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.