WHY GO TO all the trouble of making a film about Indian culture if you're going to call it Masala? You might as well demand that all French comedies be called A String of Onions. However many prejudices get kicked out of the window (and Masala is alive and kicking), the title simply lets all the old cliches in the back door. A pity, for although this is a bad film, it's never boringly bad - just garish and tangled, like a teenager's bedroom.
The writer, director and star is Srinivas Krishna, who was born in India but raised in Canada. This gives him the barb for his movie, set among Indian immigrants in Toronto, in which people are torn from their roots but pleased by the chance to break new ground - 'you know I don't speak that gibberish,' retorts the young hero when asked to talk in Hindi. Krishna plays a character imaginatively named Krishna, who gets all the big images to himself - blood on the face, sex on the floor, a long gaze at a perfect sky. But he lacks the courage of his own hubris: cinema has seen a lot of moody rebels come and go, which makes it hard to be impressed when crazy Krishna quits his job at a travel company. Oooh, the devil.
The whole movie resounds to these big, hollow gestures; you long for throwaway lines, but the cast hugs them to itself. The camera is allowed to sit and watch as the performers turn up the gas and blaze away. Take Krishna's friend Anil (Herj Johal), whose reactions range from surly to pop-eyed without ever going through normal. There's a promising thread of plot about an arranged marriage - Anil's certain doom - which kinks neatly when his intended proves to be of rare, indeed throat-constricting beauty; but he plays it like a gormless extra from Porky's or Animal House, and the irony slips out of sight.
The elders are hardly betters. The director knows that Zohra Segal has large reserves of shrewish charm as Grandma Tikkoo, and he won't let us forget it; hence a row of simpering close-ups, including the final shot. Nobody should be made to twinkle for that long. It's rather a relief when she suddenly snaps, 'a couple of thousand fucking dollars is all I ask'. What's more, she's talking to a television screen. Masala has one fabulous conceit going for it, which also happens to be heresy of the first degree: namely, that God is a video. The granny puts in a tape of Lord Krishna (yes, another Krishna), who listens to her prayers and promptly answers back.
The deity is one of three parts played in the film by Saeed Jaffrey: the others are a silk- mannered businessman (too obvious) and a ragged-nerved philatelist (much more interesting, and therefore drowned by the film). His Lord Krishna sticks out farthest, a lurid lawmaker queening it from his tacky throne in the clouds. There's a kind of mad Ken Russell spunkiness here, which would soon drain away were it not for the video touch. This allows the old woman to put God on pause, a lovely thought: who wouldn't want to have a go with the remote control - play his decrees at our leisure, fast-forward through the wrath, rewind to savour the highlights of his mercy?
It prepares us for the final shock, where he offers help to Sikh extremists, who throw it back in his rouged and crumpled face: 'Cut that pantheistic Hindu crap. Do you think that people still need you?' It's as rowdy and dull as most blasphemy, but polished with pathos as Lord Krishna then fades like fog before our eyes. Cinema has always gorged itself on wish- fulfilment, and here is a vicious secular update on Dorothy clicking her ruby slippers.
It's much too good for the rest of Masala, which is firmly grounded on this side of the rainbow. While quite liking the Canadian Mountie parking her horse on a meter, I suspect the same gag was also enjoyed by my grandfather. Still, that's not the oldest joke on show: there's even a banana skin, which suggests that Srinivas Krishna was leafing through too many comedy manuals during production. He was plainly uncertain what kind of debut to make and therefore tried to make them all, panicking between satire and hard grit, forgetting to introduce the characters properly (no manners, these kids). Needless to say, he's quite happy to hold up the action for a couple of musical sequences. These are made of cardboard aeroplanes, barging dancers and squeaky dubbing, as if to say: 'You don't really believe in this junk, do you?' In a word, no.
Over at the Barbican, by contrast, all manner of outrage is being made to look horribly plausible. The Luis Bunuel season, which continues until 20 August, covers his late amused period (as opposed to his angry young phase), from Diary of a Chambermaid to the wicked come-on of his final film, That Obscure Object of Desire. Perhaps the sharpest and most perfectly manicured of all is The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, made in 1972, a comedy of manners springing from the notion that manners themselves are a complete hoot.
The object of desire, for once, is quite clear: a group of wealthy friends wish to enjoy a good meal in peace. What could be easier? Almost anything, as it turns out, with Bunuel arranging a number of exquisite interruptions, and displaying not only scorn but genuine awe at his characters' well-bred refusal to complain. The glacial blonde, the bishop whose eyes narrow with perversity, the ambassador lugging coke from his diplomatic bag: we are spoiled by a full line-up of grotesques. I had forgotten just how spooky the dream scenes are; Bunuel could have been a master of horror, or a great farceur. As it was, he was simply Bunuel, which is cause enough for celebration.
'Masala' (18): Metro (071-437 0757); 'The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie' (15): Barbican (071-638 8891).