Review of Reviewers

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They’re so busy panning films and filmmakers that they never consider what the objects of their easy scorn make of their opinion. No easy star ratings for them either

Towards the end of November 2004, an Indian blog pointed out that a film critic of The Times of India had lifted direct sentences while reviewing the animation film Shark Tales. To the blogger it was plagiarism, but in truth the reviewer had made it clear that they were not her lines. But instead of naming the person—a reputed American film critic of Chicago Sun-Times Roger Ebert—whose sentences she lifted, she turned one person into many. ‘Critics say…’ she wrote, before repeating entire sentences and opinions of Ebert. It remains a puzzling affair. Why would anyone use another’s opinion in one’s opinion piece? Either the reviewer had not seen the movie or had no opinion of her own, which in her chosen profession can be a little bit of a disadvantage. Ironically, other than a few murmurs on the web, it did not make any difference to the reviewer, newspaper or film industry.

While there are hundreds of reviewers, the film industry is only anxious about seven-eight mainstream critics; the rest are mere frills. But this surfeit of opinion becomes a convenient excuse for not taking any review seriously if it goes against the film. As actor Ajay Devgn once said, “I know critics are important, but do you know there are some 400 critics today? Every channel, there are two people discussing films when they don’t even understand film-making. You’re harming someone’s business, career; a producer could have put in all his life savings. It’s not fair. There has to be some kind of qualification before you become a critic.” Others have said the same thing less delicately. “Why don’t you try to make a film if you’re so good at pointing out what’s wrong with it?” one brash star belligerently asked of reviewers.

It’s not just in India. All over the world, critics and filmmakers have had uneasy relationships. When Hollywood comic Rob Schneider attacked Los Angeles Times critic Patrick Goldstein over his comedy Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, he argued that Goldstein was unqualified because he had never won a Pulitzer Prize. Roger Ebert came to Goldstein’s defence against Schneider. He said he was a Pulitzer Prize-winner and “Your movie sucks.”

Filmmakers do have a point that reviewers have no qualification for what they do. Practically every features writer at a newspaper or magazine feels competent to do it. The sole qualification that most reviewers possess is that they like to watch movies and have seen lots. A few would have done a film appreciation course. Ratings are completely subjective—which is alright. But every critic also has a firm idea of what good cinema is, and there would be a sea separating that from Bollywood’s output, crafted mostly by the dictates of economics. Which is why some in the industry feel shortchanged. All they do is make entertaining masala films or slapstick comedies. Singh Is Kinng and No Entry director Anees Bazmi, Billu and Khatta Meetha director Priyadarshan and Kambakkht Ishq producer Sajid Nadiadwala, apart from actors Akshay Kumar and Salman Khan, fall squarely in this category.

At one press conference, Salman venomously made digs at a couple of senior critics, insinuating that movies they recommended were such flops that they went straight to DVD. The most vocal in this bunch of critic haters is TV host-turned-director Sajid Khan. He does parodies on critics at award functions, mangling their names in qawwalis or taking potshots at their reviews. In interviews before his movie Housefull this year, he stated, “Every time I step out to make a film, I do it for that 90 per cent worldwide audience which loves Hindi films. Yes, I know that there are the 10 per cent—the pseudo-intellectual people who like slow, boring, insignificant and non-entertaining films. But then for me, cinema is only about entertainment.”

Sometimes it is not just the reviewer but newspaper policies which determine how the opinion is shaped. For years until the early 2000s, a filmmaker would have to try really hard to get a kind, non-sarcastic word out of The Times of India’s critic Khalid Mohamed. After he shifted jobs, the newspaper went to the opposite extreme. It almost seems paranoid about offending filmmakers. Rarely does any film get below two stars.  Or take the case of DNA newspaper. It has outsourced its film reviews to the owner of a trade magazine. He was replaced a couple of months ago with the owner of another trade magazine. A trade magazine essentially provides information about the business that movies do, upcoming launches, etcetera. Mainstream newspapers will not shut shop if the Hindi film industry stops advertising; trade magazines will. Also, a lifetime of tracking box office numbers does little for one’s ability to analyse a movie. At one stroke, both objectivity and competence are called into question by such an appointment.

Another factor which comes into play while reviewing reviews are the many hats that critics wear. More than one film critic also heads his newspaper’s features department, which reports news and gossip on the film industry. By that necessity, they have to build relationships with actors and filmmakers at different levels. Take the story of a Bollywood action film director, known for his tendency to steal plots from Hollywood and other international cinema. He owns one of the most enviable DVD collections in Mumbai. During an interview just before his new movie, he chatted with a film critic and recommended that she watch Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman and Hollywood producer Robert Evans’ autobiographical documentary The Kid Stays In The Picture. “Keep them as long as you want,” he said, “These are films you must see.” Next week, after the critic panned his new film for being a Korean rip-off, the director called the critic. “Can I have my DVDs back?” he said coldly, without so much as a greeting.

Directors, actors and producers share a love-hate relationship with critics. They woo them in rosy courtship before a movie release, and it’s a happy marriage if the film receives generous stars. When it doesn’t, the accusations, swearing or cold war sets in. ‘I didn’t expect this from a friend. You attacked my baby,’ directors are known to message critics the day reviews appear. Others rubbish critics, pointing out how audiences are rushing to watch their films despite bad reviews. Some filmmakers go for the silent treatment: once fast friends, they walk past a critic after a bad review as if they’re complete strangers. A few years ago, a couple of directors even threatened two critics with bodily harm after nasty reviews.

Though they rarely go on record, most of Bollywood feels that reviews can be bought. “It’s actually true,” points out a young director who has only flirted with success, “A couple of leading publications and film trade guys do end up doing business over their reviews. You can buy a three- or four-star rating.” Big-league actors gossip over how some reviewers are on the payroll of heavyweight producers, or how others curry favour with star producers like Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Akshay Kumar, Saif Ali Khan, Hrithik Roshan, Abhishek Bachchan, Karan Johar and Farhan Akhtar, just so that they have greater access to them.

Reviewers in India are also closet filmmakers. Khalid Mohamed actually made the switchover. He made Fiza in 2000 while still a reviewer. It did reasonably well, but the industry never forgave him for all the years of sarcasm he had thrown at it. His film career petered out.

Other reviewers, not even half as successful as Mohamed in getting a foot into filmmaking, get mocked for trying. Ram Gopal Varma reviews reviewers on his blog. After getting some knocks for Sarkar, he wrote: ‘…what amazes me is that Khalid without an iota of guilt sits in judgment on other’s films week after week. I would really like him to look at his own films before he starts reviewing anyone else’s film’. He mentions another reviewer ‘going around with scripts to be made as films for years and most Producers get turned off in the first 10 minutes when she starts narrating and that’s the reason they never got made…’, and yet  another ‘…of is an aspiring director who literally hounds film Producers who refuse to touch him’.

Despite filmmakers running them down, reviews do matter in Bollywood, and some are honest enough to accept that. On Karan Johar’s Koffee With Karan a couple of years ago, blockbuster filmmakers Rakeysh Mehra, Kunal Kohli and Rakesh Roshan were unanimous that audience acceptance was more important than reviews (Roshan went as far as to say, “Critics know nothing about filmmaking. I don’t give them importance at all.”) Rajkumar Hirani, on the other hand, said he would always choose critical acceptance. Director Anurag Kashyap says, “My scripts get better. That’s why I appreciate film critics who talk about why a film doesn’t work.” Yet, when things have not gone to his liking, he has reacted like others in Bollywood. Once he wrote in the blog, ‘Our film magazines are not Cahiers Du Cinema… this is not Paris in the fifties or sixties when cinema was all passion. We are frogs in a well and we will pull down everyone who wants to climb out.’

Most stars also take reviews personally. According to John Abraham, “Reviews do affect me, but not to the level that they used to. I think most reviews are not fair. But there are certain reviews that are absolutely fair.” Aamir is known to argue out an opinion on his film, Shah Rukh Khan makes sarcastic asides about a bad review but laughs it off after a phase, Hrithik retires hurt, and Salman goes into an angry funk. Top heroines get ecstatic over good reviews and gush back in gratitude. Katrina Kaif, who routinely gets a thumbs down for her acting even when her screen presence takes over, once shrugged and said, “I don’t take reviews personally. It’s part of the game.”

Then there are those who are knocked down by critics but still get up smiling. Ram Gopal Varma, once the darling of critics when his Satya, Kaun, Rangeela and Company released, knew what was in store for him for Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag. Ramu said these prophetic words in an interview just before RGV Ki Aag opened in theatres: “The critics will kill me the day it releases. They won’t even bother to write reviews… There won’t be any one or half stars used. It will be a waste of time writing reviews. They would have exhausted all the words. Since it’s such a benchmark film, the reviews too should be a benchmark!” He was right. RGV Ki Aag was that rare time that all Bollywood  critics were on the same page. The Times review was littered with ‘Nothing seems to work for the film’, ‘absolutely unforgivable’, ‘odious comparisons’ and ‘less said—and seen—the better’. But it still promptly went on to give the movie two-and-a-half stars!