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Critics, on critics, in their own words
Bolly Woods

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December 06, 2007 15:32 IST

My last column was an epiphany of sorts.

I've always considered myself more of a 'film critic' than a 'film-goer'; in my mind, the difference is that after seeing a film -- any film -- I tend to write down my thoughts, test it against my recall of the film, and if the movie arrests attention for any reason (on some occasions, it is because I still can't bring myself to believe it could be so bad) I watch it again, and match it against my first impressions. (Thank me, please, for not inflicting the results of all that scribbling on you).

Lately, however, as I indicated in my columns, I've taken to wondering if this business of film-criticism (at least in India) has gotten out of hand; if the tail has in fact begun to wave the dog.

All of this prompted that column; it in turn triggered a flood of responses -- including some very detailed, extensive, well thought out mails on the subject of critics and the state of film criticism in the country today.

The responses were varied, but there were some common threads, common questions that ran through them all. These I condensed into a questionnaire and mailed out to three of the young, upcoming critics operating in the media today; I chose them because they are in the vanguard of the future and hence (at least so I thought) it was more relevant to get their views.

Mayank Shekhar has been busy with whatever it is he gets busy with and hasn't had the time to respond; the other two critics I emailed were kind enough to take time out. Raja Sen writes for Rediff and on this forum, should need no introduction.

The other respondent is Baradwaj Rangan, film critic of the New Indian Express and winner of the national award this year for critics. You will find a compendium of his reviews on his blog -- all of them well thought out and extremely well articulated.

So: critics on critics, in their own words; once I get your responses to this, I hope to compile the more interesting of your letters into a column, and move on to other subjects. Here goes:

1. Much of film criticism in India appears to be paint-by-numbers: Summarize the plotline, toss off a few adjectives about the acting, script, cinematography, music and direction, garnish with cute lines and serve up ad infinitum. Is that a fair assessment of film criticism as it exists? If yes, why does it get perpetuated and if not, why is that assessment unfair?

Baradwaj Rangan: Well, it depends on how you define "criticism." If you're simply talking about the print equivalent of the opinion of an office colleague (or a friend or a neighbor) who has seen the film -- the so-called "word of mouth" -- then I don't see why film criticism (as defined in the question) is a problem. This is, after all, how most people make their viewing decisions. And very frankly, with the niggardly amounts of space allotted to reviews, what else can you expect?

But if the purpose of criticism is to deliver an informed point of view -- regardless of box-office fates, or whether the masses or the classes will like it -- then you need people who are (1) good writers, who are (2) passionate about cinema, and who can therefore (3) present the film through the prism of *their* viewing experience. So what we're talking here isn't some kind
of oracular, objective judgment, but an extremely subjective call on the film, dealing with the following: did the film work for YOU, and if so why (and if not, why not)?

Unfortunately, most people do not see reviews that way, and they want the reviewer to tell them if THEY will like the movie or not. They want one person sitting somewhere to decide whether they should go to the film. And that's where the piece-by-piece evaluation (performances, photography, etc.) comes in, instead of an overall depiction of the film in question (because these are easy checkmarks against which viewing decisions can be made).

Raja Sen:  I don't entirely agree. If there exists one common thread running through all the Bollywood criticism out there right now, it's utter inconsistency. There might not be many good critics per se but -- while it is true a few trade analysts do feel the story is better told by copy-pasting words directly from the producers' note -- there is increasingly a breed of critics trying to sound clever. Be it (mis)quoting The Bard when reviewing a Priyadarshan [Images] remake, most new critics are trying to get noticed. For better or far worse.

2. How do you define, for yourself, the role of a film critic? What is -- or should be -- his relevance to the world of cinema?

BR: I've talked about this in (1). About relevance to the world of cinema, he or she is just another person with just another opinion -- but, hopefully, he or she has been exposed to enough films and can make his/her engagement with the film an interesting read (which may trigger, in the reader, an impulse to go watch the film).

RS: Well, I think the word 'critic' is certainly bandied about too liberally. The critics' role is that of elucidation, of looking at a film and summarily discussing it. The discourse is simply one of informed opinion mixed with technical analysis. The critics' role is to inspire debate and provoke thought about the existing art form, to place it within context. And the finest critics are those who entertain, verbal prestidigitators whose very criticism is art by itself.

3. Is there a process you follow, when you set out to review a film? Do you take notes while the film is on (I've seen reviewers in the US do this, with illuminated pens), or do you mentally absorb it all and later refine your observations into the review proper?

BR: Nope, no illuminated pens. (Do you even get these over here?) There's no "process" as such, but I may scribble something about the first half during intermission (a line of dialogue, say), and later run the film through my head to see what I feel like talking about.

RS: I'm not one for the taking-notes-in-darkened-theatre school of thought, simply because I don't feel that's what the audience does. You head into a film, let it wash over you and seep into you, according to its own strength. Take it as it comes. If there is a point that seems vital enough to jot down but doesn't enter your head in the eventual reckoning when you're hammering away at the keyboard, chances are it wasn't pertinent enough -- at least not enough to leave a lasting impression.

Akshay Kumar in Bhool Bhulaiyya4. A common criticism leveled against film reviewers is that they are completely out of touch with audience tastes. As evidence, readers point to the number of films that have been critically panned but went on to become blockbusters, and also those films critics have raved about that have died stillborn on the marquee. Which brings up the question: should the critic be a mirror of public opinion, or is this divergence between critical appreciation and public opinion (as reflected in the box office) a good thing? Why?

BR: The critic is also a part of the audience, and should therefore be open to all kinds of films. But what a critic looks for in a film may be different from what an audience looks for. In any case, I think divergence is good. It's always interesting to read a contrarian opinion, provided it is well-thought-out and well-written.

RS: Ah, the Meet The Fockers/ Bhool Bhulaiyya argument. Well, I think it's perfectly acceptable for a critically panned film to do superbly -- opinion is opinion and no critics' take is any worthier than any ticket-buyer's, sure. Also, I don't believe anybody should ideally decide to watch a film based on a review -- although I do that too, with critics I trust. One has to, because of the sheer numbers of films heading out and the consequent need to select the ones you will make time for. Thing is, there will never be a critic you will always agree with. I enjoy reading certain critics even though our opinions might not match at all, because that brings me a different viewpoint.

The question of audiences versus critics is bigger than that, though: it is the question of populist cinema and commercialisation vs aesthetics. I think both are entirely exclusive of each other, and shouldn't even be thought of in the same breath. Barton Fink swept all the top awards at Cannes [Images] in 1991 (the only film ever to), yet couldn't recover its meager cost of production in the US. Ah, phooey.

5. Increasingly, readers seem to believe that critics are in the pay of the bigger movie houses, and that their reviews are hence not unbiased. Is that a criticism you have faced? Do you have any thoughts on why readers feel that way? Is there a way critics can, like Caesar's wife, be seen to be above suspicion?

BR: I haven't faced this, but then I work out of Chennai -- far, far away from the hubs of Bollywood. But even so, "bias" need not come in only because of studio pressure. There is always an element of bias because you may not care for a particular genre of film and may therefore not be able to engage with it the way a fan of that genre does. Or your fondness for an actor may tide you over a film that a non-fan of that actor may find unbearable. Critics aren't deities sitting atop Mount Olympus, you know. They're just people -- only more opinionated, (and hopefully) more articulate.

RS: Yes, indeed. I'm frequently accused of being Shah Rukh Khan's [Images] lover, a Yash Raj hack, a Shah Rukh basher, a Bhansali saboteur, an Amitabh [Images] employee, and so forth. I think the reason for this is because such scattershot allegations leveled against critics you don't like turn out genuine with alarming frequency. I'm sure all of us can name -- but won't, tut-tut -- certain critics clearly nicer to or against certain banners and certain stars, and the outraged masses are only too glad to assign blame whenever they see dissent.

Shah Rukh Khan in DonAs for Caesar's wife, she had a pretty sweet deal, eh? No, I doubt we can ever be above ground totally, that's a work hazard. Anyway, I think any reader with a modicum of sense will check the reviewer out for signs of consistency and currying favor -- if you consider me SRK-sponsored because of my OSO review, for instance, go back and read my KANK and Don reviews. Much obliged. 

All in all, there will be readers who connect with you based on a series of interactions with you, readers who know your work and your taste and then decide just how to consume your opinion. These are the readers who'll like you, and -- in my case they will be completely drowned out by -- the ones who loathe you. Write being true to yourself, and then let the people come. Or not.

6. Could you name your three most favorite reviewers (Indian, international, whatever) and give reasons for each pick?

BR: There are far too many to name, but the Time magazine reviewers -- Richard Corliss and Richard Schickel -- are always a joy to read. They write so elegantly.

RS: Stephanie Zacharek, of Salon: A gifted writer with a superb turn of phrase, her reviews often shed new light -- especially after you've seen the film.

David Denby, of The New Yorker: Sure, he kills mostly everything. There's a refreshing anti-tide lack of conformism with him, and the ones he likes are usually astonishing films.

Roger Ebert, of The Chicago Sun-Times: The charmer is back, writing prolifically as ever. God bless Ebert, possibly the most read critic in the world. We might not agree on films (it's getting worse and worse) but I love the authority and self-belief that comes through in his writing.

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