Friday, November 8, 2013

Critique on Movie Criticism

In the past few days, my assumption that the Earth stops rotating on its axis if I do not log into Twitter for a reasonable amount of time was shredded apart like a, like a, well, like a controversial tweet by Narendra Modi . I logged into Twitter after quite a long time yesterday, to see if there is any netizen who missed my presence. Finding none, I diverted my mind by looking at the various twitter outrages that I had been unfortunate to miss. The one that caught my eye had to do with a Chennai-based Radio Jockey. If you know Tamil, you must have heard of RJ Balaji, or rather heard RJ Balaji. Known for his irreverent, humorous and often intelligent quips on everything under the Sun, he is one of the most famous RJs in the country (more so now). He is also known for his show titled "120 rubayum", where he discusses movies and the returns they give for his investment on the movie ticket.

This show - which is very popular with his fans (who love it), and most of the film fraternity (who hate it) - usually involves RJ Balaji dishing out movies with enviable sarcasm and wit. Not for the first time, his review of a movie drew so much ire from the film fraternity that they allegedly threatened and forced him to completely shut-down the show. Having already revived from the show after stopping his reviews for similar reasons once, the RJ decided to end the show permanently this time - once again. Summing up the situation in a few tweets RJ Balaji announced made this announcement. Here are his exact words
"Ok here it goes. I am a normal guy who wants to do good wrk everyday n go home happy. I can't really handle the aftermath of evry show on films. After lot of thought, have decided not to speak bout films until there's tolerance and maturity among certain ppl from film fraternity. Which is most unlikely to happen, so 120 show is no more. Sorry to all those who liked it. Can't be dishonest to d work I do. I will rather stop talking bout films than to speak sugar coated pleasing lies. (sic)"
As a cliched cricket commentator would say, the situation was tailor-made for free-speech champions to make an entry. While it is always amusing to see these self-declared activists go gaga over some free speech issue (often in response to some poor guy who implied something he wasn't trying to. So much for HIS free speech), what stood out was the response of film critics themselves.

Here is an article posted on a F.I.G.H.T C.L.U.B. I quote from the article :
"People are not always right in recognising good cinema which is why we need critics sometimes to point them in the right direction. We need someone to be the bad guy and say the truth out aloud that this film stinks, go watch the other one."
Eh? Really? Don't people have the right to decide what they want and what they like? As a normal movie watcher, am I expected to like something simply because a critic says it is "good". How do you define good and bad movies? I have always been under the assumption that cinema is a personal journey, and every single person has something different to take out from every movie ever made.

This is not the first time that the Indian movie critics' fraternity (if there is such a thing) has responded like this. My one-time favorite reviewer Sudish Kamath defended Kamal Hassan's Vishwaroopam thus. I quote from the article 
"When everyone is a critic, the art of criticism becomes even more significant. At the risk of sounding condescending/patronising, I must say here that the average Joe hasn’t been exposed to the basics of criticism or film studies. He reacts on an instinct, like a child getting his first injection saying: “I don’t like it. It was a bad experience.”
The average Joe probably hasn’t understood why willing suspension of disbelief” is such an integral aspect of storytelling, an artistic licence that allows the filmmaker to tell stories that are larger than life.
Which is why while he has every right to crap over everything he has paid to watch and troll anyone who does not agree with him, these shouldn’t be taken seriously for the same reason that critics shouldn’t be taken too seriously either. What you need to consider is the criticism – the arguments – why is it good or why is it bad."
I don't think so. A movie is an instant experience. There are exceptions of course, I watched the Pulp Fiction, read about it, and had to re-watch again until I started falling in love with the movie. On the other hand, movies I watched as a child and liked instinctively like Ratchagan, Badshah, Thanga Magan, Siva, Dosth were among the best movies ever made in my opinion at that time, and though I laugh at the mindlessness of these movies today, I can't stop loving them. Any "structure" defined by a movie critic is arbitrary. A film, like any book written by Salman Rushdie, can break all these structural inhibitions, and still connect profoundly with the audience.

Which brings me to the question, how relevant are professional movie critics today? I seriously believe Indian movie reviewers (even the non-professional ones) need to grow up (but for a few exceptions, like Baradwaj Rangan and Raja Sen). As a reviewer, simply dishing out movies just because they do not meet the artistic expectations of the critic is unacceptable. Some reviewers even go to the extent of judging fans of movies they don't like. What? You are a Salman Khan fan? You must be an idiot then. In their defense, a common argument thrown by critics is that since movies are made with a commercial intention, is should be open to criticism. 

Absolutely. But there is an inherent inconsistency in this argument. The success of a movie is decided by the lay audience alone, and once they decide, there is no point in passing judgments. It is foolish to think that we are above the common audience. And when so called artistic movies released commercially flop at the box office, these critics blame the audience for not being mature enough. In a commercial environment, good products are bound to fail at times. Instead of blaming the consumers, market it well and try again. As critics, please decide if a movie is a piece of art or entertainment. If it is a piece of entertainment, it better entertain. If it is art, it is only for the elite.

There is also a vague question of biased reviews. While critics claim that there is no way they can get rid of their biases, they can always try to reduce the effects of these biases. I can point to two specific instances by my most favorite (as of today) film critic, Rangan. In the first instance, reviewing Aadukalam (to declare my bias, it stars my favorite actor Dhanush), he mentions that letting two men go at each other like roosters is too literal, and is downright silly. In his review of Raavan, he misses the fact that Govinda (Karthick in the Tamil version) portraying the character of Hanuman is introduced as he skips between trees. In the second instance, I missed watching out the wonderful Vazhakku En 18/9 after reading one of Rangan's most caustic reviews. His main point of contention against the movie is that it has no characters with gray shades - everyone from a city is bad and everyone from a village is good. The same holds true for Raavan too, where every single police office is evil-at-heart, while every single naxalite is good-at-heart.

As movie audience, we need to be careful while interpreting the opinions of critics. While critics may help in getting a second opinion, the first opinion should always be ours. If we like a movie, we like it. There need not be any explanation or justification (the only useful purposes such justifications serve us non-critics are in helping us write blog posts and FB notes). Some movies are pieces of art, but the primary purpose of a movie is to entertain (be it at an visceral, visual, or intellectual level). Critics call a "badly made" entertaining movie a guilt pleasure. I wonder if there is any reason to be guilty about enjoying such a movie.

Just to make it clear, I do not support the suppression of RJ Balaji's opinions, despite their causticity. I used to be a fan myself, until he generously reviewed Theeya Vella Seiyanum Kunaru, a movie in which he played a minor role. It is the response of film critics themselves that I am concerned with. If I were a movie director, and didn't like a reviewer's opinion of my movie, I would simply write a critique on the criticism, instead of forcing the reviewer to quit.

PS : I tried conveying similar ideas in a previous blog post, and failed miserably in elucidating what I wanted to say. The responsibility rests with the readers of the blog (an endangered and soon-to-be extinct species) to understand it fully this time, and prevent another blog post from me with the same idea.

My 2022 in books

We are already into the new year, but I did not want to give up on what has now become my little routine - a summary of all the books I rea...