My main lesson is that film critics aren’t looked at as independent voices anymore. They merely form another cog in the well-oiled movie publicity machine. Reviews have become extended marketing tools – a horrific reality that is slowly dawning upon journalists who aim to make a difference. The problem stems from the routine practice of rating movies – in gold stars, pink hearts, thumbs or fluffy unicorns.
I’ve never been a fan of this hugely reductive system. It’s hard to grasp for any self-respecting reviewer. It's ironic that the term "star" is used to describe high-profile celebrities as well as the quality of work. This is a self-defeating system many mainstream publications use to compensate for their readers’ assumed inability to comprehend well-articulated pieces. Stars reduce months and years of effort into a quick crude verdict, while assuring the reader, “Don’t have time to read? No problem!”
But if subscribers can read a factual summary of the 564th Indian Premier League game in the sports section, they are definitely equipped to absorb and make up their own minds about a subjective art critique.
Rating movies with stars offers curious readers a choice that they shouldn’t really be offered. After all, a review is simply meant to be read, not judged by the weight of illustrated luminous objects. Handing out stars to films has made client convenience the only agenda for cultural journalism.
As you read this, I’ve blogged my unrated thoughts on this week’s film Dil Dhadakne Do, testing the waters for this self-explanatory technique. Comments range from “Why no stars?” to “How many stars?” A thousand weighted words rendered hollow, just like that.
Contemporary reviewers run into another problem. Thanks to social media, this is an era of insta-critique. Since there are no real mechanisms to unearth qualified voices to review films, all one needs these days is a smart phone and a sharp tongue (and perhaps friends in PR). Most of today’s professional writing is reduced to three resounding adjectives.
Many people seem to believe that reviews are reflections of a film's potential box-office potential. This misunderstood definition starts right from the top, where media-house executives insist on hiring reviewers who will forsake individuality to reflect "massy" trends. Due to the constant influx of opinionated trade gurus, the thick line between professional film reviewers and glorified number-crunching astrologers has been fatally blurred. Being bombarded with trade verdicts before a film opens has permanently damaged the craft and intrinsic meaning of film reviewing.
A review, by definition, is an analysis that is supposed to precede popular opinion. I’ve been told more than once to take into account audience response before passing a verdict. If we’re to worry about these variables, what is the point of hiring an independent professional? Granted, good reviewers may find their readers, but how will good readers know the kind of writing they deserve?
No right or wrong
While there are no right or wrong reviews, an independent argument must be free from professional compromises and future ambitions. Too many writers, for instance, use film criticism as a stepping stone to filmmaking.
Not surprisingly, reviewing in print publications is on the wane. The more substantial reviews and original voices are found invariably in online publications, which afford infinitely more freedom of expression and thought to writers. Some old-school critics have turned to television and web videos.
Ever so often, disillusioned readers question the credibility of all film critics and wonder why Indian reviews don’t have the eloquence of critics in Western publications. There’s a legitimate explanation for that. Reviewers can only be as good as the cinema produced in their countries, or as honest as the filmmakers they judge.
On the brighter side, here I am, having my say, even though I had to quit the Mirror. But remember that when this happens again, there might not be a voice to echo my sentiments, for practical reasons ranging from livelihood to pressure. An irreversible precedent will have been set.
To draw a parallel, and it’s appropriately from one of my favourite Hindi films (Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year): remember the resigned faces of the clients when customer-oriented startup Rocket Sales Corporation was replaced by big-bad AYS as their computer-assembly service?
Those resigned faces are yours, dear reader, after you’re treated to a relentless barrage of numbers masquerading as a film review. That day is not far.
Rahul Desai blogs at email@example.com and tweets @ReelReptile.
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