An epidemic of film critics

Everyone who watches a film is entitled to an opinion. Some of them may or may not like the film. But can their opinion pass for ‘criticism’, asks the veteran film critic and filmmaker Khalid Mohamed

A still from Sardar Udham Singh
A still from Sardar Udham Singh

Khalid Mohamed

Rajinikanth’s action opus Annaatthe, Ram Madhvani’s Netflix thriller Dhamaaka and Shoojit Sircar’s Amazon Prime Video’s period biopic Sardar Udham have been either shredded to pieces or praised to the high heavens by the ever-growing tribe of reviewers.

Be that as it may, Annaatthe because of Rajinikanth’s booming-popularity as a mega-star has proved to be a money-spinner. Since Dhamaaka and Sardar Udham are on OTT platforms, if the channels are to be believed despite the naysayers, they have also drawn high viewership.

Pluralism in criticism has always been welcome. Yet over the decades, the specialised ‘art’ of reviewing films has become a free-for-all. From a fistful of film commentators in Mumbai in the last millennium, reviewers have escalated into an incalculable number on various media platforms. Indeed, a majority of the neo-reviews appear to be spreading knee-jerk responses.

From weekend film assessments by a fistful of pundits in the 1970s, today internet, blogs, radio, podcast and TV reviewers – of a dizzying variety, temperament and attitudes – form a phalanx of watchdogs on Bollywood’s prolific production of an average of two films every Friday every year. With the ongoing pandemic, these are largely being premiered on streaming channels.

The opinions are not related necessarily to a film’s quality per se, but are nearastrological predictions of what the stars foretell (or don’t) about a film’s impending fate at the ticket counter.

Anyone who watches a film feels entitled or compulsively possessed by the need to dash out an insta-review. No qualifications required. As in the arenas of politics, literature, the performing arts and fine-dining, it has become a cottage industry to express an opinion. And why not? The more, infinitely the merrier.

There has always been persistent cynicism from the filmmakers: what do these reviewers know anyway? Let the carping Cassandras carp, let them make a livelihood, a fun-one. Imagine being paid to see the movies. The more seasoned reviewers, however, are more than likely to groan back, “It’s taxing, like a janitor’s job to remove a rare gem from the garbage.”

In any case, what is criticism all about? Specifically, film criticism is praise for our product, insists show business at large. Recognition, understanding and constructive suggestions, say some of the selfreflective filmmakers.

Like who? The few exceptions who have been open to discussion and debate would comprise Shyam Benegal for sure, Ramesh Sippy (ever since he couldn’t quite top Sholay), Rajkumar Hirani (the lord preserve him), Farhan Akhtar (I think), Hansal Mehta (ever since he turned to reality-culled cinema with Shahid), Ashutosh Gowariker (I hope) and…naah no one else.

That asserted, what do most film reviewers dream about in the multiplex of the mind? I’d like to believe that we dream about reacting to films with emotion, honesty and with a certain individualism. We chase, often in vain, the ideal of illumination, persuasion, crystal clear thinking and writing.

The film industry is not to be indulged, any more than the filmmaker is to be told how he or she should make movies. The one would be dishonest, the other presumptuous. The public, the reader of film reviews is to be guided, certainly, but not in a simplistic manner. Criticism certainly isn’t a branch of the Consumers’ Guidance Society.

Those star ratings – on a scale of one to five stars above a review--are another story altogether. How to ‘starrify’ a movie is a pain in the neck, and worse. Like it or detest it, that dumbed-down chore, that ‘quickie’ indicator is mandatory. Those who venture forth to read the entire review below those galactic icons, in fact, deserve a certificate of bravery for their fortitude and patience.

The point is that it’s not for the critic of any persuasion to do the reader’s thinking. It is far more important for the critic to do his or her own thinking to share with the viewer. This may seem like a slight difference but all aspects considered, it is tremendous.

To offer a bit of plot summary, speedy judgments -- this actor was bad, that one was good -- and an arbitrary recommendation for or against the film -- this kind of criticism thinks for the reader, and is perfectly worthless.

Consolably, there is another kind of criticism in which the writer develops thought processes, as it were, behind glass so transparently that the reader can see how the critical mind engages the film, and arrives at conclusions.

This tantamounts to thinking aloud in public, which the reader can agree or disagree with, in part or in toto. It invites a dialogue. It is not a fatherly pointing index finger, neither an insider’s dope, nor a brother and sister act on the lines of, “We’re all alike and if I loved or hated it, so will you.”

Criticism should be an invitation to thought. Danger ahead: even with the best of intentions, journalistic criticism cannot function in its most perfect form. Frequently, there isn’t enough time or space to develop views in suffi-cient depth, conviction and detail. A classic occupational hazard that. Yet, in an imperfect world, the critic strives to slog towards conveying values and ideology between the lines, which are hopefully secular, liberal, humanist and pardon the buzzword, tolerant. It’s vital to know where the critic stands.

In Bollywood, where the vast majority of the product is still escapist entertainment rather than any broader form of cinema (artistic, aesthetic, socially observant), the critic must confront all kinds of elements.

Indeed, the critic must be equipped with a sliding scale, and be able to assess both entertainment and art on their distinctive merits. Pather Panchali, Satya, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Bajrangi Bhaijaan can be approached with the same amount of relish. Manmohan Desai and Billy Wilder can be anointed as auteurs in the same breath. Believe it or quibble, we have various compartments in our mind to host a variety of filmmakers and their accomplishments or the lack thereof.

We possess a forgiveness factor, too, ignoring the glitches and lapses, for the impact of the larger picture. And please, ‘art’ is not a dirty word. It is nothing to be frightened of either. It is in a sense, merely receiving more than what was expected: something not known, or known fully, or in that creative way before.

Also, a successful, pleasure-giving entertainer is preferable to a failed work of art. “Says who?” I hear someone protesting out there. Says this critic, thinking and speaking for himself – but in such a way, that we can all profit equally from disagreement as from agreement.

In criticism it’s a given to be independent and free. Alas, not always, and lesser so of late. To recall a typical instance: An editor once looked at me accusingly in the eye and huffed, “Hey, my gym trainer loved the film. Why didn’t you?”

Maybe because I’m not a gym trainer.

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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