Jul 9, 2008

Roman Columns

The ancient Romans never thought men of the future would conjoin their words for 'many' and 'fold' to indicate an area where several people would gather to watch images projected on a white screen. Had they anticipated the modern need for the 'multiplex', they, in their infinite wisdom, may have come up with an equivalent of Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? to ask: who reviews the reviewers?

Last month, Ram Gopal Varma decided to take the mantle upon himself, delivering a scathing summary of reviews of his last release 'Sarkaar'. In doing so, he sometimes falls prey to various other pitfalls (personal attacks, rhetorical responses, no benefits of doubt for viewpoints). But then, he does so on a blog (his own), so he is entitled to much more leniency than some of the professionals that he takes to the cleaners.

This is an old debate which takes on many forms: can you comment on a cricket match if you haven't played Test matches, can you react in print to a music concert if you have never performed in a 'kutchery', and so on. Just like all reviewers aren't good enough to make, all makers are not qualified to review. However, I'd like to focus on two specific problems that arise with mainstream film reviews in our part of the world.

First, most reviewers suffer from a credibility problem of their own making. For instance, Khalid Mohamed once played lead trumpet for the Bachchans, but now seems to toot a discordant horn when it comes to them. BTW, I don't consider his having made several unsuccessful films as disqualifying him from speaking about films. One may then trot out the fact that he wrote one of the better films of the 90s, the autobiographical Mammo. But what should concern us are his intentions while speaking about films. The problem is that they sometimes seem seasonal.

Or Subhash K. Jha, who seems to consistently take ordinary prose and applies a deep-fry coating from a thesaurus. Or Taran Adarsh, whose comments are strictly functional and as profound as a football scoresheet. Very few of these can write with any 'miThaas' (by which I mean an elegance of expression), which the likes of Ebert or Lane are able to consistently provide. In fact, Ebert makes it clear that he reviews it from a relative standpoint, and makes no hard claims on how an individual *you* may like it, which seems a honest way of approaching the craft. You don't have to agree with what he says, but tend to like how it's been expressed. In addition, our reviewers don't seem to be able to communicate their love for the movies to us, by placing the movie under the microscope in context. They fail to tell us what could be if you looked at the film in a different way, often substituting it for what it is, because they're watching with the same tired eyes.

Of course, the influx of films each week that can spur them to great prose would be highly miniscule, but that's a professional hazard that the best have somehow learnt to overcome.

The other problem is the audience, about whose choices we can add a corollary to that Hitchcockian idiom of actors being like cattle. Like herds, they make their weekend viewing plans almost solely on the basis of a rating by some (usually disgruntled or uninterested) reviewer cited in the paragraphs above. There is hardly any effort to calibrate the opinion against your own preferences and past experiences. Of course, for this to work, one needs to ask: why do I watch films? I say this because the amount of complaints that one hears on a Monday morning assume irritable proportions. If it mattered so much to them, why didn't they do a little more 'research'? In the end, whether the movie experience turns out to be sweetmeat or poison pill can only be fully known on biting the white tablet. If you don't like to waste money, then wait for the film to appear on lower-cost media.

(Though I do think that for most, movie-watching is fundamentally a social activity, topped off by popcorn. It's not the same for me, which is why unlike most, I'm perfectly fine watching a small film all by myself.)

If all the audience expects from a movie review is to know which horse to bet (and lose) their money on this Sunday, then they are getting the kind of content they deserve. When they demand more than just the bland scoreline, they might find life below the pond scum to be quite interesting. Anyway, enough condescension.

My friends have different ways of approaching the problem. Daemon has a high recall, low precision approach: he'd watch almost every film that shows up and has the heart to take both the bad and the good. George goes even further, like a gold miner who does not flinch from wading through utter filth, but with the knowledge that this can sometimes unearth the most unprepossessing of gems. I seem to have a low recall, high precision approach. I may miss out on some of the unheralded pieces, but I have an instinctive feel for what works for me, which is built upon a foundation of reading and listening to people around me, at least the ones whose opinions I take seriously. I am also old enough to take a bad choice on the chin :-)

The problem, as RGV shows, is that you can hardly take the opinions of any of the big name reviewers seriously. A superb exception is Baradwaj Rangan, but that's about it for newspapers. Perhaps it is time to begin each movie screening with something else the Romans said: caveat emptor.


Anonymous said...

on BR, I think they should reserve the NA for critics by default every year to him. Again, good as he is, it is a reflection of our country's standards that we can say this with fair amount of confidence now.

Santosh Kumar T K said...

oh even BR tends to get a tad too wordy at times and though "the" rating or some such thing doesn't matter, reading long winding stuff does get onto nerves at times. But then it is his blog, and his column in the newspaper. One could surely give the benefit of doubt of it being a very "personal" expression. This rating disease has afflicted the Telugu audience a lot it seems.Every movie going experience is dictated by how many stars or quantum of rating given by some obscure reviewer on more pathetic gossip site. Also more than their own perception they seem to go by the BO status, with a "hit" or a "good talk" almost and always warranting a sure viewing.

daemon said...

I am not sure that the audience is swayed by critics enough to make an impression on the movies fortune. They are more likely to be swayed by the prior standing of people associated with the film rather than what critics think about them. For example, I am not sure if "Jane tu..." would have got the opening it did if Aamir Khan was not associated with it. Likewise, "Hancock" got a bumper opening across the world in spite of being universally panned by critics. Perhaps the other way round might be true for smaller films, may be in Hollywood. But Bollywood, by and large, is ruled by star-power, I guess. As far as the question of personal intentions while going for a movie is concerned, its about individual entertainment index on the whole. Perhaps, it is too judgmental to expect people to watch a movie in its (movies) context rather than their own. Because even a person with that ability has his own entertainment index tipped by that very factor rather than anything else. My take on the problem, critics and audience alike, is that it is about "love for the movies" (as you also pointed out). Thats why people who love movies, possibly identify the critics who love the movies and not with others. So, its a question of frequency.

BTW, "high recall - low precision" is a very precise description :-)

Unknown said...

raj: not sure I'd completely agree with you, since I don't know enough about the rest of the country's reviewers. I used to like what meenakshi shedde wrote, but I can't see her any place these days.

santosh: thanks for the note on the telugu side of things. even if BR gets verbose, he still remains interesting

daemon: do you think the star-power is only limited to a loyal core in the audience and can only take the rest for the first week (which anyway gets swayed by the trailers)? I think so. From coffee conversations around me, I could see this dynamic kick in for Sarkaar, where people seemed to be very confused with the conflicting "ratings".

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Anonymous said...

quaint raman: fair enough. This is a fan-boy speaking so you are not going to get much objectivity from me on BR:-)
For someone who hasnt had much exposure beyond Gowri Ramnarayan, Deepa Gahlot, Subash Jha etc, Baradwaj Rangan is a star from the heaven and maybe, as I grow, I will come out of the fandom.