Friday 16 March 2007

Mirch Masala (1985)

I regret ever saying I wanted a stark moral dichotomy.

Ooh, I drink from your jug, so kinky.

I found Mirch Masala sitting in a discount bin at the local South Asian DVD shop. Naseeruddin Shah's angry face looked out over Smita Patil's windblown shoulder. The movie looked lonely. It looked like it needed a home. And was I going to get fussy over a discount DVD with Shah on the cover? Certainly not. So I bought it.

Chili fight! Somewhat kinky.

But sometimes I regret not having any standards when it comes to Naseeruddin Shah or Om Puri. I'll watch anything that has both of them in it. Plus, I had heard good things about Mirch Masala. I had even heard it called "the best Indian movie ever made." BEST Indian movie EVER made? My God. Surely, I had to watch it.

Keenkee? I keel yew wiz my scyze. Shi-ing!

And surely, whoever said it was the best Indian movie ever was either on crack or has never seen another Indian movie. Because Mirch Masala is bad, my friends. Even with the Parallel Powerhouses like Naseer, Om and Smita. Even with the Hero Hiralal director. Even with a great plot. It is just bad. It was painful to watch.

He-ey, shaving cream. Kinky.

What happened?! God knows, the story had promise enough: 1920s rural India, Sonbai's (Smita Patil) husband has just gone prancing off to work for the "railroads" in the "city". Meanwhile, the evil tax man (Naseeruddin Shah) comes galloping into town, demanding all the money and women that ye have, arrr! Tax Man takes a particular liking to Sonbai after drinking out of her brass jug (insert your own joke here), and he subsequently demands her services. Sonbai slaps Tax Man, and escapes into the chili factory. Abu the Guard (Om Puri) closes the factory gates and the chili women fuss over Sonbai. The town goes into lockdown. Tax Man says that if he doesn't get Sonbai by nightfall, he'll burn the village to the ground, roar. (Presumably taxing them first.) The village chief, wearing too-large shoes, tries to reason with the Tax Man but fails. The men of the village try to grow spines but also fail. Soon everyone is at the chili factory doors, demanding that Sonbai just come out and face the inevitable rape. Sonbai prepares her scythe for battle, and meanwhile the Tax Man's troops beat down the doors...

Well, I won't tell you how it ends, though chili powder is involved.

How did a movie with so much promise - great plot, great setting, great actors - implode into a vacuum of badness? Perhaps it was the painfully simplistic moral dichotomy: men are spineless creatures beating down on their noble, intelligent, brave wives. So much for subtlety!

Perhaps it was, and I hate to say this, Naseer's fault. Smita Patil and Om Puri (despite the Aging Troll look) performed up to par - indeed it was refreshing to hear Om just lay the moral smackdown from time to time - but Naseer, on whose shoulders the movie's believability inevitably sat, decided to play Tax Man like some maudlin silent film villain. He even twirled his black moustache while hatching evil plots! Why, Naseer, why?!

Someone uses rollers in his beard. Not kinky.

We at the PPCC have decided to pen a letter to Naseer in an effort to rectify the situation.
PPCC Headquarters,

Dear Mister Shah,

What were you thinking?! Please tell us they made you do it. We want to love you, but you make it difficult sometimes.

Sincerely, your biggest fans,

the PPCC.

Or perhaps it wasn't Naseer's fault (he is infallible, after all), and perhaps it was just a series of tiny mistakes which ate away at the movie's quality, like ants eating away at a delicious picnic.

Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps...

Suffice to say that the most fun we had with this movie was finding ways to say "kinky" in all the picture captions of this review.

All the women in the movie wear red, like the chilis they pound into dust. Is this some sort of kinky metaphor for women being hot and spicy little chilis pounded down by patriarchal society? We at the PPCC sincerely hope not.


yves said...

Hi Pccc,

Well...Kinky or not, you had me raise my eyebrows! I marvel at our so our differing views! How can I have been SO enthusisatic when I saw Mirch Masala?! ( Do you think I was on pot? Coulda been...!
Still, I did enjoy myself. Ha, I know: I like the colour, red! No wonder.
Bye for now!

a ppcc representative said...

Yves - It's been a while since I saw this, but I remember being turned off by the presentation, which I found to be overly blunt and didactic (women = good, men = bad). That said, I gave up on the film pretty quickly, and so I may have missed a lot of the more interesting undercurrents. Just read your review - yeah, I definitely missed some interesting things you picked up on (Naseer's "animalism"). Also, I have no idea what sort of gender context Mirch Masala was made in - i.e. what is 1980s Indian feminism like? - and so my reaction was probably inappropriate, in that I definitely wasn't the target audience for this. One of my biggest beefs with this film is Naseer's performance: he's so painfully maudlin and one-dimensional. But then, perhaps he didn't want to give the Subedar any degree of sympathy, for fear to undermining the girls' plight? Not sure.

What are your thoughts on Kaala Patthar? Have you posted on it? I just looove that movie.

yves said...


Thanks for the quick answer! Well, I'm pleased you accept some hastiness about Mirch Masala... Certainly (from my point of view)Naseer's character is absolutely made to look as unpleasant as can be! I wonder at how he could have given the subedar any sympathy... well, perhaps you're right: he could have been a little less negative. But I think the whole point was to study his cynicism and machismo. He's a gem in terms of how far petty chiefs can go, don't you think?

As for Kaala Paathar, this is where it's commented uopn: