The growing disconnect: Reviewing the reviewing process
How do people like the very film critics hate? Or why do critics hate the very films people love?
The answers I often get include: “Because they are smarter,” “Because they have a more refined taste,” “Their sensibility is elitist,” “Because critics often look down upon popular or what’s low brow”.
Let me speak for myself.
I don’t have a refined taste. I like all kinds of cinema. Including sex comedies. Okay, especially sex comedies.
I am not elitist. At least not consciously. But when I watch a fat guy with his pants down drop a turd in the very first scene of a film, I am not amused. Not because it’s dirty but because it’s lazy filmmaking.
Almost like: “I want to make them laugh no matter what, so let me make him fart/burp/fall/slap/drop a turd/get slapped by monkey/have his bum bitten off by a crocodile/crotch bitten by a snake…” Anyone who has watched physical comedies churned out by Bollywood knows I am not exaggerating. All of this has happened in the last 2-3 years.
I do not think critics are smarter. Yeah, maybe they think more about films and structure more than the average Joe does but that doesn’t make us any smarter. If at all anything, that sort of thinking actually sets critics at a disadvantage. Because that’s not how regular people watch movies.
Maybe because many critics do not review the film AFTER it’s done. Maybe because we are reviewing the film WHILE watching it. Some make notes, some live-tweet, punch away key points in their phones or scribble in the dark. I must admit here that I have done quite a bit of my reviewing that way and have often wondered if that’s really fair. So I try to switch off and watch the film like anybody in the cinema does.
Yes, these days I don’t think about what I am going to write when I go to watch the film. I don’t analyse or think about it scene by scene. I don’t deconstruct it because it ruins the experience for me completely. I surrender. Even if I have been adequately warned about how horrible the film’s going to be.
And I have been genuinely surprised by how much more I have enjoyed films when I don’t put my critic’s hat on WHILE watching the film. The hat comes on only when I sit down to type the review. Yes, there have been times I have wished I had taken down notes or pieces of dialogue but I have learnt to tell myself that if it was worth remembering, I would remember it anyway. If it wasn’t, why bother quoting it in the review?
Over 90 per cent of the films that find theatrical release are not made for festivals. They are made to sell popcorn. They are not “Find the loophole,” “Spot the continuity,” “Guess the logic” exercises for critics that they often turn out to be because many of us take our jobs very seriously WHILE watching the film. If the filmmaker didn’t make films to be consumed shot by shot, what is the point of such elaborate deconstruction and putting the technical aspects under a microscope? It’s not a shot breakdown classroom exercise. It’s not a synopsis writing competition. It’s not a story retelling contest. But the presence of a deadline has changed the game. Critics are expected to have an opinion on the film by the time we step out of the theatre, put it up in 140 characters and rate it out of 5 stars or 10 so that people know if the film’s good or not.
And it’s a thankless job. If you rate something higher than what everyone has, you are nicer and kinder and have lost your fangs as a critic. If you don’t rate it as much as everyone has, you are this bitter frustrated critic with an agenda. If you are on the fence, the reader does not know any more at the end of your review than he did before he read it. Or so I am told. I find these conclusions annoying. People fight over ratings like they are the ultimate yardstick of quality. Despite the fact that I try to remind my readers that ratings are never an indication of how good or bad the film is, they are only an indication of how much the critic liked the film. And if I have also told them that if they want to read reviews they agree with, maybe they should write and read their own reviews.
It’s very easy to write negative reviews, dismiss films and I do that too when the film does nothing for me. I must confess that I find doing that boring. As any rookie critic can tell you, a negative review is the easiest to write. As any experienced critic can tell you, negative reviews always get more attention from the readers than the positive ones. It’s like readers derive this sadistic pleasure when a film is ripped into shreds for all the money those rich and famous have taken from us, the struggling class.
Besides, bitching comes naturally to most of us. But I must set on record here that I rather type out 3000 passionate words about a film that really worked for me than a bitchy 600 word review on a film I didn’t. And no, it’s NOT because I am a filmmaker. It’s because I love movies. All kinds of them.
I have always believed that movies are like parties where you meet people. The characters you meet don’t have to be perfect to be loved. You might meet someone obnoxious to everyone but nice to you at the same time. Or you might meet someone who is nice to everyone but ticks you off. You might meet someone rich but stingy. Or someone poor and yet generous. Someone great looking but shallow or someone ugly but kind. You might meet people who do not speak your language but appeal at a deeply personal level or speak your language but do not connect with you at any level…
So how exactly do you judge these people or the parties you meet them? Action by action, word by word, WHILE meeting them?
If you were to review people/parties as you review films live. Your thoughts at a party meeting a stranger would go somewhat like this: “Oh! Look what he’s wearing. Great, now he’s saying a joke. Someone is actually laughing. He’s reaching to get himself a drink. Now, he just spilled some. How clumsy. He’s looking at me and trying to make a conversation… He said Asterisk instead of Asterix. Wait, is it Asterix or Asterisk? His English is so bad. His accent is funny. He’s coloured his hair today. Let me quickly jot down that funny sounding line… Hang on, I think I just got a text.”
Or you could actually let your hair down, laugh with him, pour yourself a drink and live the moment in its entirety and reserve your judgement on him until the party is over.
A film like the one that released this week, Housefull is like that obnoxious drunk who makes sure everyone at the party has a great time. People used to quiet evenings of wine-tasting may find such behaviour low-brow and crude while people who were looking to just drink and laugh out loud silly may find themselves like a fish out of water at a wine-tasting.
It’s no secret that many of our critics prefer the wine-tasting. Why is it that as critics, we are expected to be the connoisseurs of fine art and look down upon the popular fun stuff? “How can someone who made GNGM actually like Housefull 2?” someone wondered aloud. Another wondered what have I been smoking to sing praises of Housefull 2. I didn’t exactly sing praises but who gives a shit? They read a couple of positive lines in between all the criticism and conclude that I have lost it. Why this gross intolerance of the B-movie genre? Do we hate Housefull 2 because it collected 45 crores in the opening weekend? Or do we hate these people who have made it a hit and think they are all idiots?
Dude, if I like it, I like it. What am I supposed to do? Apologise for my taste?
If I went for a wine-tasting, I would surely pay more attention to taste. But if I am at a beer-guzzling contest, I am just going to sit back and cheer or walk away if I am not in the mood or if I don’t like the crowd.
It’s sort of become cool to troll filmmakers like Sajid Khan especially after they have been candid enough to say they don’t care about critics. I know people who complain of how torturous Housefull 2 was but stayed till the end of the end credits to laugh at the gags. If that’s not hypocrisy, what is? Shouldn’t you have made a run for the door when you got the chance?
Critics run down most physical comedies and these comedies have now started to boast being disapproved by critics as a sure stamp of coolness. Take a look at this Kya Super Cool Hai Hum Trailer.
This disconnect is a rather dangerous sign.
Does this mean critics are losing track of the very people they are writing the reviews for? The intellectual elite needs to share the blame for this. They are too many of these pure-cinema lovers on Twitter and Facebook while a majority of the audience for our Hindi films is far away from these platforms. I see more and more critics and movie buffs bonding over bashing B-cinema in general. Anyone who approves of escapist entertainment is fast becoming an outcast on social media.
Yes, it maybe futile to expect an Anees Bazmee to make an original film or a David Dhawan to make an offbeat film or Ram Gopal Verma to find his form back but unless we give them a fair chance, how will we know? They may be really rotten individuals, arrogant and spiteful of the media, but it’s not our duty, business or priority to hate them back (though I must admit trolling them is fun). But when it comes to evaluating their work, shouldn’t we just keep the focus on the film that’s out? How many of us can really say we’ve been fair to the B-movie guys? If we have decided that B-movies are the scum of the industry, why bother reviewing them? Isn’t it like stating the obvious once you’ve made your choices well-known? “I hate B-movies. So this B-movie sucks.”
I have liked films made by some of the slimiest people from the film industry and hated films made by some of the nicest. As a reviewer, I am employed for my opinion and I make sure you get to read it. If I like something, I make it a point to explain why I like it and if I don’t, I tell you why I didn’t.
You may like it exactly for the same reasons I hated it or hate it for the same reasons I liked it. My duty is to tell you what kind of experience I had with it.
Based on that, you decide if you will like that experience. I have gone skydiving, I am going to say it was great to experience a few seconds of pure unadulterated stomach churning fear and free-falling helplessness. Whether you want to skydive or not depends on how you feel about facing fear or feeling helpless.
If you are reading reviews that tell you in great detail about how painful or torturous the film was, you may want to check what exactly about the film hurt the critic that much. You may just want to watch it exactly for those reasons. Your Mom may not approve of beer because you could get drunk and not know what you are doing. You may want beer because you want to get drunk.
Ultimately, it’s about making that educated choice. I believe that my job is to leave that choice to my reader and not tell him/her what to do.
As I have often said in my interactions with students, a critic shouldn’t be arrogant enough to assume he’s the judge delivering the verdict. He’s at best an advocate fighting for or against it, presenting his arguments for or against, for the consideration of the reader to judge for himself.
Of late, I have realised that this process of evaluation itself needs to be reviewed because of the disconnect critics seem to have with the audience these films are meant for. I am not saying my approach is right and yours is wrong. There’s no one way to review art. But it helps to understand why we review and who are we doing it for.
Do we really understand what our readers want? Or do we think we know what’s good for them?