Can critics be a cabal? For sure

Updated: Jul 29, 2020, 07:33 IST | Mayank Shekhar | Mumbai

I used to be a film critic in ancient times. Now you are as well. A huge relief. Never have I loved my job more ever since!

Representation pic/Getty Images
Representation pic/Getty Images

Mayank ShekharTold I don't look that old, but did start out in ancient times, when Bollywood had all of four or five 'mainline film critics' — for as many English news dailies in Bombay — besides a few 'trade analysts', who ran (mostly) family-owned newsletters to report box-office numbers.

Usually, a dozen max (for a regular film) would meet Thursday evenings — often at the preview theatre in Famous Studio, Mahalaxmi — almost the 'other side' of Bombay from where the film industry is. Khalid Mohamed would have a favoured corner-seat in the back row. I've been a front-bencher (for movies), and back-bencher (in class), forever.

Why would views of a few good men/women matter? Especially when their combined English readership's less than the paying public in one small-town, let alone a Hindi film distribution circuit/territory (still based on British nomenclature: CP-CI-Berar, Mysore, Nizam, etc)?

Because a good review is the learned newspaper-reading neighbour's envy/respect; and the creator's personal pride. You earn money from the world, but seek validation from peers and those you get a drink with in the evenings (they've read that review!).

Desi public may love movies for reasons as simple as a song or star in it. The film industry, more often than not, continues to give creators a chance, if their works have at least been adored by critics/cognoscenti. Even if the film hasn't earned tonnes across the supply chain.

Only when it does neither is when there's a genuine/survival issue. This is what Farhan Akhtar told his sister Zoya, to keep calm and carry on when her critically acclaimed debut Luck By Chance (2009) did not make a profit.

Likewise, some of the most prolific filmmakers in Bollywood, say Vishal Bhardwaj, Anurag Kashyap onwards, may not have set the box-office on fire all through their career, but peer/critical nod was enough fuel to keep them going (and doing reasonably well).

That said, can this acclaim be rigged, in the same way that official patronage, especially from the government in arts — through grants/awards — are known to be heavily compromised (over considerations other than merely artistic)? Surely. The smaller the committee/collective, the easier it would be to steer it towards personal favouritism over professional merit.

It's like the few book reviewers, who also write books. They tell you through the few mainline publications — or in the blurb of the book itself — that such and such author is the greatest gift to mankind/literature. Now if nobody reads anyway; nobody will care.

The same cabal can keep recommending/inviting each other at various literature festivals (as they do), with nerds on stage desperately trying to turn the solitary act of writing into a performance art. The public sits and watches — thinking this way at least their quota of reading itself is done (for the whole year)!

Movies, no matter how low-budget, are still a far more tribal/collective experience. You can't fudge something as great or gutter, without someone calling you out for it first. What a film critic could do is set the tone on Day One, where people would end up watching something with a certain frame of mind.

Can this power not be monetised? Have been offered a bribe twice. In 17 years. That means: A) Bribe giving/taking not very common among movie critics (in Bombay). B) I wasn't worth it. While B is more likely, self-perception is an exaggeration, so settling with A!

Also, have heard enough horror stories. Seems like, what's there to pay for what can be bought for free! Sometimes a hi from a celebrity is enough — one can't preclude genuine fans entering a profession that allows them access to their idols. In any case, what kinda film journalist isn't in awe of movies (as a medium), to start with.

But what happens when you piss off people in the process of reviewing films? Oh, I can go on (another day). The response can be warmly sarcastic: Pritish Nandy sending over a bouquet of white roses, because I trashed one of his productions. Or a signed poster of Ram Gopal Varma's Satya in my room: "In spite of you f***ing most of my movies."

Or it could be retaliatory, Farah Khan on Koffee With Karan saying she'd kill the mid-day film critic (of course, a joke). Saw her relatively recent interview in Society magazine, where she's named and shamed me over a long passage again — referring still to a review of her film Main Hoon Naa. That was 16 frickin' years ago! Too much burden/attention on someone in their early to mid-20s.

But that's how it used to be. What's the scene now? The most massive PVR hall booked in the heart of movie-district for a preview. A vast collective of YouTubers, broadcasters, bloggers, gossip writers, news-website columnists, interviewers, RJs, astrologers, numerologists… Everybody steps out after a show, asking about each other's thoughts, mainly to confirm their own.

Movies have dramatically improved. Word of mouth explodes online after First Day First Show. Film industry peers add to the favourable reviews. People can (mostly) tell between marketing and merit. Star-ratings on the poster are redundant, since used repeatedly as a ploy, regardless of movie. I used to be a film critic once. Now you are as well. That's a huge relief. Never loved my job more ever since.

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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