Let me start by saying that I love watching the works of Selvaraghavan, Mysskin, Vetrimaaran, and many other renowned filmmakers in Kodambakkam. But, nothing gives me more joy than whistling and hooting while watching a masala entertainer that's filled with chartbuster songs, hero's unmatched coolth, OTT stunts, rib-tickling comedy, and, most importantly, a central emotional story. The following define Kollywood:
The star's cutouts and the paalabishekam performed on them, the 4 am shows on the release day with the roads leading to the theatres withstanding more bikes and cars than normal, and the fan having a sleepless night, waiting for the show to start and hoping that the film will work for people other than his idol's fans.
Theatres turn actors into stars and, sometimes, also function as the film industry's equivalent of stand-up comedy's open mic locations: audiences get to witness the first glimpse of a star's political aspirations. Nothing beats the FDFS experience.
But, in recent years fans have been getting disappointed often because of the mediocre quality of their stars' films. After finally accepting the movie didn't work with the majority, usually a week after release, they tweet about the directors their stars need to work with, only to end up getting disappointed all over again after seeing their stars' subsequent films fail.
What are these masala film directors doing wrong with their movies, and the genre itself? Have Tamil directors lost the 'plot' to make a masala film?
Covering 15 films from the 90's to 2019, this piece will talk about the screenplay structures that directors employ to narrate their stories, bringing both satisfactory and unsatisfactory results.
One of the advantages Indian films have over Hollywood films is that the audiences have already tuned in to sit for 150 minutes in theatres because of the song and dance format. In a Hollywood film, a death, a turning point, or a transition to a new setting happens around the thirty-minute mark. In contrast, a Tamil masala film, if it's based on Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey, can take an entire half to set things up, then create a turning point for the hero and then have another half to bring life back on track for the hero.
The films that have utilized this strength to their advantage would be post 90s-2010 Rajini films. The common factor between Annamalai, Arunachalam, Padayappa, and Sivaji, other than their linear structure, is a loss.
Annamalai loses his house after being conned by his best friend's father.
Arunachalam leaves behind his (adopted) family after the grandmother reveals to him that he is an orphan.
Padayappa loses his father and the house.
Sivaji goes to the streets after the corrupted lot loot his hard-earned money.
Would these films have worked had the stories been narrated through flashbacks? Probably not, because the viewer gets time to live with the characters before realising, along with the hero, that everything is lost. There is a need to now root for the hero to succeed. The four films give us almost the entire second half to root for Rajini's characters to emerge victorious in the end.
Two films that followed a similar structure in recent times are Velaiilla Pattadhari and Viswasam. Raghuvaran loses his mother, and Thookudurai gets separated from his wife and daughter. Both the directors spend time setting the relationship between the protagonist and his loved ones before putting them off balance halfway through the film. The directors now really have the power to take the audiences along with them on their heroes' journeys. Both these films, although tales of redemption, work exceptionally well because the heroes have new challenges a.k.a villains to face in the second half.
Another film that followed a similar structure was Adangamaru. The hero has a happy family; one fine day, as part of his cop duty, he messes with the villain, who then gets his family killed. Because the director boldly opted to show nearly his entire family getting killed and also put him out of his job, the audience will think "I don't care how this guy is going to do it, but I want my hero to take revenge, even if his methods are silly." The film worked for most of the viewers.
Let's take an example of a film that does not fully make use of its superb premise: Bigil. Its premise is, "A football player becomes a gangster after seeing his gangster father get killed. He then gets another shot at redemption when he becomes the coach of a women's football team."
The director Atlee, through a short but highly emotional flashback, sets up the relationship between the father and the son before the father's death. The first half of the premise works quite superbly, making one invested in Michael's journey at the intermission point. Post the intermission point, the film becomes silly and perpetuates patriarchal ideas.
When I watch trailers of upcoming films, I check if the makers give any hint of a flashback portion. If the answer is in the affirmative, I try not to watch the film in the theatre. A lot of Tamil directors use flashbacks to talk about avaru eppadi irundhaaru theriyuma (second half gist) to explain avar ippadi irukaaru (first half gist). But, flashbacks require setup, making a viewer ask, "Who was this guy?" at the intermission point.
How many films have the hero suffering at a negative character's hands at some point in the first half? Mostly, we see the hero going on a revenge mission without showing much vulnerability in the first half, and the second half explains his painful past. By the time the flashback ends, and there is a semblance of emotion in a viewer after he or she sees a death, the film goes to the climax, and then the END card. Why did the director give the viewer too little time to undergo an emotional journey with the hero?
Flashbacks, if used cleverly in the second half, can create hysteria among the masses. Ask the directors of Baasha and Asuran (which had a structure similar to that of a masala film). What separates these two successful films from the many others that got rejected by audiences?
In both films, we see the heroes as ordinary men. Before the famous intermission scenes in both the films, we see Sivasamy apologising to the rest of his hood and Manikkam getting beaten up by the henchmen. These setups have payoffs in the intermission scenes. The viewer, already feeling down to see his hero in a pitiful state, wants to see the hero fight back. When the hero fights back at the intermission point, along with feeling elated for the hero, the viewer is curious about his past. It's setups like these that separate films like Baasha and Asuran from the rest of the films that employ flashbacks. Suresh Krishna and Vetrimaaran clearly knew how to use flashbacks to heighten the emotional impact on the viewer.
Another way that some successful films used flashback was to convey something big in around fifteen minutes to help the viewer get the context for the hero's actions. Petta and Anniyan used shorter flashbacks to have the viewer invested in the heroes' macro stories in the films.
Mersal, although a satisfying commercial film that worships its hero, disappointingly used the flashback portions, where a viewer cared for the characters closer to the climax. Compare Mersal's structure with a film that released over thirty years ago: Apoorva Sagotharargal. The Kamal Haasan starrer shows death of a major character in the first fifteen minutes so that the viewer will want revenge too, just like the hero.
Vedhalam, although held together by three insanely mass scenes, could have worked better had the screenplay followed a linear narrative. It could have been an emotional-mass film, similar to Viswasam.
Lingaa could have been a moving tale of redemption of the grandfather, Raja Lingeswaran, told through the journey of his grandson, Lingaa. Because the flashback is poorly used, the emotional moments in the second half feel wasted.
Films are made for and by a common man. But, in recent years, are the masala films' stories really 'of' the common man? The hero has introduction scenes, does cool stunts, mouths meaningless punch dialogues and beats up people. He does not suffer at the hands of a negative character. By not showing him face something terrible in the first half, the director distances the viewer from the film. Why would the viewer care at all for the hero and his past?
Aarambam and Anjaan are both revenge stories that disappointingly use flashbacks where the directors don't show their heroes' vulnerable moments in the entire first half.
Just like how a lot of writers have broken the traditional screenplay rules, there have been excellent masala film screenplays that have broken the rules of an ideal masala film screenplay (basically makes the earlier parts of my piece null and void). Thuppakki, Singam, Run, Mankatha, Dhool, and so many more films, all have compelling characters; both the heroes and audiences had fun. They are fondly remembered even today and regarded as great masala films.
The viewer, leaving his mundane life, goes to the theatre to see himself in the hero's character in the film, with the hope that others see his hero in him once he comes out of the theatre. What would he want his hero to do?
Face a problem, similar to the viewer is facing in real life, and overcome the problem giving the viewer hope.
Fight his villain, which the viewer feels powerless to do in real life.
Mouth punch dialogs, which the viewer can use in his daily life conversations with his friends.
Sing and dance in films, which the viewer would hope to emulate at least in his house, if not TikTok.
Most masala films in recent years have become ideal platforms for the heroes to have introduction songs, political dialogues, over the top OTT stunts, cringeworthy comedies with unfunny comedians, without having well-conceived screenplays. This is similar to consuming just the toppings of a pizza that doesn't have a crust.
But, textbook masala films end up making the viewer feel like a winner, but masala films need not follow the structure rules. This unique genre is all about its hero. If the directors can put some thought into streamlining their heroes' journeys, it would add the extra 's,' right in the middle of Masala, making the films wholesome and bringing back the glory days of the genre.