I wrote my first film review in 1968 in the leftist political weekly Century (founded by VK Krishna Menon) while I was in college. Since then I have reviewed films on and off in various newspapers and magazines. In spite of spending over 5 decades in films and other media I am still hesitant to call myself a film critic. Today there are hundreds of film critics in India. I dare say that except for the writings of a handful of these hacks (they don’t deserve to be regarded otherwise), what passes on as film criticism is opinionated, patronising writing. One of the main reasons is that many film critics have their knowledge of cinema manufactured in the Film Appreciation Course at the Film & TV Institute of India. Watching films at various film festivals, reading foreign reviews and now listening to social media chatter gives them ‘legitimacy’ to pontificate on good cinema. Interestingly many of these film critics are well intentioned, amiable people, some of whom I am fond of. I only wish they heal the chip on their shoulders.
Arguably the first film review appeared in New York Times in 1896 in the earliest years of motion pictures. It was less about the film but more about the medium. Henry Miller writing in The Guardian on January 12, 2012, observes,
“The early film critics, wrote Alistair Cooke in 1937, were presented with a new art form, unencumbered by tradition, and free ‘to define the movies with no more misgivings than Aristotle defined tragedy’. Or at least they would have been, but the press lost interest once the novelty wore off, and so ‘through a trick of snobbery the simple Aristotelian lost his chance. This lapse did not pass without comment. While ‘every theatre play is accorded the honour of a press notice’, complained the trade paper Kinematograph Weekly as late as 1918, the ‘perfunctory sort of acknowledgement’ given the likes of The birth of a Nation and Intolerance was ‘obviously written by people who bring to the kinema the prejudiced mind of dear old Granny from the country on her first visit to the play’. There were a handful of exceptions, and the not entirely reliable consensus had it that WG Faulkner, of the London Evening News, was author of the ‘first regular criticisms of films in any British newspaper’”.
However there are two landmarks in film criticism. The first is Sight and Sound—the magazine started by the British Film Institute in 1932. For generations it remained an authoritative publication on the art of cinema. In 1951 a second watershed moment came with the publication of Cahiers du Cinéma. This journal which became the fountainhead of New Wave Cinema in Europe and later in other countries including India was started by Andre Bazin, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze and Joseph-Marie Lo Duca with the active support of Robert Bresson, Jean Cocteau, Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Goddard, François Truffaut and Andrew Sarris. These were people who understood the grammar of cinema and many of them went on to become great film makers themselves. In the mid fifties there was a divide when these young film makers started reviewing popular American cinema by film makers like Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder and David Lean along with European greats like Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini and Asian film makers like Kurosawa, Ozu, and Ray. These left of centre intellectuals obviously inspired Indian films critics of the 50s and 60s in India. However there was an apparent delta between these high priests and their Indian disciples. Unfortunately an inherent disdain for anything popular still lingers on as a rather self-acquired legacy. India has always lacked someone like Pauline Kael, Robin Wood or Richard Corliss who could critique avante garde cinema and blockbusters with equal aplomb and without prejudice.
Somewhere in the post World War II era of print were created two distinct approaches: first and more popular was the film reviewer and the other the film critic. By and large film reviews are what appear in newspapers and magazines, radio and TV and of course now online. A recent phenomenon is social media reviews, some even typed from inside a cinema while the reviewer is still watching the film. Reviewers generally follow a set pattern—Give a gist of the plot (nowadays with spoiler alerts), talk broadly about the main players’ performance, make broad comments about the screenplay, cinematography, music, production design, etc. There is usually a reference to direction. Often the reputation of the creative professionals and artistes colour the review. A trend started by American publications in the late 1940s of awarding stars based on some arbitrary methodology caught on in India as well. Even now the so called ‘serious’ film critics dispense stars as some sort of personal dole.
Any criticism of artistic work is subjective and there will always be personal biases. A peculiar hang up of Indian critics of all arts is that they become all knowing arbiters of aesthetics, form and content even when their knowledge is based on a casual read of a few books and articles. Merely watching films in film festivals or week after week in cinemas and cosying up to a select group in the art circuit in media does not give anyone the authority to pass unqualified judgement on all creative efforts. Interestingly most of these purveyors of good cinema gladly land up at a star’s house for an exclusive interview (stars sell, or so say their bosses) and do puff pieces on successful film makers while lamenting about how their favourite film did not get a proper release. I don’t remember ever reading in Sight and Sound, Cahiers du Cinema or even the Guardian or New York Times about the lack of screen time or the improper release of a film. Self-styled modern masters (mavericks in disguise more often) and their cheerleaders in media would like us to believe that every genius is a victim of some box office chicanery. By the way most in this “guild of film critics” author books on popular stars, film makers and films while decrying the same week after week in print, television and online.
I have often said that mediocrity rules in every walk of life but on a good day even the most ordinary artiste is capable of a stroke of excellence.
-A true critic
Clarification. To correct a slight error that has been in circulation in the leading English dailies since the last one year. FCCI was officially registered way back in Feb 2013 under the Travancore Cochin Literary Scientific and Charitable Societies Registration Act XII of 1955.
In the pic above: Subhash Ghai quotes from the Oscar rules for its jury, at the first AGM of the FCCI following its official registration, “You have the responsibility to look into the growth of civilisation and of the next generation. We filmmakers look upon you as God. So guide us in your reviews, tell us where we lack, and how we can improve.”