In 2007, a leading film critic wrote a scathing review of R Balki’s directorial debut Cheeni Kum. The review “left me so depressed that I stopped reading reviews of all my films unless someone sent me a positive review”, Balki told Scroll.in.
In 2022, Balki has made a thriller about a serial killer who targets film critics. The killer’s signature, as seen in the trailer of Chup: Revenge of the Artist, is the carving of star ratings onto the victims’ foreheads. Chup is set for a September 23 release.
Chup stars Sunny Deol as the police officer investigating the murders. Pooja Bhatt plays a criminal psychologist who observes, “You critics are killers.” Dulquer Salmaan and Shreya Dhanwanthary star in roles Balki isn’t ready to reveal yet.
Film critic Raja Sen has co-written the screenplay with Balki and Rishi Virmani. The trailer includes references to Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz Ke Phool. The 1959 film was poorly received both critically and commercially. Guru Dutt stopped directing after Kaagaz Ke Phool, which has since undergone a reassessment as the film that best represents the director’s conflicted feelings towards showbiz.
Chup’s soundtrack, besides two original songs by Amit Trivedi, includes Sneha Khanwalkar’s recreation of Yeh Duniya Agar Mil Bhi Jaye from Guru Dutt’s masterpiece Pyaasa (1957). Aman Pant’s score features tributes to Dutt’s films. Excerpts from an interview with Balki.
Why ‘Kaagaz Ke Phool’?
Because Guru Dutt was a sensitive artist and not just because Kaagaz Ke Phool has the legacy of being a misunderstood classic. Several great films were trashed at the time of release. Sholay had been written off. Pritish Nandy wrote Amitabh Bachchan was “finished” after Muqaddar Ka Sikandar. Critics wrote all kinds of rubbish about V Shantaram’s Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje, an absolutely great film.
What is ‘Chup’ about?
Chup is a film about sensitivity. We have become a nation of critics, critiquing everything under the sun. We have stopped thinking about what people’s work means to them, what pains someone goes through. Things can be liked or disliked, but it can be expressed with sensitivity. Bravado on paper in a public space can really hurt people.
Aren’t film critics supposed to love cinema? If only they approach their work with sensitivity. One ought to be sensitive with everything: all kinds of art, food, people. If you don’t like the food made by your wife, husband or house help, wouldn’t you say, could you please add some salt? Or would you say, what fuckall food.
We have decided that somebody doesn’t matter if you don’t see them in person, and so you can say anything. It doesn’t work like that.
Additionally, film critics have the responsibility of supporting good cinema. The audiences will decide, they say. Sure, but they will decide a film’s future inside the theatre. To be guided to the theatre, audiences need the support of knowledgeable film critics.
Can film critics make or break a film?
It’s a myth created by blockbusters that critics don’t matter. But even in case of a big-star film, if 10 critics give it one star, it will tank, especially because ticket prices are so high today. So people look forward to the verdict of their favourite critics whom they believe or whom they think are voices of authority.
What should film criticism ideally be like?
Honest, but worded in such a way that the filmmaker reading it would think, oh shit, I should have done this; oh, this is where I went wrong. But we’re jumping so fast to say ye bakwas hai, ye flop hai. The words are so cruel.
Film criticism is ultimately writing about something that’s not yours. Rudeness or politeness is a matter of civilised behaviour.
And even film critics must be subjected to criticism. Who decides who’s a good film critic? How does one know their opinion is unbiased? Of course, not all critics are bad. Cops and politicians are portrayed badly in films. It doesn’t make all of them bad. My film is about critics who don’t do their job well.
But as a country, outside of this subject, we have reached a position where we get a lot of joy out of other people’s misfortune. Hurting others, bringing people down is a power trip now.
Film critics are regularly attacked by supporters of a political party or fans of actors.
Of course, that’s true. But trolling is virtual. Film criticism has real-world ramifications. There’s a difference.
What insights did Raja Sen bring to the story?
He brought the film critic’s perspective: how critics feel, how do they think, what do they see. When I called him to write the film, I read out all reviews of my films in front of him and realised how much he also trashed me!
We discussed those reviews. He argued why he wrote something and I said that this is how I felt when I read that. We then developed a friendship based on, you can say, hate, or a great understanding of and sensitivity towards cinema.
‘Chup’ might be savaged by the very critics whom you say can make or break a film.
I don’t make films to make critics angry. I make films to tell a story I want to tell. If people make films about bad cops, cops don’t come and shut down theatres.
Some critics might take my film personally, I can’t do anything about that. They will express what they feel. A lot of people asked me, why are you making this, critics are influential. I am just expressing that pain I have felt and have wondered what I could have been if luck wasn’t on my side.