Why can’t critics be critical?

As film critic, I have noticed that filmmakers - directors, producers, stars, actors - most of them, do not take kindly to any kind of negative comment in reviews of their films. There was an article in the edit page of SCREEN on this recently. My question is - why? We live in a democratic country and if the filmmaker has the freedom to express himself in any which way he chooses to, the critic has an equal right to be able to understand or not to understand his/her film.

Even Satyajit Ray was no exception. His written communication with a renowned scholar on his departure from Tagore’s original story in Charulata went on for so long that it was later published as a book apart from bringing out special magazine editions by film society journals!

Another very long correspondence went on between Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen on the former’s critique of the latter’s Akash Kusum which again, were published in various magazines! This was one filmmaker critiquing the work of another. It led to a lot of muck-raking certainly not in keeping with the dignity these stalwarts had aquired over the years. Why? The whole debate was on the ‘topicality’ of Sen’s film though I no longer recall what this whole issue of ‘topicality’ was all about!

Ray once claimed that every critic needed to learn the technical skills of filmmaking seriously before he/she ventured into film criticism. But then, why would such a person venture into film criticism at all? Wouldn’t it be more logical for the person to become a filmmaker/film technician instead and earn a meagre sum for his/her reviews?

There is a lot of pressure on salaried critics as a colleague of mine who works in a national daily says. “Sometimes, the editor compromises by asking some celebrity to do the review because he knows that the regular staffer will probably hack the film to pieces when the film deserves the hacking,” she says when she was asked not to do the review and someone else connected to a cinema celebrity through marriage did the review - a very positive one.

A noted filmmaker wrote a very long counterpoint to a negative review of his film recently. The managing editor of the magazine forced the editor to publish the letter as an article in the same supplement! The review was excellent but it was largely negative which most other reviewers agreed upon in their reviews. What happens to the dignity of the critic when her own paper turns its back on her?

Sometimes, a critic is alleged to use his review  to vent out his personal grievance in his review. But I still have my doubts about this allegation because objectivity is the first lesson we are either taught at school or teach ourselves when we become journalists.

However, one concedes that compromises are often made both directly and indirectly. For example, a film critic might in all innocence, accept a lunch invite from  a filmmaker whose film is in post-production.The minute the critic accepts the invite and goes for the lunch at some posh place, he or she compromises himself in some way or another because he/she feels obliged to give a favourable review or at least a review that will not kill the film. That lunch keeps haunting one’s waking hours. We are human after all!

On the other hand, I have seen several critics and reporters refusing the gift that is given at the end of a press conference to the press never mind the report or review as this is part of the film’s PR campaign and no questions asked. It is a gift for every single press person who has come to the press conference. What does one do then? If it is a question of a man’s bread and butter, which it always is, a good opting out is to write a FIRST LOOK piece or do an interview and decide never to review the film when it turns out to be very bad. Taking or refusing the gift is a matter of individual choice.

Thirty years in the business as a film journalist has taught me many things and I went along, changing over the years from critics taking a piggy back ride on a star’s expense account to Cannes or Karlovy Vary, to critics not being invited to a press conference at all because the filmmaker or actor or producer has blacklisted the person from such do’s.

When a film producer starts a film journal, what does one do as an editor/reporter/critic working for the paper on a fat salary? Well, in that case, we all know what happens so there is not much point dwelling on that!

8 comments
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  1. LIvely article, with touches of humour but not hiding the bare facts of jounalistic quandaries.
    Film makers go to great lengths and expense to make their substandard films palatable, but are not willing to spend on excellent plots, directors and actors. They have giant egos which need constant and public pampering.
    Satyajit Ray was no exception. He looked down with a sneer upon everyone.
    Here again we have the Indian mentality that greasing the palm will work wonders.
    The only organised system in the country is corruption.

  2. I think you’ve picked an important issue to reflect on. As reviewers of film and books, one is often forced to exercise self-censorship for a variety of reasons. In addition to the reasons that you have pointed out, my experience has been that sometimes people whom you know ask you to review their work and that becomes iffy; you don’t know how honest you can be. My response to such a situation has been that I don’t review works of people whom I know..

    Thanks for the piece… enjoyed reading it!

  3. Assumption 1 is wrong.

    Filmmakers in India so NOT have total freedom to express themselves. They’ve to work within stringent lines that must not be crossed:
    a. today’s low IQ audiences who only want a laugh or two
    b. producers who only want a hit
    c. actors who only want to do safe films with safe directors
    d. nonsense organizations who will try and jeopardize any film that infringes even slightly on some ’sensitive’ topic

    so, I suppose, they must be thinking ‘why should critics have all the fun?’

  4. Dear Romit,

    If one is working as critic and film journalist for 30 years - 15 years in Mumbai followed by 15 years in Kolkata, one gets to know everyone in the industry so there is no question of avoiding writing about a given film or individual because if you were not to write about their films or about them, you would better kiss your career goodbye. The secret is to strike a harmonious balance where the other party understands that you will not try to plese him or her never mind your proximity to their person socially.

    The secret is to maintain a distance - both geographical and social in a way that the guy or girl out there knows that with you, one can go only so far and not further. It gets you quite a few people who do not like you at all and begin to avoid you like the plague, but does that really matter if you have to watch you face in the mirror every monring and smile at the reflection you see there? We are doing a tough job, dammit and we are not in the film industry to win friends and influence people or Dale Carnegies in the making!

    I hardly have any friends within the film industry and am happier for that because it helps me to communicate without telling that I will be forthright in my comments on their work. I might lose a few assignments that way but not friends. You do not and cannot make friends in the film industry if you are a journalist. You can either be a satellite at their beck and call or you can channelise you writing to other directions such as human rights. But do not ever think everything is hunky dory in that world either.

    A top star in Bengali cinema tried to be very friendly with me for some time. But when the person learnt that it was just not possible for me to write about him/her every other week, the person dropped me like a hot potato. It was what I had expected so it was not hurting at all. It is easier to be balanced if you do not go out to be over-friendly with cinema guys. I am not against them at all because their work is tougher than mine and they are only trying to earn their bread and butter like we critics are. But, and one had better take this seriously - they live and work in a world so different from ours that we simply cannot jell beyond a given point of time.

  5. I have generally experienced that film makers do not view critics favourably when their creations are not praised. Possibly they are so much in love with their creations that they fail to take an objective view of what they have done, good or bad. However, sometimes, I have found that critics, instead of analysing the good and bad aspects of a film, resort to very caustic remarks and often tend to flaunt their knowledge on the subject instead of focussing on their immediate assignment. That hurts. Recently, I read one of your reviews of a film and what impressed me was your unbiased way of putting forth your views. There was no malice in your writings.

  6. May daughter said - I liked how Shoma wrote - very eloquent and refined. I don’t like strong language, so I appreciated her positive critisism.

    I would like to add that I too appreciate the unbiased way in which you write. I agree totally with Sri Banerjee that there is no malice in any of your articles though entertaining.

  7. It is delightful to get such feedback on the blog. It boosts my ego much more than when I see an article with my byline on it because this is something I am doing out of genuine feeling and not out of professional compulsion though the lines between these two have blurred almost beyond recognition over the past decade.

    Prabuddha, if you are the one who composed the music for EKTI TARAR KHONJE, please accept my heartest congratulations from the bottom of my heart because the music is mind-blowing to repeat a cliche.

    And thanks everyone, for saying that my writing is unbiased and ’soft.’ I wish some filmmakers who are angry with my reviews read these comments!

  8. I am happy that you liked my music.

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