From a fistful of film reviewers in Mumbai’s prolific show town in the last millennium, today they have escalated into an incalculable number on various media platforms: websites, blogs, YouTube, Twitter and what techno-upsurge -have-you.
Right now, you’re lending them your eyes and ears. In fact broadly this ‘them’ is a vocal community that leaves nothing to the imagination, eyes or ears.
From weekend film reviews by a fistful of experts in the late 1960s and the‘70s –the most respected ones I read were Bikram Singh of Times of India, S.J. Banaji of Filmfare and Iqbal Masud of Indian Express.
Currently, cyberspace is chockful of a dizzying variety, temperaments and attitudes. The reviewers – form a phalanx of watchdogs on Bollywood’s prolific production of approximately two movies every Friday a year, discounting those stretching years of the Covid virus. Series and even lavishly cash-fuelled films were being premiered on streaming channels.
Around this juncture, critics began to matter. I don’t use the word ‘critics’ per se since a majority of opinions are not necessarily of a film’s quality, but quite discernibly of near- astrological trade predictions of what the stars foretell (or don’t) about a film’s impending fate with the captive audience at home and now, back at the multiplexes.
It is up to the readers to classify them as reviewers or critics. As Shyam Benegal has stated, “There’s a major difference between the two. There’s a thin line between reviewing and critiquing but it can be figured out by the discerning reader.”
Ever since the arrival of the Internet, anyone who watches a film is entitled to or is 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 a viewpoint. And why not? The more, infinitely the merrier. From the ones I’ve been familiar with Deepa Gehlot, Anupama Chopra, Shubhra Gupta, Raja Sen, Sukanya Varma and Ranjan Das. Plus, there are film historians who study Hindi cinema of the past, like Dhruv Somani and Karan Bali. Amrit Gangar has been detailing the narratives of Ritwik Ghatak and past masters. Deservedly, all the names cited have their loyal following.
Regardless, though, there is endemic cynicism from the filmmakers: what do these computer-pushers know anyway? Let the carping Cassandras carp, let them make a livelihood, a fun-one at our expense. Editor and filmmaker Pritish Nandy had once even suggested that reviews should be either ‘boycotted’ or published after a film’s first weekend.
Be that as it may, a newbie writer’s thrill is -- Imagine being paid to see the movies. Some of the seasoned reviewers, however, are more than likely to groan, “It’s taxing, like a janitor’s job to remove a rare gem from the garbage.”
Clearly, takes on cinema can range from the perceptive and the passionate to the patently amateurish. To be knighted with the title of ‘critic’, then, is from the vast number of readers’ prerogative.
In any case criticism: what’s this damn thing, as old as civilisation all about? Specifically, film criticism is praise for our product, insists show business. Recognition, understanding and constructive suggestions, say a few self-reflective film makers.
Like which filmmakers? Tough to recall right away…scratch the head…okay, may be the few who’re 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), Sriram Raghavan, Farhan Akhtar (I think), Hansal Mehta (ever since he turned to reality-culled cinema with Shahid), Ashutosh Gowariker (I hope), Amole Gupte, Rahul Dholakia, and…naah no one else.
The ones who bristle at the slightest nudge of fault-finding are, in my experience, Amitabh Bachchan, J.P.Dutta, Imtiaz Ali, Aditya Chopra, Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Akshay Kumar. So be it.
Still from Amar Akbar Anthony
That asserted, what do most film reviewers dream about in the multiplex of the mind? I’m out of the reviewing game for quite a while now and calmer for it. In retrospect though, 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 art 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. On websites and WhatsApp groups, though, it’s a must-do to end with a must-see, avoid and the rather vague ‘one-time watch’. Can’t be helped, that’s the demand of the medium of the millennium. On a personal note, I have had to capitulate to the new order, those on and off occasions I have felt to comment on a film or series is to just fall in line. If that’s a contradiction, that’s the way it is. No big deal.
For a year or three, I had attempted ‘Selfie’ reviews – on Facebook -- a visual facial expression --but it turned out to be an exhausting ritual. How many facial contortions can you possibly manage in a lifetime?
Coming to those star ratings – usually on a scale of one to five stars above a review—they 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, at the outset enforced by newspapers’ top managements around the mid-‘80s. The corporate logic was 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.
That apart, it’s not for a writer of any persuasion to do the reader’s thinking. It is far more important for the writer 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 two-three paras of plot summary, knee-jerk judgements -- this actor was bad, that one was good -- and an arbitrary recommendation for or against the film -- this kind of tic-tac-toe thinks for the reader, and is perfectly worthless.
Consolably, there is another kind of film reviewing in which the writer develops thought processes, as it were, behind glass so transparently that the reader can see how the mind, if I may say so, has engaged with the film, and arrived at conclusions.
This amounts 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 brotherly or sisterly act on the lines of, “We’re all alike and if I loved or hated it, so will you.”
Ideally, criticism is an invitation to thought and debate. Danger ahead: even with the best of intentions, journalistic perspectives cannot function in their most ideal form. Frequently, there isn’t enough time or space to develop views in sufficient depth, conviction and detail.
An insoluble occupational hazard that. Yet, in an imperfect world, the sincere reviewer strives to slog towards the imperfect best, outlining values and ideology between a review’s lines, which are hopefully secular, liberal, humanist and pardon the buzzword, tolerant. It’s vital to know where the reviewer 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 reviewer must confront all kinds of elements.
Indeed, he or she 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 Bhaijan or Jawan can be approached with the same amount of relish. Manmohan Desai and Billy Wilder, Raj Kapoor and Howard Hawks, can be anointed as auteurs in the same breath as Kieslowski and Tarkovsky. K. Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam can be viewed repeatedly, as much as Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. Believe it or quibble, we have various compartments in our minds 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 giving the viewer more than what was expected. Something not known, or known fully, or in that creative way before.
Artistic cinema flourished in the 1970s and ‘80s, despite its Herculean struggles. Without Ritwik Ghatak, Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, G. Aravindan, Kundan Shah, Ketan Mehta, Saeed Mirza and so many more, especially in different state languages, so many of our lives would be the less meaningful.
Also, a successful, pleasure-giving film entertainer is preferable to a failed work of art. “Says who?” I hear someone protesting out there. Says I, thinking and speaking for myself – but in such a way, that we can all profit equally from disagreement as from agreement.
Truly, that’s the test of valid writing on cinema. Instead of drawing easy consent or hysterical opposition -- namely ‘likes’ or trolls on the social media networking sites -- reviews can stimulate thought.
It should be a given for reviews to be independent and free. Alas, not always, and I suspect way less 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.
Khalid Mohamed is a Mumbai based film critic, screenwriter & filmmaker.