood films are logically indirect. That is to say that they embrace the infinite story and jump between disparate domains of theme before delivering a poetic statement. With pragmatism, the Hollywood film is tonally unified so that the narrative presents linear arguments with each scene projecting a point towards one magnifying point. For example, The Godfather repeats its statement on family and crime in slightly differing ways that can all be represented by the final shot in which the door is closed on Kay. This final scene is the magnifying glass and the audience can build upon and interpret the film from this point. With idealism, however, the Bollywood film dreams up various poetic statements that exude from each scene individually. A final scene sometimes magnifies and directs each of the various points made, but, in doing so, it usually sees numerous plot strands only referenced. For example, Sholay is all about good flourishing from bad; humanity from criminality. One should note that The Godfather is about a very similar idea. However, Sholay will exist in the domains of romance, action and tragedy for set times. It ends not necessarily with romance, action and tragedy, instead, the many symbols/characters that represent these elements are present. With this plurality of juxtaposed, not unified, symbols comes a poetic statement, not a philosophical question - the difference between them being their directness. So, whilst Michael essentially becomes his father, and thus the non-criminal elements of the narrative are merged with the criminal, in The Godfather, Sholay is harder to pin down. In an array of separate ending scenes, characters become their antithesis, a police officer a vigilante, a criminal a lover, but we do not necessarily attain a sense that the themes have become unified; the criminal allowed an officer to become a vigilante, and the officer facilitated a criminal becoming a lover, but only abstractly. There is a definite point made that is not too structurally or formally different from that which a Hollywood film would make, but, the key separation is that, in a Bollywood film, everything does not become one, whereas, in a Hollywood film, this is the ultimate goal. One then spends a lot more time gathering the many elements of Sholay's statement on good and bad, considering the various gun battles, pieces of romance and polar characters, before putting forth an analysis than they would deciphering the final scene of The Godfather and relating it to all that precedes.

The virtues of the unified Hollywood film rest in the precise grounds from which you can build analysis. The virtues of the non-unified Bollywood film rest in the abstract harmony gained from walking through the narrative. And, to reference European cinema briefly, we come to a cinema that remains abstract and so is not walked through primarily with emotion like a Bollywood film, but more psychically; it is thought and felt through whilst the Bollywood (and Hollywood) film is felt and thought through. So, whilst the European film is a journey down a spiral staircase and the Hollywood film is a journey up a stairway, the Bollywood film is a meandering journey towards a horizon. One can get a sense of this when they reach the end of each kind of film and look back. At the end of a Hollywood film you look down and see the ground with a gaze far more wider than you had in the beginning. At the end of a European film you look up and you cannot tell how far down you have descended. At the end of a Bollywood movie you look behind you and see a haze of snaking paths that loosely resemble a journey you just took. This, of course, isn't a universal truth that defines every film that comes out of each place, but, it is a loose rule that I find has some truth to it.

To bring things towards a close, I highly encourage you to experience Sholay and the Bollywood masala film if you have not before. In doing so you may just find a new form of movie experience, one that isn't nonsensical or too melodramatic, but harmoniously non-unified.

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