Objective film criticism is a myth in India

Film criticism in Bollywood is all about pleasing your friends, unlike Hollywood where if a critic is seen hobnobbing with any actor he is disqualified from the job of reviewing a film

Objective film criticism is a myth in India

Subhash K Jha

The producers of Bell Bottom, the film that is supposed to turn around the post-Covid theatre fortunes, in all their economic wisdom flew the Mumbai critics to Surat on a chartered flight, to view their precious film. The reason for their exceptional hospitality being the continuing lockdown of movie theatres in Maharashtra.

What I couldn’t understand is, why couldn’t the critics in Mumbai be shown the film at a private screening in the city itself ? Why fly them out of the city? And what could the poor critics do except respond to the producers’ generosity with generous 4-star reviews?

If the truth be told, Bell Bottom is a middling thriller: neither terrific enough to be considered anywhere near path breaking (Akshay has done a far better rescue thriller Airlift) nor awful enough to be dismissed as hokum. The truth about the merit of the film lies somewhere in-between. But film criticism in Bollywood and in India is all about pleasing your friends in the film industry.

Not so in Hollywood where if a critic is seen hobnobbing with any actor, he is disqualified from the job of reviewing a film. My favourite American critic Roger Ebert wrote fearlessly and scathingly all his life. In an infamous spat between Ebert and a filmmaker, the filmmaker wished cancer for Ebert after Ebert ripped his film apart. Looks like the filmmaker got his wish.

In India critics are just not taken seriously enough to be so viciously attacked. Earlier, there were rumours of disgruntled filmmakers chasing down offending critics after a bad review. But now who cares?

“Everyone has an opinion. Everyone who has a smart phone is a potential film critic,” quips my dear friend Sanjay Leela Bhansali.

He is right. I see faces on YouTube claiming to be giving expert opinions on new releases. Who are they? What gives them the authority to hold forth on cinema? Even the elite group of critics in Mumbai are nothing but a self-appointed group of cloistered opinion givers. They want audiences to believe they know cinema. When KRK gets millions of hits for his reviews, does it matter whether you know cinema or not?

I would say the cult of intolerance in Bollywood is responsible for the low standards of film criticism in India. If a publication or a portal gives a negative review to a film, the entire team from that publication/portal is boycotted from the film’s actors and technician’s media map.

So might as well be generous in your reviews. And please remember: if an actor or filmmaker tells you to be absolutely honest in your opinion, don’t take her seriously: it is only another way of soliciting praise. And if the actor says you are an “honest unbiased” critic, it means you just praised his film.

Got that? Now let’s move on to the next Covid-defying release. Where are the critics going this time?

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