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Spice Demise?

At the beginning of this month, had a straw poll been conducted within the trade on the likely status of Thugs Of Hindostan at the end of its second week in theatres, an overwhelming number of respondents would have predicted that the film would be going strong and potentially on the verge of breaking box office records. Even the most pessimistic forecast wouldn’t have anticipated what really ensued – a steep fall after a strong first day and the film losing steam even before its first weekend was through.

Many armchair and social media post-mortems have been conducted on why the much-heralded Diwali release has not been able to amass the numbers it was supposed to, and a common observation that tends to dominate most critiques is that the film’s script, treatment and tone belong to a bygone era – the masala-laden and often logic-defying formulaic Hindi cinema of the 1980s.

Much the same criticism was also heaped on Race 3, which was similarly unable to live up to humungous expectations despite having the benefit of a lucrative, festival weekend that has become synonymous with delivering blockbusters for the film’s superstar lead.

Add to this list other recent no-shows like Paltan, Yamla Pagla Deewana Phir Se and Namaste England, which also failed in their attempt to cater to a mass audience by using time-tested tropes, and the obvious question arises: is this the end of the road for the archetypical ‘commercial’ or ‘masala’ cinema that ruled the roost for so long at the box office by packing in dollops of action and comedy in simplistic, usually over-the-top narratives that catered to the lowest common dominator? 

To put it differently: much like the growing trend of people adopting a healthier diet by reducing – even eliminating – their oil and spice intake, is the audience moving away from masala in their consumption of entertainment too?

Despite the unsatisfactory box office fate of the aforementioned titles, this is not an easy question to answer.

For one, in the not-too-distant past, that very same box office has also been generous to films like Baaghi 2, Satyameva Jayate, Tiger Zinda Hai, Golmaal Again!!! and Judwaa 2 despite these titles being crafted quite unmistakably in the masala mould. Ergo, it is not a one-way street as far as the performance of this genre is concerned.

Even in the case of Thugs Of Hindostan and Race 3, it is important to have a sense of proportion and perspective while judging their numbers. While it is true that these films did not register the quantum of collections they were expected to, both of them still went past the `130-crore mark which, in isolation, is something that would be considered a massive achievement for most films. Our disappointment at their performance, therefore, is relative to our expectations from those films, given their stature and pedigree. In absolute terms, both releases actually sold more tickets than most films do.

While it may not be an apple-to-apples comparison, one can try and get a sense of the Indian public’s current tastes and preferences by checking out what they are watching on television. On reviewing recent television viewership data, one finds that the ratings charts are topped and dominated by shows like Naagin 3, Kundali Bhagya, Kumkum Bhagya, Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai, Astitva Ek Ehsaas Ka, Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashma, Tujhse Hai Raabta, Kasautii Zindagi Kay and Qayamat Ki Raat that are the very definition of pulp fiction.

Similarly, a casual exploration of a popular digital content platform like YouTube would surprise you at the number of views generated by massy content. Indeed, very often, these high-traffic videos are masala-laden clips and compilations from our very own Hindi films.

To clarify, we are not suggesting that the Indian consumer’s television or digital platform viewing habits are identical to what s/he wants to watch on the big screen. Our point is that despite a discernible evolution and refinement in audience tastes, there remains a latent – and quite substantial – demand for more populist fare and some of this demand can be profitably catered to by our filmmakers. As, indeed, it has been even as recently as a couple of months back.

So, to answer the question we posed earlier, the masala entertainer may be down but is by no means out. Even though as a nation and as an audience we may have become more adventurous with – and more receptive to – influences other than those that we have grown up on, a part of our DNA still carves the desi fix that only comes from the familiar. Hence – and it is only right that a note on the relevance of masala has some culinary references – the tandoori chicken pizzas, butter chicken pastas, McAloo tikki burgers and chatpata chana subs that even global food giants have been forced to introduce in our market to appeal to the Indian palate!

To conclude, the message emanating from the box office is not one of rejection of masala per se but its injudicious application. Spice can still be nice but for us to dish out a masaledar hit, it is important that we get the measure, balance and appropriateness of the masala/s absolutely right.

- Nitin Tej Ahuja

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