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Film criticism is a double-edged sword

May 03, 2011 15:15 IST

In a world of high stakes where one film can make or break careers, the critic lays himself on the line when giving his opinion, says Suparn Verma.

Criticism is in our DNA. We are all critics and we all read or follow reviews, particularly movie reviews.

First, it was word of mouth. Then, with the invention of the newspaper, radio and television, it found new mediums and platforms.

Now, with the Internet, it has gone viral.

In the last five years, the Internet and the mobile phone have changed the rules of the game. It started with message boards, blogs, viral emails and text messages. Suddenly, everyone is a critic.

Nameless and faceless, these men and women are changing the landscape and the nature of the business.

This transformation had its roots in passion -- a passion for movies, a passion that demanded change, a passion for cinema on the part of an audience that wanted its voice heard by filmmakers.

In the West, it was Harry Knowles and his site aintitcool.com. In India it started out with blogs, including one by a US-based blogger called Oz/Pankaj Sikka who had a blog called desitrain.

He went on to start passionforcinema.com, where he asked filmmakers and cinema-goers to join in and create a forum (Full disclosure: Yours truly is a contributor) for film lovers. With contributions from a bunch of enthusiastic cine goers in India, the site became a huge success.

Passionforcimema.com also started a tradition of handles/nicknames in reviews. 

Later, part of the group fell out and started moifightclub.wordpress.com. In the same period, Meetu started wogma.com, Bikas Mishra started dearcinema.com and Sahil Riz runs the outstanding The Vigil Idiot, lampooning weekly releases in a series of cartoons.

Today, these sites try and promote cinema the best way they can and have users writing reviews. Their message boards are full of opinions.

The aim of these sites was simple -- to generate a critical mass of users to support the kind of cinema they believed in. They relied on donations to keep the sites running.

Part of filmmaker Anurag Kashyap's resurgence as the media's darling can be credited to the people in these and other groups who aren't just struggling writers and wannabe directors but also journalists and people from all walks of life.

Then came Twitter and the world changed.

The business of cinema tried to harness the power of the Web. It started with movie websites which are now part and parcel of a film's publicity strategy. Later, public relations firms sent bulk emails. Today, they are attempting to harness message boards.

Every time a review is carried, you will find messages praising the film with mini reviews, agreeing with the reviewer if the review is good or panning the reviewer for the negative review as they try to change the perception created by the reviewer.

Twitter has just made it tougher.

A film's publicist may tweet messages about a film and re-tweet them with other fake user accounts, but this strategy is unable to generate public perception.

Twitter is mostly about posturing 24x7.

There are thousands of users following IDs who are well entrenched in the industry and who tweet minute-by-minute updates from preview theatres. Messages are re-tweeted a few more times among the thousands who follow them and the circle continues. You do the math!

Today, Bollywood's directors and producers are scared -- if they don't meet a new writer or a guy who applies to their assistant or just about anyone they rub the wrong way could go on Twitter and start a campaign against them. After all, everyone loves a good public bashing!

Opinions about actors and films and their music are formed the day a film goes on the floor; after that, unless the filmmaker really manages to surprise, it is all about reiterating.

That is just the nature of technology and the power of the written word.

Once upon a time, noted critic Khalid Mohamed was a Sunday morning staple.

Over the years, we have Rajeev Masand, Mayank Shekhar, Bharadwaj Ranjan, Subhash K Jha, Kaveree Bamzai, Shubra Gupta, Anupama Chopra, Sukanya Verma, Pragya Tiwari, Raja Sen, Sudhish Kamath, Minty Tejpal, Elvis D'silva, Aniruddha Guha, Bhawana Somaaya, Nikhat Kazmi, Joginder Tuteja, Indu Mirani, Sarita Tanwar, Tushar Joshi, Omar Qureshi...and more, named in no particular order, who cater to the English speaking/reading audience.

Taran Adarsh, Komal Nahta, Vinod Mirani, Amul Mohan are trade pundits who write reviews in trade magazines and websites; Taran and Komal also host television shows.

Week after week, they talk about one to four films depending on the number of releases.

Bollywood lays out the red carpet for them, hoping for the elusive stars and a quote that can make it to the poster the day after the film's release. Filmmakers covet what they say because, if not a commercial success, they wouldn't mind a critical success as long as the word 'success' is attached to the film.

Among these are names whose word carries a premium among readers, as their integrity is above reproach.

Film criticism is a double-edged sword. In a world of high stakes where one film can make or break careers, the critic lays him/herself on the line when giving his/her opinion.

I am sure those who reviewed Sholay, calling it the worst film ever, still can't sleep at night. Those who complained about Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Lagaan, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Rang De Basanti, or praised certain movies am sure look back to when they tried to second-guess the audience.

It is a dangerous game.

You follow your gut and write about what you liked or didn't like, you carry your personal fetishes, favourites and grudges into the hall. But that is the nature of the business.

But critics get the benefit of the doubt. The reason they get it is not because they know better. They get it because they put their face and a real name where their mouth is.

If Raja Sen buries your film you know it is Raja; if Rajeev Masand praises your film, you know who he is. These men and women have a reality to them. That reality gives them context and validity and, more importantly, respect. They take responsibility for their opinions, right or wrong!

On the other hand, you have a @BollywoodGandu (17931 followers) on Twitter, later joined by @buttupsajid (1512), a two month old @YashUncle (165) and a horde of wannabes imitating BG. They write behind the anonymity the Web affords them.

BollywoodGandu is the most notorious, so much so his identity is a topic of much discussion in industry circles. Many, in fact, wish to put a price on his head.

In a recent discussion, a colleague made a simple point: They are in the business of being public but that doesn't give anyone the right to say something he/she won't have the courage to say to their face.

Anonymity is here to stay, opinions will be formed in 140 characters, and the next generation of public domain celebrities are geared for it.

On the positive side, you have anonymity giving strength to @KanoonKaBaap to talk honestly while being inside the media and discuss movies and break stories and have discussions which may not be politically correct.

Anonymity, unfortunately, offers wings to users who hide behind their IDs, bashing celebrities, movies, sportsmen and personalities they wouldn't have the guts to even say one per cent of the muck they rake up online.

The Internet is a force that is untameable and we are just beginning to understand its true potential to manoeuvre public opinion. It can get a Lokpal Bill backed up in four days and it can make a celebrity out of Poonam Pandey.

Today, even 15 seconds of fame is worth several crores in television and endorsement deals.

One can speak the truth anonymously without the danger of reprisals. But, to be taken seriously in this virtual world, you need the conviction of your face and name to make it real. Authenticity cannot be won behind pseudonyms.

Warning! This column reflects the views of the writer and the writer only.

Suparn Verma in Mumbai