Recent events have led me to believe that actor Salman Khan is secretly from somewhere in the south of India. The Mumbai muscleman is actually a Dravidian braveheart who is ever ready to do the right thing and break many limbs in the process. If Khan’s career should ever nose-dive again—which seems unlikely, given the reception accorded to his Dabangg and the ridiculous hype surrounding his upcoming Ready—he could consider moving to Hyderabad or Chennai and giving his gym mates there a run for their money.
Khan’s most recent films have all come from Hyderabad or Chennai, both centres of the Telugu and Tamil industries. The ageing but fit superstar owes his recent surge in popularity to Wanted, a remake of the mega-hit Telugu film Pokiri; and Dabangg, which is in the vein of a typical southern masala flick. Ready is a remake of the Telugu hit with the same name. It’s a so-called “family comedy” that also has enough action sequences to keep Khan’s constituency satisfied. Khan’s upcoming Bodyguard is a remake of a Malayalam film.
There are other closet Dravidians in Bollywood. John Abraham is acting in a remake of Kaakha Kaakha, the movie that catapulted Tamil actor Suriya to stardom. Ajay Devgn’s under-production Singham is a remake of another one of Suriya’s superhit films—Singam (Tamil, 2010).
Ready for love: Actors Salman Khan and Asin in Ready
Telugu and Tamil film-makers routinely remake each other’s movies, and Bollywood has now joined the gang. Telugu superhit Vikramarkudu was remade last year in Tamil as Siruthai. It will now appear in Hindi as Rowdy Rathore. To complete the circle, Dabangg is being made in Tamil, which is strange, considering that Khan’s biggest hit in his career owes a lot to Telugu and Tamil rowdy police films from the 2000s such as Saamy (2003) and Vikramarkudu (2006).
What do southern films have that Bollywood wants? A low tolerance for irony and a lack of angst. Southern masala movies follow the recipe book down to the last ingredient. They are mostly about Dirty Harry-inspired policemen who flout the rulebook and take down their targets through unlawful means. The policemen are white as snow; the villains black as tar. The male and female characters are walking examples of what queer theorists call “heteronormative behaviour”. The heroes are superheroic bundles of brawn. The women are ultra-feminine piles of mush. The men don’t only possess muscles but also brains and a sense of humour. The women haven’t yet evolved into thinking beings. Only Kaakha Kaakha gives its heroine something more to do than wait for the hero’s police uniform to be shed and the musculature beneath the garment to be revealed (she dies for her troubles).
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In the south, the vigilante genre has managed to hold its own alongside other genres and increasingly popular low-budget and offbeat fare with some help from Hong Kong action cinema. The stunts performed by the swaggering policemen who restore order in the urban underbelly or the rural countryside are lifted straight from martial arts movies from the Far East. Some comic-book irony has crept into such films in recent years—even the most gullible audiences are not fooled by the ridiculous ease with which villains get bashed to pulp—but southern film-makers don’t tinker with the pleasures of the genre.
In Mumbai, however, the vigilante film was thought to have died a natural death by the end of the 1980s. In its attempt to distance itself from the decade that was deemed to have been the worst ever in Hindi cinema, Bollywood film-makers looked elsewhere for inspiration. They invested money in non-resident Indian-friendly romances and family dramas and introduced a softer, woman-friendly hero—the kind you could take home and shop at the mall with. The 2000s in Bollywood were also noteworthy for gangster films, but that genre seems to have run its course.
Dabangg shows that Hindi film-goers still hanker for ultra-macho heroes who beat up the baddies simply because they want to. The subtext-free, rowdy policeman film seems to be an oxymoron, but the lack of a larger social critique seems to have allowed vigilante films to survive in our more politically correct times. Pokiri, which was remade in Tamil with great success before coming to the rest of India as Wanted, is ostensibly about a battle between good and evil, but at the end of the day it is little more than a series of cleverly orchestrated fight sequences. It helps that the new vigilante films are slick enough to appeal to urban viewers. There’s little subversion and no big message—just that if you have a great body, it needs to be put to some use. Who better to convey this message than Salman Khan, the ultimate advertisement for gym enrolment?
Ready releases in theatres on 3 June.
Nandini Ramnath is the film critic of Time Out Mumbai (www.timeoutmumbai.net).
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