The critic as tap dancer
Hulk. Smash! Big Hulk smash. Smash cars. Buildings. Army tanks. Hulk also go rarrr! Smash Hulk’s USP. What Hulk smash most? Hulk smash all hope of interesting time in cinema.”
Hulk. Smash! Big Hulk smash. Smash cars. Buildings. Army tanks. Hulk also go rarrr! Smash Hulk’s USP. What Hulk smash most? Hulk smash all hope of interesting time in cinema.” That was an excerpt from Peter Bradshaw’s review of The Incredible Hulk, starring Edward Norton. Bradshaw is, of course, chief film critic of The Guardian, and his review is what could be called a ‘stunt review’ or a ‘performance review’, written in the style of the film. Similarly, his review of Eat Pray Love went: “Sit, watch, groan. Yawn, fidget, stretch.” While Bradshaw is renowned worldwide for his reviews, what we didn’t know was that he is also fun, and his views are refreshing and peppered with dry wit. We were fellow mentors on the Jio Mami Mumbai Film Critics’ Lab. We chatted about the changing role of a film critic today.
Peter Bradshaw at Jio Mami Mumbai Film Critics' Lab
“As a critic, you have to learn tap dancing. You have to entertain the reader, otherwise nobody will care about your views,” says Bradshaw. “It’s not enough to be knowledgeable or to be right. You have to engage the reader, and sell your opinion. You have to grab them by the lapels — or something more intimate.”
Reflecting on the essential role of a critic, he says, “You must distinguish between the good and bad, and evangelise for the good films: Without you, these films would not gain much traction. There’s nothing wrong and everything right with gushing about good films. Part of your job is to be populist. But you can like both, Bollywood and Satyajit Ray; Hollywood and Paul Thomas Anderson. You should like both or be open to both.”
Commenting on a critic’s engagement with the public, he says, “When it comes to film, everybody has an opinion. Today criticism is a two-way street, more like a conversation. You have to be a bit like a radio DJ, taking calls from the public. I get a lot of abuse (on social media) all day, but it’s important not to be too precious about it. Critics must have a sense of humour about themselves. You have to build relations with your readers.” He also encouraged honest critics to be fearless. “If you don’t annoy anybody, you’re probably not having any effect on anybody at all. You have to accept that you will annoy somebody — or you’re being a timid mouse. If a critic writes in good faith, even if somebody is annoyed, he won’t be angry forever,” he says.
Asked for his views on Bollywood, he says, “A music friend of mine said Bollywood is the Death Metal of cinema —there’s so much of it. That’s why it’s difficult to cover Bollywood at the Guardian: If we covered it, it would swamp everything else. Also, it’s hard for distributors to get prints in time for previews. Anyway, Bollywood is not dependent on polite, simpering reviews that would make a difference to a French, Iranian or Polish festival film that would run for one week. Bollywood is a robust, thriving, cinema industry with a solid fanbase, and doesn’t care about reviews.”
Bradshaw has raved about both Satyajit Ray’s Charulata and Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan. Of the latter, he wrote: “Larger than life and outrageously enjoyable, it’s got a dash of spaghetti western, a hint of Kurosawa, with a bracing shot of Kipling…It is virile, muscular storytelling, with rich musical dance numbers…Go and see it.” His views on Bollywood’s place in world cinema are tonic: “A lot of Western musicals are daft. But Bollywood has kept the tradition of the musical alive without self-consciousness. Also, Hollywood and Bollywood are powerhouses in Los Angeles and Mumbai. India is a gigantic market; the rest of the world is a few films by the French and Brits-it is much smaller than Bollywood.”
At the Critics’ Lab, I encouraged our critics to appreciate good Indian films in Hindi and all regional languages, and see them as part of world cinema. A small step towards building an ecosystem that supports good Indian films, without a linguistic caste system. Kudos to Wayne D’Mello, who won the festival’s Young Critics’ Award, for his sensitive review of Gurvinder Singh’s Punjabi film Chauthi Koot.
Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in these columns are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.