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BO vs critics: The great divide

A film critic's job is to find unanswered questions. Is his job mere a weekly chore? Saibal Chatterjee finds out.

india Updated: Jul 23, 2006 22:46 IST

The job of a film critic is fraught with unanswered questions. Is his or her job mere a weekly chore, the expression of an overweening passion for the movies or simply a cold, clinical exercise in art assessment? There can be no single answer to that poser.  

What, then, is the aim of a professional film critic who puts fingers to his laptop keys in an age in which every blogger who has an opinion can pass of as a legitimate reviewer of movies?

Should the film critic strive to mirror what is perceived as popular taste or should the endeavour be to assist moviegoers in making more informed choices so that they do not squander hard-earned money on bad films propped up by the charisma of saleable box office stars and the machinations of hyperactive publicity machines?

Unfortunately, there can never be any clear-cut, indisputable answers to these questions. For one, who are we to decide what filmgoers should or shouldn’t watch? That wouldn’t be outright anti-democratic. A critic can at best express an opinion, and an opinion isn’t right or wrong. It can only be acceptable or unacceptable.

Rakeysh Mehra’s Rang De Basanti was lauded by masses and classes alike

Moreover, critics across the globe are a varied lot. Reviewers in Europe do not approach cinema in the way that those in the US do, and most certainly not in the manner in which critics in India do. So no single theory can be valid for critics of the whole world.

Indeed, critics, on their part, can be as unpredictable as the filmgoers they are supposed to serve. They end up mercilessly ripping apart a film that goes on to rake in piles of cash just as often as they are caught heaping seemingly undeserved praise on a release that is summarily cold-shouldered by the paying public.

However, the fact that critics and filmgoers do not always agree with each other might not be a bad thing at all. The reason for that is simple: what the audience wants and laps up in this era of publicity hype and promotional hoopla is more often than not dictated by things that have nothing to do with artistic quality.

The mass response to films all too frequently hinges on how well a producer packages and pushes a film, and on who the stars in the film are. If a critic can stay unwavering in the face of the multimedia blitzkrieg that usually precedes the release of a big-ticket film often by, not days and weeks, but months, he or she could consider at least half the job well done.

In the past couple of months, critics in the US have found themselves completely at variance with moviegoers in the case of at least two major films – Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man’s Chest and The Da Vinci Code.

The reviews that Da Vinci Code received after its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival were, to say the least, were unflattering. But when the film opened worldwide the next day, it took the box office by storm. The public proved the critics wrong.

Much the same has been repeated with Pirates. The critics have carped, but the film has continued to smash box office records all around the US. The chasm between public taste and critical parameters seem to be growing wider than ever before.

It’s quite clear that critics cannot influence moviegoers beyond a point. So while commercial success does not necessarily negate an overwhelmingly critical verdict, it is becoming increasingly clear that the lay moviegoer is looking only for fun and recreation in a film. In contrast, the professional critic is searching for art where there is none.

Does that imply that critics, especially those that work for general-interest dailies and periodicals targeted at a mass audience, should stop reviewing films altogether? That would be a preposterous suggestion. No matter how stupid the audience may occasionally make the critics look, the latter remain an integral part of cinema.    

The filmmaking process would be incomplete without critics passing their verdict on a film. Their job isn’t devalued simply because they are rarely in agreement with filmgoers. Unless critics watch every film that is made and dispassionately and independently assess its merits and demerits, cinema and its consumers would be the greatest losers. Who would then witness and record for posterity the rare moments of magic that cinema is capable of delivering through the miasma of crass commercialism?             

Damn the critics if you will. You cannot dump them.