Srinivas Krishna's film delves deep into the culture and secrets of that mysterious place known as Canada.
Good fortune. Bad Karma.
Masala is originally a culinary term, referring to the blend of spices that gives an Indian dish its unique flavor. When used to describe Indian cinema, it refers to a film that blends several recognizable but seemingly unrelated genre elements in a unique and surprising melánge. Srinivas Krishna (A Tryst with Destiny, Lulu) wrote, directed, co-produced and starred in Masala at the age of 26. He incorporated his experiences as an Indian immigrant growing up in Toronto, his grandmother's stories of the god Krishna, and the wacky musical trappings of Bollywood films to create this weirdly wonderful look at the lives of Indian immigrants in polite, friendly, politically-correct Canada in the early 1990s.
Facts of the Case
Street-smart punk Krishna (Srinivas Krishna) has just been released after serving time on drug-related charges. He is a lost soul, still reeling from the loss of his family on an Air India flight that blew up five years earlier. He was supposed to have been on the flight with them, but for reasons unknown he missed the plane and remained in Toronto.
His path leads to the home of his wealthy uncle, Lallu Bhai Solanki (Saeed Jaffrey, The Razor's Edge, A Passage to India, The Man Who Would Be King), a successful clothier specializing in saris. Lallu Bhai, a first rate schemer and social climber, has attained a level of respectability in Canadian society that has eluded many South Asian immigrants, including many of his own relatives. Lallu Bhai has considerable political connections, counting among his friends the Minister of Multiculturalism. The Minister (Les Porter, Mean Girls) is as obsequiously polite as one would expect a Minister of Multiculturalism to be—so long as everyone is conforming to his idea of what a good Canadian should be. Lallu Bhai finds himself embroiled in what he thinks is a terrorist plot to create unrest among the Sikh people in India; he cooperates in exchange for promised exclusive control of the sari trade in the affected area.
Representing the less prosperous side of Toronto's immigrant community is the Tikkoo family. "Harry" Tikkoo (Saeed Jaffrey, again) lost his wife on the same flight that claimed Krishna's family. He works for the post office and spends his free time engrossed in his stamp collection. Although the bank is threatening to repossess his home, Mr. Tikkoo does nothing, preferring to remain absorbed in his stamps and in his fantasies of lucrative medical careers for his daughters. Sashi (Ronica Sajnani, Bollywood/Hollywood, The Burning Season) has already disappointed him, pursuing politics instead of medicine; she has close ties to the Minister of Multiculturalism. Mr. Tikkoo still has high hopes for his daughter Rita (Sakina Jaffrey, Chutney Popcorn, The Truth About Charlie, Raising Helen). Rita, however, has different ideas—in her Bollywood-fueled daydreams she yearns to take flying lessons and become a pilot.
Overseeing all of this is the Hindu god Krishna (Saeed Jaffrey, yet again) and his brother, Balrama (Wayne Bowman). In the strange new world that is Canada these two get precious little respect, although everyone still expects them to solve all problems. Sri Krishna is reduced to communicating via videocassette with his most devout—and most demanding—follower, Grandma Tikkoo (Zohra Sehgal, Bend It Like Beckham, Chicken Tikka Masala).
Masala, true to its culinary counterpart, blends a variety of styles and divergent plotlines into a satisfying whole. Writer-director Srinivas Krishna balances his various storylines well, spending just the right amount of time on the story of the troubled young Krishna, the independent Rita, the bumbling Mr. Tikkoo, or the scheming Lallu Bhai. He weaves these threads together expertly, making them intersect at just the right time to bring the film to its dizzying conclusion. Along the way the film presents many facets of life for South Asians living in a world so radically different from the one they left behind.
Flight and airplanes surface as a recurring motif in this film; the tragic flight that claimed the lives of Krishna's family seems to have touched all the members of Toronto's Indian community. Director Srinivas Krishna never comes out and says it, but this seems to be a reference to the 1985 bombing of Air India Flight 182, which remains to this date the worst terrorist attack ever to originate on Canadian soil. That attack, perpetrated by Sikh extremists, had a deep impact on the South Asian community in Canada when the director was young, and it seems clear that he incorporated his own memories of the event into the character of Krishna.
Another element of immigrant culture that Masala incorporates is the world of Bollywood film. Both Rita and Lallu Bhai have elaborate daydream sequences in the form of bizarre, over the top musical numbers in true Bollywood style. These are somewhat cheesy, quite funny, and surprisingly honest in what they reveal about the characters.
More serious is the issue of self-directed racism. Krishna (the human, not the god), distraught over the loss of his family as they were flying back to India, has rejected all things Indian. In place of his own heritage, he has assimilated the worst aspects of Euro-Canadian attitudes towards his own people. When Lallu Bhai speaks to him in Hindi, Krishna retorts, "You know I don't speak that gibberish." He throws around the hateful word "Paki" (roughly the equivalent of the n-word) in referring to other South Asians, without realizing the irony involved. Other characters get in on the self-loathing too; Sashi Tikkoo delivers one of the most venomous condemnations of Indian men one could imagine. These incidents are played mostly for laughs, but the underlying tension between minority identity and majority culture is clear.
One of the real treasures of this film is the performance of Saeed Jaffrey in his three roles. Jaffrey, as a star with stature, gave the film the credibility necessary to get made in the first place. He is thoroughly charming in all his roles. His scenes as Mr. Tikkoo are an additional treat, because they mark his reunion with Sakina Jaffrey, his daughter in real life. The two had not seen each other in 25 years prior to being cast in this film; Srinivas Krishna had no idea that they were father and daughter until well he cast them.
Masala comes to us from Wellspring Media in an anamorphic widescreen transfer. Picture quality is decent, probably better than one would expect from an independent film from 1991. The picture is mostly clear but just a little bit soft. Colors are a bit undersaturated. Blacks are weak and full of noise, and shadows lack definition. Audio is clear and dialogue (at least the parts in English) is clearly understood; however, this mix really doesn't make use of the full surround environment very much.
Special features include a reasonably informative featurette, a commentary track by Srinivas Krishna, a photo gallery, and a theatrical trailer. The featurette contains interviews with several cast members; unfortunately, some of them were apparently recorded in an airplane hangar and have truly terrible audio. The photo galleries are mostly useless, as photo galleries on DVD generally are. The commentary track is somewhat interesting, but Krishna tends to spend too much time telling us what is happening on screen and not enough time providing useful insights into the film or his intentions. His comments on Indian (and Indian-Canadian) culture are the most useful, but frustratingly few and far between.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are elements of Masala that don't seem to work as well. The worst of these is a major plot twist close to the end of the film that goes in an unexpectedly tragic direction. Given the relatively lighthearted tone of even the most dramatic moments of the film, this serious moment feels out of step and unnecessary. It also turns the film from one that is mostly optimistic about the prospects for South Asians in Canada to one that is decidedly more ambivalent.
Masala stirred up quite a bit of controversy upon its initial release. Many of the more orthodox (if that's the right term) Hindus objected to its less than reverent portrayal of the gods Krishna and Balrama, and other people of South Asian descent resented what they felt was its use of stereotypes and self-directed racism. Masala weathered the controversy over its release well. In 2002 voters from around the world named Masala their favorite South Asian (that is, made in South Asia or by South Asians living elsewhere) film in a British Film Institute poll.
Not guilty! I enjoyed Masala, even if I did have the sense from time to time that I wasn't "getting" all the cultural references. But hey, Canada is a confusing place…
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Wellspring Media
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