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Life as a film critic in a time of internet trolls, hateful hashtags

As attacks get increasingly personal, threaten rape and violence, reviewers say they are determined to stay the course.

more lifestyle Updated: Aug 19, 2017 23:33 IST
Rachel Lopez
Rachel Lopez
Hindustan Times
Troll,Movies,Friday

Movie logic will have you believe than when you love someone, you should shout it from the rooftops.

In India, however, fans of film stars now declare their love by shouting down on social media anyone with a less-than-savoury opinion of their screen idols.

Film critics have it especially tough. Every Friday brings a new film, a fresh review, and fans waiting to pounce on any analysis that is less than glowing praise. Even when praise is due, and duly given, there are flare-ups from followers of a rival star.

Audiences have often had disagreements with film reviews, says film critic Tanul Thakur. “And they’re welcome. But over the past few years, the reactions have become more organised online.”

They’re personal, target women or members of one’s family. And they’re replicated across thousands of accounts. “Anyone who’s appeared on screen has huge followings. These are people connected on Facebook and Twitter and phone networks. And 15 million fans is a big enough number to steamroll any individual,” Thakur says.

He has had his share of trolling. His review of the Shah Rukh Khan-Anushka Sharma film Jab Harry Met Sejal, released this month, describes the film as “crass and insensitive”, “shoddy, mirthless and regressive”, “clueless and tone deaf” and “an abomination – a 144-minute formulaic fest”. And that’s just the opening paragraph.

“I was expecting a lot of hate to be flung my way, given that SRK has a huge fan base, and my review of Indu Sarkar the previous month got a barrage of responses calling me the usual Congressi-Secular-Libtard,” he says. “But it was nothing compared to what Dhanya Rajendran had to endure for calling the film out for what it was.”

Rajendran had tweeted about Jab Harry… comparing her dissatisfaction with the film to Sura, a 2010 film starring the Tamil actor Vijay. Fans of Vijay took offence, abusing her online.

Such attacks may appear like emotional outbursts of individual fans. But those on the receiving end have long noticed patterns – strings of phrases repeated by too many responders for it to be a coincidence; anonymous accounts that exist only to spew hate; posts that are synchronised and timed; and large groups of strangers all of whom reference personal details about the critic in their online attacks.

“Whether they are ordinary fans or they are being unleashed on journalists by agencies of the film industry, the motive of all film trolls is to browbeat critics into making positive remarks about the star or film they are batting for,” says film critic Anna MM Vetticad.

She has been viciously trolled for pointing out the failings of the film Baahubali, and more recently for her 1.5-star review of Akshay Kumar’s Toilet: Ek Prem Katha.

“In recent years, constant attacks by trolls of the present ruling party have caused many political journalists to tread carefully while commenting on the government on social and mainstream media. The goal of film trolls is no different. I feel quite proud of my fellow film critics when I see that they have not similarly succumbed to online forces,” she says.

South Indian cinema fans can be particularly touchy. Online wars between fan groups routinely escalate to take over timelines, it takes only a few hours before hashtags and counter hashtags start to trend.

Baradwaj Rangan, a National-Award-winning critic and member of the Film Critics Circle of India, says films in the south are especially rewarding of hardcore fans. “In-jokes and dialogue are constructed for them to pick up on and filmmakers add references to previous films for keen viewers,” he says. “Perhaps this is the handshake, the breaking of the fourth wall, which makes fans willing to do things for their idols in return.”

Otherwise, there’s little reward. For a while now, Hollywood has offered extreme fans special merchandising, preferential treatment on publicity tours, even franchises, so fans build up hype on social networks in return.

Indian fandom is different. We tend to worship the star, rather than the character or the alternative universe of the films. Rangan likens it to religion, in which “the believer is the upholder and defender against the infidel”, particularly when the stars do little to discourage troll behaviour.

Still, a fan army attempting to snuff out dissent may seem counterproductive. “If fans will defend everything, rather than demand something better, it lowers the bar for quality because the star is assured of adulation regardless,” says Thakur.

But he’s observed the tide changing. “Trolls think little of critical opinion, but Salman Khan’s universally panned Tubelight didn’t do well commercially,” he says. “The poor revenues for Jab Harry… also show that a threshold is being reached. They can’t use commercial success as a comeback when issues are raised about quality.”

Vetticad recommends staying the course. “We need to keep ourselves aware of the psychological games trolls play so that we continue not to be manipulated by them,” she says.

For his part, Thakur does this with a simple mental autocorrect — every mention of “Libtard” becomes “Good Job”.

First Published: Aug 19, 2017 23:33 IST