It's Friday morning. Sunny Leone's latest film is out. And after playing Baby Doll for the two-hundredth time in two days, the RJs on air get down to 'reviewing' the movie.
RJ 1: "In a scene, Sunny is seen pleasuring herself…". "…she must have a lot of practice, no?" RJ 2 cuts in, and giggles till RJ 1 concludes with the serious proclamation: "I give the movie two stars."
The verdict didn't make it to Ragini MMS 2's hoardings or print ads. But the film's promoters didn't need to look hard to find praise. Today, it seems, everyone's two cents can translate into more than two stars. On more than a dozen websites, at-home reviewers hold forth on every major release, offering their assessment of 100-crore films, indie titles and everything in between. Bloggers, Twitter users and at least five of your Facebook friends (and mine) have decided that the world needs their judgement of this Friday's box office offerings.
Hover over the images below for movie reviews and videos
So where does that leave India's popular critics, film journalists who have been assessing Bollywood films for a decade or more? Are their voices being drowned, or sharper than ever? And in an age where everyone's a superfan and no one else is allowed to have the last word, how are they standing by their own words?
Brunch got some critics such as CNN-IBN's entertainment editor Rajeev Masand, TV host Anupama Chopra and Rediff's film critic Raja Sen to talk about life on the job.
EVERYONE'S ON BOARD
For the most part, India's top critics seem happy about the rise in the number of opinions. "There are more voices now. And that's not a bad thing," concedes Masand, who has been reviewing films for over a decade. The ever-smiling critic is popular not just for his writing (and an entertaining magazine column where he spills industry secrets without naming a single name), but also his televised reviews of latest releases.
Masand says that the Internet has allowed for the formal style (which he admits had become "elitist, formal and, in effect, predictable") to be broken, with younger, more informal voices coming in. Most old-school critics would take a standard, serious approach (even if the analysis itself was sharp) - opening with a discussion on the plot or a scene perhaps. It is not uncommon, however, for a modern-day critic to present the entire review as a discussion he had with the liftman after watching the film. That's how critic Karan Anshuman wrote his entire review of Dhoom:3.
Or for someone to illustrate a review via an unabashedly funny stick-figure comic, as Sahil Rizwan (aka The Vigil Idiot) does to great popularity. His Dhoom:3 review, for instance, had unnaturally-large-eared Aamir Khan twins, toy bikes, even a Christopher Nolan as well as a Batman.
Film critic and TV show host Anupama Chopra has done reviews for TV channels and several publications including the Hindustan Times. She also hosts the popular show, Front Row. She, too, feels that more voices can only be a good thing. "Movies are a subjective passion, and the more opinions, the better," says Chopra. "I don't think a critic is someone on a pedestal…"
DOWN TO EARTH
The critic on a pedestal did exist, until recently. Film reviewer Mayank Shekhar says he's happy that the cult of the holier-than-thou critic is gone. "The problem starts when people, especially those from within the industry, start giving the reviewer more importance than you deserve," he says. "And once you get close to your subject, subconsciously, you may no longer say the things you might otherwise have."
Those on personal platforms like blogs and social media, on the other hand, are far less accountable. Kamaal R Khan (flop actor, but a hit online reviewer) has a video review of Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani on YouTube that is so vicious - he keeps alleging the director has daddy issues - that it's had over one lakh views.
Pretentious Movie Reviews (two boys, one camera and a YouTube channel) rips apart movies that represent the worst of cinema (more on them at the end of this article).
"Every film gets at least one four-star review these days," Masand says. "Of course, who am I to say that I am a serious reviewer, and a certain radio jockey is not?" he says. But he says that filmmakers need to exercise a little more discretion about the standard, and the source of reviews they are quoting from. "Honestly, at the cost of sounding condescending, I'm not thrilled at being lumped with many of these reviewers," he says.
Raja Sen has been reviewing on an online platform for a decade. He says breaking free of print has one obvious benefit: word count. His standard review is 900 words - significantly more than what a critic tends to get in a newspaper - which allows him to delve deep into a nuanced film or slam a terrible one. But he says that it's becoming harder to establish credibility on the Internet. "So many blogs are keen to be dismissive just to get noticed," he points out.
THEM AND US
Let's face it: There is sadistic pleasure in criticism. That's why reviewers love to sink their teeth into an especially bad film. In his review of Ishkq in Paris, Masand declares the leading man "as expressive as a slab of granite".
Perhaps the biggest change for any critic today is how their word is no longer the final word - at least if you scroll down to the comments section. Disagreed with a review? Why write an email to give the reviewer a piece of your mind when you can comment anonymously or tweet your abuse in 140 characters? "I've been abused so often that it's hard to pick a comment [that stands out]," says Anupama Chopra.
After her review of Rowdy Rathore, a comment read: "Watch the movie, change your review and apologige [sic] publicly to the viewers…". The worst reactions came after she gave Salman Khan's Bodyguard a less-than-favourable review. "His fans went ballistic," Chopra recalls. "They posted physical threats on Twitter about what they would have done to me. It was pretty depressing."
She says she reads the comments on her online reviews and sees the tweets addressed to her, but never replies.
THE OTHER SIDE
You can't get a critic and a filmmaker to agree. Even a self-admitted masala film director like Rohit '100 crore' Shetty is quick to dismiss the worth of critical acclaim. "Shetty, who came on my show despite all my negative reviews, stated clearly that my reviews had no importance in his scheme of things," says Chopra. Dancer and director Prabhudheva, whose Rowdy Rathore earned only one star in Chopra's review also came on Chopra's show. "He said, 'Madam, I saw your review (I had given the film one star). Now, you dance and I will review it,' Chopra recalls.
The responses from the film world illustrate both how little reviewers matter as well as how much they do. Masand says that after he gave a harsh review to Rowdy Rathore, the film's star Akshay Kumar "told me he doesn't want to talk. He said someone had read my review and cancelled their tickets to the show."
Mahesh Bhatt, another mass filmmaker, admits he's always had what he calls a "fiercely hostile relationship" with reviewers. "The critic has an opinion on films, but so does my maid," he states baldly. "And I care more about my maid's opinion, because she is a consumer of what I make."
Director Kabir Khan has made both niche and mass-appeal films. His Kabul Express, back in 2006, picked up a fair bit of critical appreciation. Then, he went on to make the Salman Khan-starrer Ek Tha Tiger - a product more tailor-made for box office returns. Khan believes that there are too many critics, many of them "self-styled ones who rave and rant, and find their names up on billboards. Most don't know how to read a film and no one's sure what their credentials are. And they tend to see everything - small-budget films, mega-starrers - through the same prism. Soon, they'll be telling us how an edit should be done."
Several critics are now making films themselves. Raja Sen co-wrote the dialogue for Go Goa Gone (2013) and says he is in discussion to direct something soon and Karan Anshuman is set to direct too. Kabir Khan is critical of reviewers turning directors: "Some only write reviews till they can become filmmakers themselves; or they are full of angst if they've had their scripts turned down."
Sen says one needs to draw one's own boundaries as a film reviewer. He says he wouldn't review a film he's been involved in even slightly, or made by a person he's worked with. But Shekhar sees no conflict in being filmmaker and reviewer: "The director constructs, a reviewer deconstructs."
Chopra is in a more challenging a position. She's married to director-producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra, so she has immediate family that's part of the industry she must critique. Chopra doesn't review any film her husband is part of. "I know what bad reviews feel like," she admits. "But I will never be dishonest as to what I feel about a film." She isn't wary of upsetting her husband's colleagues either: "We don't have any friends within the industry. So I've never been particularly traumatised by having to give a friend's film a bad review." However, that doesn't mean no one's ever pointed fingers. "A director told me that I was less than raving about his film because he was competition for my husband," she says.
RATINGS AND REWARDS
Of late, there has been a more serious allegation against film critics. In 2011, at a forum at the Mumbai Film Festival, writer-director Nikhil Advani answered "Yes" when asked if he knew of anyone in Bollywood who paid to get a favourable review of his/her film.
The book, Shooting Stars, by old-time film publicist Colin Pal talks about how they used to slip in money at press shows. They called it 'cab money'.
Sen feels people learn to not trust a review source that consistently inflates ratings. "I've been told by readers that a particular newspaper gives good ratings to practically every film, so they don't take it seriously," he says.
As more and more films are churned out by Bollywood, reviews will continue to be written, read, posted, shared and slammed. Filmmakers may not like them; Salman Khan's box office credentials may not be diminished by them. But when did reviews affect any of that anyway? Whatever form they do evolve into - meme reviews, listicles - they will continue the culture of critical thought.
The rage over roughly aimed and quickly taken selfies hasn't reduced the worth of a thoughtfully framed photograph. The same logic, one hopes, will hold for an intelligent criticism.
Follow @SaritRay2001 on Twitter
No tension, just pretension
From HT Brunch, May 11
One night I was watching an old Dharmendra movie and thought it would be cool to review films no one would," says Kanan Gill, 24-year-old stand-up comedian from Bangalore. So he, along with Biswa Kalyan Rath, an IIT graduate-turned-stand-up-comedian, created video reviews of lesser-known (and even lesser appreciated) films and uploaded them to YouTube.
The pretentious ones: Gill (left) and Rath ripping a film apart
Three months and four reviews later, the boys behind Pretentious Movie Reviews are a YouTube sensation. Their reviews have drawn over a lakh viewers. The videos are full of hilarious comments about the hammy acting, cringeworthy CGI, the plot that trips on itself and the cheesy melodrama. They draw your attention to such gems as Shakti Kapoor referring to Viagra as vitamin sex (in Gunda) and how Hrithik saves Kareena's flying dad from a car accident (in Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon).
Watch: Gunda Review
"We are not critics," Gill says. "We bring out the points of contention in a funny way and the rest is left to the audience."
Their production is simple: Gill's SLR camera shoved into a cupboard facing a table and two chairs. No cameraman. They don't even bother with scripts, just a few talking points and a lot of improv. "But before shooting the review, we watch the movie at least 10 times." The rest of the magic is created on Gill's iMac. Editing takes 20 hours.
Watch: Main Prem Ki Deewani Hoon Review
These reviews work because the boys justify everything they say with examples. That and Gill's charm and Rath's straight-faced humour is probably what's catapulted them to popularity so quickly.
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