The Big M
What does an artist make of a reviewer?
First-time directors, stung by criticism, end up at the beginner's block.
- Total Shares
There were Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler, Princess Leia and Han Solo, Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski and then there are critics and filmmakers. Both the love and hate are legendary.
In India this prickly relationship is exacerbated by many factors, including the fact that neither side feels the other is entirely qualified to do his job or being completely honest about it. For years I thought it was just the filmmakers that looked at it that way but then I heard a critic at a film festival.
When accused of "not being really qualified to critique", he responded, "Well filmmakers in India are not exactly Scorsese". On the other hand, filmmakers routinely complain about the alliances, the monies paid and how favours of access to coteries are granted for good reviews.
And yet faithfully, every Friday, the Pandora's box is opened and fates of films are unleashed.
The rise of the Indian critic and the power of the grading by stars is somewhat of a recent phenomenon in India. With the plethora of entertainment choices, the "referral" becomes important. Audiences attach their decision of seeing a film to the number of stars it has scored. Filmmakers, like kindergarten students, await these pins of approval so that the audience can be convinced of how good their films are.
And yet... so many films with many stars (both kinds) fail to make a mark at the box office. And as the amount of films have gone up, so have the reviewers. There are now hundreds of reviews of every film. Movies are easy to watch and easy to have an opinion about. And so, now every website, radio station and TV channel has a review!
This opinion barrage had lead to a situation where it's no longer just one factor that makes audiences decide to see a film. Although a slew of bad reviews will most definitely dent a film's box office potential.
Week on week one watches friends with their confidence knocked out by a 500-word piece in a newspaper. And first-time filmmakers, who spent years getting up the ladder, are now stung by criticism and ending up at the beginner's block.
Personally, I had the wind knocked out of my sails when my first film released. Looking back, I would give myself five stars for good intentions and zero for knowing what the hell was going on around me - it was a Don Quixote rush at the marquee and the result was predictable. There were two years of agony before I let it go and moved on.
The truth is first failures, like first loves, can be quite enchanting. It makes one feel singled out and unique. It takes some time and experience to see that failure and criticisms are waters everyone has chartered. It's par for the course, not unique at all.
So then, why do we, as artists, give so much importance to criticism? Is it because we're approval-seekers and addicts of praise?
One of the most interesting conversations I have had on this topic is with director Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice and so on). He said, "Reading (bad) reviews of one's own films is a form of self harm." He talked about a phase in his life where things were not at their peak and how he spent a weekend in severe depression with adverse reviews of his films. And he could, to that day, recall the words of the bad reviews by heart.
Author William Dalrymple (it was his house where this conversation took place) agreed and could also quote the "criticisms" of his books. I too could recall mine verbatim. It took both Joe and William some experience to realise the futility of reading a plethora of reviews. Joe said he now reads only two reviews by critics he respects.
I thought of this conversation as my second film Kajarya was about to release and decided I was not going to read any reviews till a week after the film's release.
Strangely, a week after the film's release, it didn't seem like an urgent task anymore and I ended up reading only three reviews completely. They were all good. So no harm done... for now!