Can Anjaana Anjaani hold its ground in the post-Dabangg world? Will audiences who have hooted their hearts out at Dabangg’s unabashed gimmickry care for a privileged and beautiful couple who set out on a road trip across a pothole-free and flood- unaffected foreign country?
Among all the things being said in praise of Dabangg, the assertion that it has gladdened the hearts of the so-called “chavanni class” is the most interesting. According to the theory, single-screen audiences have been neglected of late by movies that play out in London and Toronto masquerading as New York City. Unlike the boring multiplex viewers, who demurely chew on their caramelized popcorn and open their mouths only to answer phone calls during screenings, the mostly male single-screen audiences are vocal about their appreciation for the on-screen antics of the stars, whistling their approval and adding their own comments to the audio track.
The truth is that Dabangg, and Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai before it, are deliberately designed to grab both the heartland and the metropolis in one single action. Tackiness is a virtue in masala films, where the joy isn’t in seeing how nicely the hero has been lit or what clothes he is wearing, but in his attitude and his actions. Wanted, which gave Salman Khan a new career choice—playing the Hindi version of the macho southern hero—didn’t try to get too clever about lighting or production design. Dabangg, on the other hand, is a carefully spiced concoction that hopes to please the taste buds of both single-screen and multiplex audiences. The masses who reject most movies because their stories or stars are far removed from their own lives have embraced Dabangg’s brash populism. Multiplex regulars who think they’re out of touch with the so-called real India can also feel proud that thanks to Dabangg’s fake-real aesthetic, they have rediscovered their cinematic roots.
The divide doesn’t seem to be between authenticity and pretentiousness, between the multiplex wallahs and the chavanni class, as much as it seems to be between good films and bad films. Jab We Met and 3 Idiots prove that there is still a vast audience for feel-good movies that marshal star power to tell good stories. Films such as Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai and Dabangg have shown a way of repackaging outdated material. The masala film, with its black and white morality, handsome stars, catchy songs, spectacular dances and lashings of comedy and action, continues to survive in the Tamil and Telugu industries and, in an extremely watered down form, in Bhojpuri cinema. Dabangg may inspire me-toos, but it’s unlikely to result in a return-to-roots rush. After all, multiplexes are also coming up in several tier II cities. Viewers will never stop wanting lavish-looking and fantasy-laden films that take them as far away from the contradictions of contemporary India as possible. Sunny Deol and Suniel Shetty aren’t likely to get their jobs back.
The masala movie died for a reason. It will return only if irony is thrown into the mix—something that both the front-bencher and the multiplex regular know all too well.
Anjaana Anjaani releases on 24 September.
Nandini Ramnath is the film critic of Time Out Mumbai (www.timeoutmumbai.net).
Write to Nandini at firstname.lastname@example.org