War, John Woo's The Killer and why 'masala' cinema can be taken as seriously as any other genre
As the writing of War proves, there is a design behind the extravagant stunts and eye-popping locations.
But this also happens to be a very well-written film (the screenplay is by Siddharth Anand, the director, and Shridhar Raghavan) – and that’s unusual for this genre. By well-written, I mean there are emotional underpinnings at every step. It’s not just about a mega-villain threatening to destroy the world, like in the earlier Bond adventures, starring Sean Connery and Roger Moore. War is a little more like the ones with Daniel Craig. Something more personal is at stake. If you want to watch it as just a “fun” movie, it delivers. But if you want to read it as a film about a patriot (Khalid, played by Tiger) trying to atone for the sins of his father, who betrayed the nation, then there’s that, too.
But for the purposes of this column about foreign cinema, let me steer the conversation to the scene where we discover that Kabir (Hrithik), the man who killed Khalid’s traitorous father, is now his boss. Their first meeting, unsurprisingly, does not go well. But what made me perk up was the bit where Kabir tells Khalid how he killed his father. “First, I shot him in the right eye, and then, in the left eye.” (Okay, maybe it was the other way around, but you get the point.) This is the fate that befalls the protagonist of John Woo’s The Killer (1989), one of the seminal action classics of Hong Kong cinema. (Fun fact: That film was produced by Tsui Hark, director of the Once Upon a Time in China and Detective Dee series.)
It’s fair to compare the general ethos of these films because they’re both what we’d call masala. Of late, the term has degenerated to something that’s slapped on anything “unreal” or popcorn-y or just plain corny – something you just don’t want to take very seriously – but at its best, masala cinema is as worthy of discussion as, say, sci-fi or noir. One of the main characteristics of masala cinema (whether action or drama) is the use of echoes. Sometimes, it’s lines that are repeated. Sometimes, it’s plot points. In War, Khalid has lost a father – and now, he’s sent to kill his mentor Kabir, who’s a father-figure. In The Killer, the protagonist (Ah Jong, played by Chow Yun-fat) is responsible for the near-blinding of a nightclub singer, thanks to a shootout he instigated. By the end, he pays for it by losing his eyes in a shootout. And what is karma if not an echo?
A lot of the time, there are echoes to earlier films, too. The Killer, for instance, references Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets , and the nightclub shootout is right out of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (discussed in an earlier column). War, similarly, tips a hat to John Woo’s Hollywood hit, Face/Off. I like to imagine a masala universe where all these films are in conversation with each other. When Ah Jong plays the harmonica, he is spiritually connected to the harmonica-playing Jai (Amitabh Bachchan) in Sholay, who is “speaking” to Harmonica (Charles Bronson) from Once Upon a Time in the West. When I messaged Shridhar Raghavan after War, he told me about his idea of a “masala universe”, one where “Sunny (Deol) of Ghayal crosses Amitabh of Muqaddar ka Sikandar on a bike who crosses a car where Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Vinay Pathak stake out a bank robbery in Poona etc... A day in the life of alternate Bombay...”
Westerns are very close to Eastern masala films because of the very clear-cut divide between good and evil (unlike in, say, noir cinema, where the characters come with more shades) – though the “good guy” could be someone in an “evil” profession, like how Ah Jong is an assassin. The best masala movies have a sense of this complexity, this gravity. Note the collateral damage in War. It may be too soon to reveal this angle in so new a movie, but in The Killer, a little girl is bloodied in a shootout. It’s not just some fantasy world where only the bad guys die. But Ah Jong, being the “good” bad guy that he is, attends to this little girl first, even when chased by cops. And like in a lot of our movies, hero-worship is very much a thing. Even the cops, after losing Ah Jong, admit: “He has a manly air about him. He’s a bit different from the average assassin. He’s very calm... quite intelligent. His eyes are very alert, full of compassion...”
I could go on. About the fact that masala-movie characters are usually variations on two faces of the same coin (Khalid and Kabir, Ah Jong and the cop on his tail, the characters played by John Travolta and Nicolas Cage in Face/Off). About the mythical angle. (In Face/Off, for instance, the villain siblings are named Castor and Pollux, from Greek mythology.) About the relationship angle that anchors these narratives (the mother figures in War and Face/Off, the I’ll-give-my-life-for-you friendships in The Killer and Sholay). About how the personal fits into something more global (terrorists in War, the Triads in The Killer). But that’s probably a book, rather than a column whose point is simply this: as hazily defined as it is, “masala” is not a loose and lazy term for anything-goes filmmaking. There is a design behind the extravagant stunts and eye-popping locations and whatever else the casual viewer may walk in for and walk away with. A lot of bad filmmaking has made us devalue this “genre”, but War is a reminder that it can be taken seriously.
Baradwaj Rangan is editor, Film Companion (South).
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