Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Are reviewers/critics eunuchs?

In his diary, Outlook's editor Vinod Mehta talks about British (food) critic A.A. Gill who has the reputation of being a slasher. He writes:

Gill says people often ask him that since he claims to know so much about food, why doesn’t he open a restaurant. He answers with a borrowed quote: "Critics are like eunuchs in a harem—they know how it is done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they are unable to do it themselves." Gill adds: "That’s smart but not quite right. Critics may well be like eunuchs in a harem who know how it is done—but having seen it done every day, they just don’t fancy having it done to them."

So, are reviewers or critics eunuchs?

Or, as referred to by Bollywood director Farah Khan, are film critics "retards"?

(Reference: During the 'word association' segment of one of those 'rapid fire' things on Koffee With Karan not so long ago the host tossed this word out: Critics.
Pat came the answer, from guest Farah Khan: 'Retards'.)

Is criticism the last resort of the creative failures? If you can't do, teach, goes the saying. If you can't do, criticise. Can this be said about critics?

Quickly, let me say, I don't buy this line of argument. Like anybody else, critics work in a line, with some knowledge, some hindsight and foresight. And anybody who has this ability can be a critic--on his blog or in the column inches of the mainstream media if he/she can convince the powers that be that he/she can do the job. Or in the adda or on the beramda of one's own's house.

But is it that simple? I want to look at this debate more closely.

In any creative business, there are many parties involved. On the one hand, there are the creators of products (a film, a novel or a meal, for example) and their marketers and distributors; on the other, there are consumers (who consume the products for a pay or fee). In between, there is the media and its practitioners. They review the products (a film, a novel or a gadget), on the basis of their knowledge and taste (and some other factors that vary from individual to individual), and signal to the consumer whether the product is good or bad (in their opinion).

Or, as Charles Taylor put it in a 1999 Salon article, critics often act as the hype filters:

We don't need critics to tell us how we feel, or how to feel. But bouncing your own reactions off of a critic's can sometimes help you explain why you feel the way you do about movies. Critics have long been the only independent voice standing between moviegoers and the millions of dollars (today, hundreds of millions) studios use to promote movies. Like any advertisers out to push their product, studio publicists campaign to control public perception; that's one of the reasons for the current emphasis on the business side of movies, the blurring of the line between journalism and publicity. Movie journalism has become more and more dictated by hype.

However, in the age of instant communication (TV, internet and blogs), people are increasingly questioning the validity of this go-between tribe's existence and judgement on products. Anybody with a blog can now review a book or a film. And even some of the professionals have taken to the internet to publish their views (reviews).

Now, when a product receives unkind reviews, who does the creator blame? Where do they see vested interests sabotaging their creation? Where do they see well-known critics settling scores with the creators? Of course, they blame the mainstream media critics because what they say still matters.

Some think that certain reviewers are not knowledgeable enough to comment on their work. They question their credentials and get personal (if the reviewer gets personal), and all this tamasha goes on in the cyberspace with hundreds of people chipping in with their supportive or critical views. Fair enough for a democtaric medium like the inernet.

But this raises some interesting questions. How should a work of art (a product) be reviewed? Who should review it? And, sometimes, even the creator getting in the way, suggesting, after the fact, how it should have been reviewed. In case of a film, for example, how valid is the reviewer's criticism.

I'm writing this in the context of the debate that started with Anurag Kashyap's latest release, No Smoking. Hands down, NS is the most debated Indian film in the recent years (just look at the sheer number of posts and responses from Anurag and his readers at Passion For Cinema or at

Khalid Mohammad, a well-known critic and a filmmaker himself, rubbished NS in his review in a national daily. Anurag, in anger, retaliated in these words on his blog:

Sitting in rome reading the extreme reactions and reviews.. I don’t mind taran’s review for he in his seven lives would not have understood why someone would like to make a film like this.. Khalid reviewed me and not the film and from his review all i can say is neither has he read “Quitter’s inc” nor has he seen “cat’s eye”.. he just read the comments on PFC.. and i will say to him is , “Chutiye tu retire ho ja , tera time khatam.”

The debate has also licked the two most recent commercial releases, Farah Khan's Om Shanti Om and Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Saawariya. Unlike the latter, the former received favourable reviews and trade pundits gave it a thumbs up. In defence, filmmaker Karan Johar paid a glowing tribute to Bhansali.

On this issue, a guest blogger has this to say on PFC:

Both the directors of NS & SAAWARIYA are miffed with reviewers and really disappointed with audiences..Whatsoever their genuine reasons may be regarding some of the reviewers who could be biased but both have given generalized and sweeping statements denouncing the reviewers and lamenting the dumbing down of audience tastes..I beg to differ.

I have high regards for both the directors’ capabilities..But the issue is not about talent, vision, knowledge and skills..The issue is much deeper and affects many others in Bollywood..Both have refused somehow to accept the fate of their movies..Anuraag Kashyap(AK) has still shown some courage to come down from where- he –smoked- a –classic- mild after getting the first reactions in papers and electronic media and has gingerly accepted people’s verdict but his stance is still rebellious..He has his reasons to justify himself..And he has gone on record saying henceforth he will make movies(apart from what he is his personal agenda) that even a toddler can understand..He wants to hold a mirror to the audiences and not pander to them..Fair enough..But who decides whether audience wants a mirror or a mirage?And how one can force them to see in the mirror?.. Moreover in AK’s acceptance of audience verdict one senses ( at least I do) a taste of bitterness.

On the other side Sanjay Leela Bhansali(SLB) has lots of difficulty in coming down from his arrogant pedestal..He has a kind of paranoia..He thinks his movie has been sabotaged by the reviewers..And first time people did not go to watch it only because of the reviews...

Anyway, back to the original issue. Are we seeing something changing through this debate and online chatter?

There are signs. If you think this is just an Indian issue, think again. On the larger questions of film criticism, the debate is getting global. Here's a report from Variety:

Back in March, British film historian and Guardian blogger Ronald Bergan launched a withering attack on the state of contemporary film criticism.
In a blog entry titled "What every film critic must know," Bergan complained that modern film criticism was far too subjective and not nearly analytical enough.

"Most reviewers deal primarily with the content of a film rather than the style because they don't have the necessary knowledge to do so," Bergan wrote. "This leads me to believe that film critics should have some formal education in their subject, such as a degree in film studies."

So, what are your thoughts on this? Or as the Salon piece's blurb put it, in a culture increasingly driven by hype, who matters more? The critic or you?

PS: Great minds (or wicked minds?) think alike (wink, wink). Just spotted this on Columnist Bolly Woods poses some more questions on the film criticism debate. Here are the relevant excerpts:

...last night I watched Ratatouille for a second time, and the words of food critic Anton Ego (in the cultivated, cultured accents of Peter O'Toole) jumped out at me. Remember?

"In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little; yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.

"But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so."

That segment in the film raised a whole heap of questions about critics and criticism -- questions I hope you can, and will, answer: What value do you place on film criticism? Do reviews help you decide which movies to watch, and which to avoid? Has a critic ever influenced you in favour of, or against, a film, and/or its maker? Has a critic ever enhanced your understanding/appreciation of a particular film?

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