Sunday, April 22, 2007

Sorry State of Film Criticism

Criticism: "the act or art of analyzing and evaluating or judging the quality of a literary or artistic work, musical performance, art exhibit, dramatic production, etc."
"There's a common fallacy that anyone can review a film. But how can you do it if you don't have the proper tools to 'read' a film?" - What Every Film Critic Must Know by Ronald Bergan

Today's episode of Koffee with Karan had an interesting debate about the role of film critics. Kunal Kohli and Rakesh Roshan were expectedly very emphatic in their view that they have no respect for most film critics. What else do you expect from directors whose films have been thrashed by most film critics. On the other hand, the other directors on the show - Rakeysh Mehra and Raju Hirani, whose last films have met with almost universal critical acclaim, were less derisive. One point where there was some unanimity was the fact that the quality of film criticism in India is not up to the mark. Anyone who has even the most basic writing talent can pass-off as a film critic these days. Come to think of it, you don't even need any writing talent to become a film critic. Anyone who's read film reviews by the likes of Taran Adarsh would know what I mean.

I write a lot of movie reviews on this blog, and people have often suggested that I should start publishing my movie reviews in newspapers and magazines. I don't give any thought to that suggestion, because I know that I have no qualifications to become an official film critic. While it is true that I have watched a lot of different kind of cinema, I still do not have a solid understanding of the craft of filmmaking to pass judgments on the quality of films.

Film critics have a huge responsibility because sometimes what they write can make or break a film. Big films have enough marketing muscle to push their films to the realms of success and are hence less dependent on what film critics have to say, but relatively smaller films sometimes need favorable reviews for their films to be seen. And if critics trash those films, they better have a solid reason for doing so!

Personally I have no respect for Kunal Kohli because he was also a film critic once and did exactly what he accuses other film critic of doing now (he's at the receiving end now that he has taken up film direction). However, I can't agree with him more when he says that:

"I have very little respect for most of the critics today because I don't think their knowledge of cinema is deep enough. Their passion for cinema is not deep enough and I think critics need to have a great knowledge about cinema. He or she needs to have no agenda, needs to be absolutely unbiased and I don't see that in most of our critics."
The reality today is that most critics approach film criticism with a clear bias and personal agenda, they have no respect for research and their knowledge about cinema is shockingly shallow. I have read many reviews where the critics have lambasted a particular movie based on a fact that is not even true.

At the same time, I do not agree with film directors who equate commercial success with quality. One very common argument put forward is that if the audiences have liked their film, they have definitely a 'good' film. Now this argument is extremely fallacious. On the one hand they rightly say that the reviews of film critics who do not have a good understanding and knowledge about cinema cannot be expected to have a fair assessment of their films quality. In the same breath they say that they respect the judgment of the audience, and the acceptance of their film by the audience implies that they've made a 'good film'. Do they think that the audiences in general have that understanding and knowledge of cinema that they demand from film critics? So, why use an argument against the critics when they go against you, when you conveniently ignore the same reasoning when the audiences are in your favor. If this is not hypocrisy, then what is?

It must be obvious by now that I don't think too highly of most film critics in India. Still, I read the reviews of most film critics - all for different reasons. I read Khalid Mohammad and Raja Sen for their humorous writing style, Nikhat Kazmi because my opinion matches with hers most of time, and Taran Adarsh just so that I am constantly reminded what 'bad' writing is all about. Taran Adrash, like many other critics, doesn't even take the pains to put the story of the film in his own words - he just reproduces the film's marketing material verbatim. That is particularly irritating when you suddenly see a few well-written paragraphs, sandwiched between utterly amateurish writing. He also seems to know nothing about what 'spoilers' are. His reviews shamelessly reveal all the key plot elements, showing no respect for the readers' right to discover those on their own. I can go on and on about Taran Adarsh, but that's not the point here (and I shouldn't impose my personal bias, should I?)

However, there are two film critics I have immense respect for. One is Roger Ebert, who needs no introduction and it widely acknowledged as one of the best film critics in the world. Unfortunately, his health condition has kept him away from film criticism for almost a year now. The other critic I absolutely adore is Baradwaj Rangan, whom I have discovered only recently. He usually writes for Indian Express in Chennai. Ever since I discovered him a few months ago, I have been following his online reviews very religiously. What I like about him is the fact that he is absolutely unbiased and takes great effort in analyzing a movie in extreme detail (he never seems to be in a hurry to end a review). You might disagree with his assessment of a film, but you can never find fault with his arguments. He always provides solid reasons behind what worked for him in a film and what not. And he never approaches his reviews with the intention of either extolling or trashing a film. Read his review of the recently released Sunny deol Starrer Big Brother to understand what I mean. This is a film that's universally trashed by everyone - even Rangan doesn't like it - but see how unbiased his review is!

Till the time I can boast of knowledge like Roger Ebert and unprejudiced writing style of Rangan, this blog will be the only home for my film reviews.