"Surviving Hottest" Top 5 Page for this destination Chennai (Madras) Travelogue by tayloretc

Chennai (Madras) Travel Guide: 442 reviews and 885 photos

(Revisiting this page in dread of Hottest, 2009 – originally posted after Hottest, 2007.)

For those not familiar with it, the south Indian season of hottest is about 4 weeks around May when the sun is white-hot overhead, and it feels like you’re breathing through a boiling sponge. Night is no better. The Tamil calendar calls it the “days of fire,” and there’s a widely-practiced tradition of newlyweds sleeping apart for a month in the fall that directly corresponds to fewer babies born during this time. It’s that hot.

I’m more or less from New England, so for hottest I’m condemned to air-conditioning. My (overly-air-conditioned) office is dandy during the workweek, but there isn’t much to do at my temporary (and less completely air-conditioned) apartment, and I hate being confined even with things to do. So I went mad for a little while. It seemed best at the time.

I stumbled out of that madness straight into the joy and total abandon that is the Bollywood masala movie. The teary melodrama, the dancing for no discernable reason, the cartoon-ish action, the black-and-white and inevitable triumph of virtue over vice, and, more than anything, the exuberance – I’ve developed a love of it all. And kind of a crush on Shahrukh Khan. (Yeah, yeah – go watch Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and tell me that you don’t have a crush on him too.) I get such a kick out of these movies I’ve started to learn Hindi. And I’ve found that if there’s air-conditioning you can dance along with abandon at any time of year.

How to watch a masala movie

Of course I had to start recommending these movies to everyone, but quickly ran into a problem: they weren’t getting it. We came up with some guidelines for watching them, which I hope will help the rest of you get started.

1. Suspend your disbelief at least an hour before viewing.
2. Prepare yourself for a long sit – a three-hour movie is short.
3. Watch it with other people, preferably a group of people with the same level of knowledge of the language. “None” is fine, and is in many cases best.

If you find yourself confused or lost during the movie, here are some tips:

• You’re over-thinking it. Stop it. Now check the clues below to re-orient yourself and just let it be what it is.
• The hero is the handsome, virtuous, modest(-ish, maybe), and hard-working one.
• The villain is the one drinking, gambling, stealing, or being generally disrespectful of elders. He may or may not also be shooting people.
• The hero might start out doing villain-y things, but if so he learns the error of his ways over the course of the film.
• The heroine is the prettiest girl spending her screen time playing hard to get.
• A temptress is the prettiest girl spending her screen time NOT playing hard to get.
• The heroine will never start out doing temptress-y things, but a temptress will probably learn the error of her ways.
• Provided the temptress is human. The temptress can also be money, fame, fortune, etc., in which case see the point above about the hero learning the error of his ways.

The following notes don’t apply to non-masala movies (characterized by fewer songs or the hero/heroine dying)(often both), of which there are many, and many very good ones – but for the vast majority of what Indian cinema churns out:

• There is no mystery to the plot. The hero wins. The villain loses. The hero ends up with the heroine, and it takes at least five song and dance numbers to get there.
• The lovelorn best friend ends up happy and/or married (comedy) or dead (tragedy), but there’s no need for you to be sad either way because it was all meant to be.
• Comedic subplots may have no connection with the main story. If a connection isn’t obvious, don’t go looking.
• The point is escapism – watch the movie accordingly.

A few recommendations, in no particular order. I’ll add as I see good ones.

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge
Actually this one is in order. If you see only one Indian movie in your life it should probably be this one. It has absolutely everything an Indian movie should have, and it is touching, funny, charming, and accessible to everyone, even if you can’t get the subtitles to work. Masala movie.

Of course you won’t be seeing only one Indian movie in your life because there are too many good ones, so now, in no particular order (really):

Lagaan
Yes, it’s about cricket and taxes, yes, it’s a period piece, yes, there are song and dance numbers, and Lord yes, it’s almost four hours long, but you won’t care – it is excellent in every way and you will be better for having seen it.

Omkara
An interpretation of Othello, and a very good one. Not a masala movie (thank goodness).

Rang De Basanti
Not sure that “like” is the correct word, but this is a compelling movie; it’s unlike most of what’s out there, and it’s very well done.

Main Hoon Na
I love this movie. It’s self-aware and very funny. My not-Indian mum and dad called at intermission, actually choking on laughter. Ultra-masala movie.

Kal Ho Naa Ho
I love/hate this movie. Let me explain. I hate emotional manipulation. This movie is about emotional manipulation, it uses emotional manipulation, and you can see the emotional manipulation coming from miles off. And it still made me cry. It’s lovely, and I am not a sap, damn it. Masala movie for the NRI set.

Yuva
Interesting story, interesting construction, excellent performances. The first part leads up to the central event from three radically different perspectives; the second part carries forward with those three paths intertwined. If Abhishek Bachchan’s stone cold thug doesn’t freak you out you’re made of sterner stuff than I am. Only a masala movie because it had to be so people would watch.

Taare Zameen Par
Didactic, but moving, and beautiful to look at besides. Ostensibly the topic is dyslexia (learning disabilities are generally not acknowledged or accommodated in India), but beyond that it’s about nurturing children who don’t fit into their parents’ expectations, and nurturing those who don’t fit into society’s expectations. So, pretty much everyone needs to see it.

If you look into these you’ll find that most of them star either Shahrukh Khan or Aamir Khan, and there’s a reason for it. I got my first recommendations from a group of colleagues who, unbeknownst to me, were ardent fans of Shahrukh Khan. I just figured he was in everything ever made (and he is, kind of – he’s also a spokesperson for a huge number of brands in India, so he’s on billboards, in magazines, and on TV all the time). On finding out my skewed viewing, another set of colleagues raised hue and cry, “no no you must see these instead, much better,” so I ended up with a list of movies all starring Aamir Kahn. It seems fans of the one can’t stand the other, and vice versa. I don’t know. I’ve seen as many movies starring each of them that I’ve liked. And maybe I’ll do a “life’s too short” list sometime – they’ll be equally represented there too.

For cinephiles, here are Zulm.net’s choices for all time best Indian movies.

Just because I'm adoring Shahrukh today, here’s the famous dancing-on-a-moving-train item number. (From Dil Se, which is beautiful, disturbing, and not a typical masala movie.)

  • Page Updated Feb 1, 2009
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