Who is a film critic?

Apr 06, 2012, 11:09 IST | Vanita Kohli-Khandekar

The critic may not like the film. But if the audience enjoys reading him and learns something new about the craft of cinema from what he has written, a critic becomes a positive force

Agent Vinod is a fun, spy caper. Like all spy movies, it travels all over the world; Morocco, Russia, Latvia among other countries. Though it has none of the silly gadgetry of the Bond movies it is roughly in the same category as Bond or the Bourne series.

It is what we Mumbaikars call a good ‘timepass’ film. As we walked out smiling, I wondered why I had enjoyed this film? Almost every review I read had trashed it. And it showed. It was the Sunday of the opening weekend and the theatre was only three-fourths full. By the end of the first week the movie couldn’t take the weight of the poor reviews and the resulting echoes on social media. It slumped.

This though is not about Agent Vinod. But about film reviewers or critics. What is their job? How is it changing and have they remained relevant? The best definition of a film critic that I came across is by the late Pauline Kael, an American critic who wrote for The New Yorker. She said; “The role of the critic is to help people see what is in the work, what is in it that shouldn’t be, what is not in it that could be.

He is a good critic if he helps people understand more about the work than they could see for themselves; he is a great critic, if by his understanding and feeling for the work, by his passion, he can excite people so that they want to experience more of the art that is there, waiting to be seized. He is not necessarily a bad critic if he makes errors of judgment. (Infallible taste is inconceivable; what could it be measured against?)

He is a bad critic if he does not awaken the curiosity, enlarge the interests and understanding of his audience. The art of the critic is to transmit his knowledge of and enthusiasm for art to others.” That is a very Kael way of describing it. She was a mercurial critic who wore her taste on her sleeve, unapologetically.

Though there are some very good critics in India — Anupama Chopra and Rajeev Masand are my favourites — I cannot think of anyone who can sway audiences with his love for the craft. A bulk of the critics just ‘review’ a film without revealing the world it opens or doesn’t. Many are sneery about popular entertainment in general and don’t have patience with the Agent Vinod kind of films. And it shows.

Infuriating trend: Most film critics are sneery about popular entertainment and it shows

You could argue that critics have very jaded palettes. It is impossible for them to enjoy a popular film because they really are not the audience. I never could see the point of Ishqiya but every critic loved it. Most ‘small’ and ‘different’ films gain hugely if a critic likes them. But most big, heavy-hitters that are promoted ad nauseam lose because they create impossible expectations. Ra-One is a great example of that.

Agent Vinod too, probably, created expectations that were never met. My guess is it suffered more because director Sriram Raghavan is seen as a cerebral sort of chappie who had done Ek Hasina Thi and Johnny Gaddar. These were outstanding films that the critics had loved. They expected a similarly intellectual piece of work from Raghavan. He on the other hand was simply trying to make a witty spy caper.

That brings me back to the point. What is the job of the film critic? If all the audience reads is the opinion of someone who happened to see the film then the critic is probably not doing a good job. A film, just like a book or a painting is an art form. It marks a point in the cultural history of a nation. Someone who enjoys cinema, has a love for it will review it in the context of those times.

The critic may not like the film. But if the audience enjoys reading him and learns something new about the craft of cinema from what he has written, a critic becomes a positive force. The Indian film industry has changed dramatically over the last decade — commercially and creatively. It is today more relevant and ‘with’ the India it caters to. It is time critics did that too. 

The writer is a media specialist and author. Follow her on twitter at http://twitter.com/vanitakohlik

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