Why do we consume junk films like Chennai Express?
Watch the trailers, read the articles written about it and ask yourselves why you want to watch that movie.
By Suprateek Chatterjee
A couple of days ago, a friend called to inform me that he'd just watched Chennai Express. “I loved it,” he gushed. “It's a proper entertainer. Laughed my ass off.” Just about a week ago, this friend and I had discussed our love for Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets in glorious detail. We both felt the film was often (unfairly) overshadowed by Taxi Driver. I mention this to make the point that this is a person I know likes good cinema.
Perhaps picking up on my being perplexed by his praise for Chennai Express, he said, “Dude, what do you expect? It's a pav bhaji film. Who cares if it gives you indigestion, as long as you enjoyed eating it?”
As a long-time unhealthy food enthusiast, I get where he's coming from. The food-as-cinema logic has always worked for me. There are pav bhaji films, butter chicken films, Greek salad films, bacon club sandwich films, smoked salmon films, foie gras films and filet mignon films. There are some of us who eat for nutrition, but the vast majority of us who eat for taste and variety. You know that oily chicken tikka roll isn't going to be fun for you the morning after, but there are times when you crave it anyway, right?
But hey, things seem to be changing. People, at least in cities, are going to the gym, buying multi-grain bread, going organic, buying anything with the word 'anti-oxidant' written on it and so on. Fittingly, this friend who gushed about Chennai Express, is quite careful with his diet (“I don't eat carbs after 6 pm,” he once told me.) The body is our temple, we're told. But what about our minds?
As you read this, the people of India have spent over Rs 156 crore (and counting) on a pav bhaji film prepared from mostly stale ingredients, but served using shiny crockery. Going by the comments section on any Chennai Express-related article or review anywhere on the web (sample: “SRK rockksss King Khan is backkk b*lls to all biased critics missing punctuation grammar crimes grammar crimes”), no one gives a sh*t about indigestion (pardon my French). Regardless of what kind of cultural diet they're on otherwise, people went ahead and watched the film. An examination of my Facebook and Twitter feeds tells me that of my friends and acquaintances, most watched it: some hated it vehemently; some loved it and others simply consumed it.
The blockbuster-goers I'm curious about are the products of post-cable-TV, post-Internet-access India. They watch everything from Quentin Tarantino to Michael Haneke. They visit Rotten Tomatoes on a regular basis. They have memberships to DVD libraries and know the best torrent websites, if one wants to download Sundance-winning documentaries.
So why does this little sliver of audience – the last ‘missing link’ that no doubt add a few more crores to the collection of films like Chennai Express – want to watch pav bhaji films? Were they dragged by family/friends/partner/spouse? Did they simply want to find out what the hype was about? Maybe they're die-hard Shah Rukh fans, his recent 'slump' notwithstanding? Perhaps they went with the express purpose of bitching about Chennai Express after seeing the film? It’s fine. It happens every now and then, I guess. (For example, in 2011, I went and watched Bodyguard of my own accord and I’m happy to report that I am no longer required to visit a therapist.)
Yet these same people pride themselves for being exposed to better cinema than many in our country. They complain that our films don’t match up to Hollywood. However, all these grouses don't seem to stop that significant sliver of the audience from buying a ticket for Chennai Express.
Once you’ve bought that ticket for one of Bollywood's hype-filled audience-baiters – a film by the likes of Rohit Shetty, Anees Bazmi or Sajid Khan, starring a Khan/Kumar/Kapoor, a pretty face and a bunch of hit songs – the pav bhaji guys have won over the brown rice-wallahs. You paid for the ticket and it goes straight into their pocket. You can go hammer and tongs on Facebook and cry into your Twitter feed all you like, but it won’t change the fact that you're partially responsible for the Rs 160 crores earned at the box office, the resultant success party at a suburban Mumbai hotel and a roomful of suits in a production house saying, “Guys, this was fun. Let’s do this again.”
This keeps happening. We celebrate the Gangs of Wasseypurs, Shanghais and the currently ongoing five-week run of Ship of Theseus. We'll hold them up as evidence that the times they are a-changing. Then along comes a Chennai Express, like a sugar-addled toddler let loose in china shop, and destroys every box-office record in sight.
After the Diwali and Christmas releases, the national IQ has dropped by at least 10 points annually. Why? Because it's a pav bhaji film and it's easily consumed and what the hell, it's there at the theatres. Why is this a problem? Because it makes production houses think that the only kind of cinema India wants is the pav bhaji variety and the success of films like Chennai Express suggests we'd like to be in a constant state of cultural diarrhoea.
I'm not saying every film should be a Ship of Theseus; I'm saying junk food can be well-made too. For example, earlier this year I had a blast watching Special 26, a feel-good masala caper that had fresher ingredients than most, courtesy a good script, some good performances and nifty direction. It was no salad but it didn't leave me with indigestion.
Here's a suggestion to all those who do have a fondness for good cinema but can't seem to resist their guilty pleasure movies — try treating the next blockbuster release like it's an indie film.
Watch the trailers, read the articles written about it and ask yourselves why you want to watch that movie. Judge a film by the story that unfolds on a big screen. Expect actors to act, instead of allowing a leading man to play the the same role he’s played repeatedly for decades. Be entertained by intelligent plot twists and don't get manipulated by gimmicks. Basically, try not to approach Bollywood with the mental and emotional constitution of a teaspoon. The slightly-more experimental Indian cinema is constantly being judged in commercial terms. So why not turn the tables and see how the commercial film measures up if we go back to the basics and judge a film by the basics rather than by stardom?
Suprateek Chatterjee is editor of Visual Disobedience, a community for emerging indie artists, and a freelance writer. In his spare time, he likes to compose music with his electro-rock band Vega Massive and his Twitter handle is @SupraMario.
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