For more than a decade now, many of us have read Baradwaj Rangan, and not just for his take on our favourite movies. He is a writer, thinker, and rare reviewer in the business we don’t turn to simply agree or disagree with. Some have grown up — and grown to appreciate cinema and be educated about its language — through his elaborate weekly film critiques, analyses, op-ed pieces, and random musings. He has also authored two books, Conversations With Mani Ratnam (2012) and Dispatches From The Wall Corner (2014), and has contributed to various anthologies.
A Senior Deputy Editor at The Hindu (Chennai), and a National Award Winner for Best Film Critic (Swarna Kamal) in 2005, Mr. Rangan remains prolific, accessible and very generous with his time. We asked him if he were willing to answer some questions by email back in October, 2015. It began as an assorted set of greedy queries. But over the next few months, a bunch of emails, Facebook messages and one final hour-long phone discussion, we have compiled our very own Conversations With Baradwaj Rangan.
Through this process, and going over his words (both written and transcribed) repeatedly, we learned to suppress our fanboyish tendencies, and engage in an important and varied exchange with one of Indian cinema’s most definitive voices.
You moved from the U.S. to India to become a full-time writer. What were your initial days like? In one of your blog posts, you briefly touched upon your first year in India, when you “sat at home like a bum, and regretted the decision to come back”. What stopped you from going back?
BR: The initial days weren’t great; they weren’t bad. I had some savings I could dip into, so the situation wasn’t dire. But the payments were dire. I would make something like 600 bucks for a review. This was in 2003. Did I really say, “Sat home like a bum”? Because I remember doing a lot of freelance work for really odd publications (given my interests) like Sourcing Hardware. I would go to manufacturers of switches or kitchen sinks and try to come up with a comprehensive piece about them. But I was also writing film- and music-related stuff for The New Indian Express and The Economic Times supplement called Madras Plus. So I was putting my byline out. I had told myself that things wouldn’t happen by magic, that it would take time. So I was mentally prepared to hunker down and wait. It probably helped that there weren’t too many people writing in-depth pieces about Indian cinema then. The general writing (then, as now) was of a cursory, superficial kind. So I think at least a few readers began to follow me. I remember that my byline had been left out once, and a reader called the office to ask if the piece was by me. That was the first time I realised I had something of a style.
Writing, especially in Indian middle-class families, is still largely seen as something that can be pursued on the side, as a hobby. When did you seriously start thinking of it as a career option? What led to that realisation?
I think it was more an emotional rather than rational decision, because today, sometimes, when I look back at the risk I took, I feel terrified. Because I was leaving a great job to become a writer. But I quit, because that job wasn’t going anywhere, and I came to a point where I knew that had I wanted to continue, I could have done it for the next 40 years and have a peaceful, comfortable life. It was more about wanting to give writing a shot rather than make it a career, because I didn’t even know many journalists. It was the encouragement I got for my initial reviews — which I started e-mailing to friends, who then forwarded them to their circles — that gave me some sense that maybe there’s a market for this sort of stuff in Indian film writing.
We all turn to our favourite critics to know their thoughts about a particular film, to see if they saw the same things that we saw or, sometimes, to just seek out an opinion we respect. Did you, similarly, look up to a critic in those days?
You mean before I started writing? That would be Owen Gleiberman, who wrote for Entertainment Weekly. I used to look forward to the magazine arriving in the mailbox and turn right to the reviews page. I liked the way he used language and the way he thought about film — to me, the two important things about being a critic. For instance, The English Patient (1996) is a film I adore, but he wrote, “By the end, we understand how these characters fit the movie’s grand collage of love and betrayal, but it’s the very over elaborateness of that collage that makes The English Patient a remote and, at times, faintly oppressive experience.” And I saw what he meant. His words crystallised a vague feeling I had about the film’s structure, even if I did not mind it as much as he did. And for older films, of course, Pauline Kael. I disagreed with her half the time, but it was impossible to stop reading her. I don’t think I have read another critic who ‘entered’ a film as much as she did. My favourite line of hers is from her review of The Godfather Part II (1974): “About midway, I began to feel that the film was expanding in my head like a soft bullet.” Too many people forget that writing about cinema is also a kind of writing. They look at it as something functional, like a customer report. Maybe that’s why writing about films isn’t considered a serious beat.
Writing on films is, obviously, intricately tied to thinking about them. As kids or non-discerning viewers, we often turn to the movies for ‘stories’, and the takeaway is often binary: like or dislike. The nuanced realisations — that one can also respond to moments in films (some more fulfilling than others), and that movies are not just about stories — come much later. When did you warm up to this facet of films?
It basically came from reading all those reviews — even of movies that you hated. Because the writing was so convincing and the arguments were so well made that for a second you almost felt that you were in the wrong for not liking the film. So those reviews had already given me some sense of how subjective this whole thing was, and that the only way you can be objective is by being as truthful as possible to your own experience, as opposed to expecting a film to live up to a certain standard.
And then I also found out that I watched movies because of a lot of smaller factors — maybe I had liked a song, a comedy stretch, or three to four powerful scenes — even though I might not have liked the film consistently. Even in the VCR era, you could forward and watch the bits you wanted. And that is pretty much what you are saying: that you can like something without it necessarily being some kind of a holistic, all-time great masterpiece.
People often cast aspersions on the ‘qualification’ of a film critic. And it’s not surprising because ‘criticism’ and ‘judgment’ has been, by default, associated with negative connotations. So, when you began reviewing, did these factors — of not having a formal training in film criticism — make you insecure?
I think the bigger problem is that even if you ‘qualify’ yourself, even if you show that you have a unique perspective, and you know your Indian cinema and you write well, you will be still lumped under the ‘reviewer’ category along with some bloke with a blog who has written a review in 15 minutes. And this has to do with the fact that film is a very democratic medium. With books, for instance, people might hesitate before opining on poetry or something difficult, but with films, everyone is an expert; everyone talks freely about “how great the cinematography is” and — more bafflingly — “how good the editing is”, as though they were present in the room when the editor was choosing from takes.
And a lot of this comes from the fact that people don’t take films seriously. I have seen people asking newbies to review films — it’s as if anyone can do it. And that attitude sticks. Worse, there’s the rush today. I am expected to turn in the review as soon as possible after watching the film. Turn it in the next morning, and the Internet desk groans because they are no longer getting hits or whatever. So it’s a weird profession.
As for insecurity, I think that’s part of any writer or creative person. There’s insecurity that you aren’t being read the way you want to be read, that you are not being taken as seriously as the guy who writes about Syria, that younger writers with no sensibility are being read more than you are. Any profession that requires you to be visible isn’t for the faint-hearted.
Weekly reviews are not as glamorous or easy as they sound. Have you, in the past, found yourself, or been in the danger of, slipping into an autopilot mode as a writer — where you are repeating thoughts and reviews’ structure, even using crutch words?
Not just the past. Even the present. That’s the bane of the journalist. When you write so much, you tend to repeat words, formats. Also, when you are starting out, your ‘voice’ is still fresh enough to look at films in a new way. But once you have covered the gamut of films, once you have written about all types of films, from all angles, you find yourself slipping back to an older template or structure. Or even crutch words. I used to use “segue” a lot until a reader pointed it out, and I got conscious about it. But lots of times, you are on your own. I fight this all the time. I think one way to combat this fatigue is to read a lot of other kinds of writing — not necessarily reviews. So you get new words, new ways of writing the same things.
Have you noticed a difference in your writing — or the writing process — from the time you were a blogger, writing for leisure, to now, when you are a professional writer, reviewing films weekly?
I don’t think the writing process changes. You have a set of thoughts about the film that you have scribbled during the interval or on the way home. And then you find the best (as in, most interesting) way possible to string those thoughts together. That’s always been how I write, even my non-film pieces. I have never been someone who can start off writing the first sentence and then the second and so on without jotting down points first on the Word document. I jot down points. I stare at them. Then one of them makes a good case as a way to open the review. Then I figure out the flow, and start writing. It’s not ironclad, of course. Sometimes the flow will change midway, and I will have to figure out another way to reach the end I had in mind earlier (or look for a new way to end the piece). But the overall process is somewhat like this. And it hasn’t changed for me at all.
The reviewing landscape, however, has definitely changed. Newspaper critics seem to be a tiny part of entertainment journalism as a whole, with not more than 400 words allowed for reviews. The digital scene is overpopulated; almost everyone with an opinion is a reviewer. Was film criticism more exclusive back when you started?
I don’t know about ‘exclusive’. But, yes, there were fewer film writers. And almost no one who could be called a ‘critic’, simply because the amount of space they got would hardly allow for any meaningful writing about the film. Also, it was difficult to find them. These days, someone always posts an interesting review on Facebook, and it eventually comes around to you. So it’s easier to find writers who may be a little off the radar.
Film criticism isn’t treated as a serious profession here, even today. Is it then necessary for critics to adapt to different kinds of writing and journalism, and perhaps not limit themselves to just weekly reviews?
I don’t know if I would say it’s ‘necessary’. It depends. I look at myself as a writer, first and foremost. I am a writer who happens to write about cinema mostly, but also other things. So I think it’s absolutely necessary to do other kinds of writing, even if it’s just writing 500 words a day (fiction or something funny) that no one else is going to see. I write an occasional column for the paper that’s completely non-film-related, a stream-of-consciousness type piece about various subjects. It keeps you sharp. One of the traps of making a living as a journalist, especially a freelance journalist, is that you are called to write all the time, and everything is needed yesterday, so you basically have a tough time just writing something that does the job. But if you keep expanding the scope of your writing, then even this ‘default level’ becomes better.
Honesty is a basic requirement for journalism in general, yet here it’s lauded and commonly mistaken for great work. What, according to you, is the hallmark of a good, insightful reviewer?
Let’s define honesty first. I think the most useful kind of honesty is towards your own experience of a film. Only an honest ‘confession’ of what you feel, and, more importantly, why you feel it (to the extent that you can pin down this ‘why’) can result in a good review, one that’s unique. And for that you have to be familiar with the kinds of filmmaking out there, and you have to be aware of your fleeting feelings as the film goes on.
I see many critics around who write well, but whose references are mostly foreign and who don’t seem to connect especially well to commercial Indian cinema. That’s a bit like being an expert on T. S. Eliot and trying to grapple with the emotional maximalism of a Surdas, or knowing ballet and trying to understand Bharatanatyam. You have to have that switch inside you that can be turned to the ‘ballet’ or the ‘bharatanatyam’ setting, depending on the film. And that’s when you really feel the film. The less generic, more specific you get in writing about these feelings, the better the review.
People often say they read a review for opinions, but feelings are more important. I love to hear people talk about the sensual experience of movie watching — how a song, the face of an actor, or star power made them feel. Or how they enjoyed something: how it made them laugh, cry, aroused, incensed. This experience is the only ‘truth’ in a review — not the opinion, verdict, how many stars, or whatever. Also, it’s become fashionable today to look at films through the prism of ideologies, so the minute a woman is slapped, say, you will find the word ‘patriarchy’ in the review, even if this is just a one-off instance about a single character and not the film’s entire worldview. I think ideology is interesting, but it comes from the head, and there needs to be a measure of the heart in the review, too.
Attempts at in-depth dissection by critics are often dismissed as ‘intellectualising’ by both readers and editors. You have faced this criticism in your career, too. Is this because there’s an ill-conceived assumption here that our fluffy brand of escapist cinema can’t result in incisive writing?
I think it’s more because there really hasn’t been a tradition of writing in a particular way about cinema here. Of course, there have been critics like Chidananda Dasgupta, but they were read only in pockets, and only by certain groups of people. Whereas the writings that went out to the ‘masses’, so to speak, were not very in-depth. And this has been the case for years. So when one — not just me, but anyone — suddenly shows up writing 1500-word reviews in a newspaper (sometimes with a longer version on the blog), the reader doesn’t know how to take it. He is used to long op-ed pieces, long travel pieces, long cover stories in India Today or Outlook — but long film reviews? That’s a new one. And people start getting suspicious: “Oh, you are trying to be intellectual,” etc.
The other thing is that mainstream cinema is rarely taken seriously, both by readers and editors. So when you apply a certain way of ‘looking’ to a cinema like ours, they are dismissive. My reviews for Talvar (2015) and Shaandaar (2015) are both around 1,500 words, but more readers engage with the ‘analysis’ in the former than the one in the latter, though the latter merits ‘analysis’, too (which shouldn’t be confused with opinion; I’m not asking you to agree with my opinion about Shaandaar — I’m just asking you, if you have the time, to see what I have to say about it).
Also, people don’t think cinema is a medium that requires a certain level of engagement and understanding. This is also a factor that makes them say, “When I did not like it one bit, what are you going on and on about?” Because they think they are as much an ‘expert’ as you are.
In my case, I think two things really changed the way people looked at my writing/reviewing. First, the National Award. I think I had just about begun to get some readership traction and blog visibility, and when this award happened, things just exploded. Today, of course, everyone’s online, so when a National Award is announced, you know the person and their writing, but back then (2005/2006) it was huge. Many people said this was the first time they had even heard there was a National Award for critics, which may be because earlier awards went to critics writing about more ‘serious’ cinema in less visible places. I think people like the fact that someone has put a ‘chhapa’ [stamp] on you, and when it’s from the government, it gives you some credibility.
The second thing was my book Conversations with Mani Ratnam. The fact that a director like him took me and my questions (and consequently, my ‘approach’ to thinking about cinema) seriously made people look at me a lot differently. I mean the junta, not the critic or literary types who knew what I was doing. So, again, a lot of people have told me things like, “I thought you were pretentious earlier, but now I look at it differently.” So now, even when I write in-depth pieces about mainstream cinema, there are fewer people scoffing and sniggering.
Does the grind of watching mediocre films, week after week, wear you down? In that case, is there a temptation to take the easy way out: to rant about a film or make fun of it, simply because there’s nothing redeemable in it?
You do get irritated with mediocre films, but ninety percent of them have one or two aspects that redeem the movie, so I feel getting half an hour of decent stuff is not such a bad deal. But I think it’s more a question of not wanting to sound the same way in your writing — like, beginning and structuring the reviews in a certain way, or listing all the good things first and then get to a point where you are saying, “That’s where the problem with the film is yada, yada, yada.”
Making a template of writing a review.
Yeah, because there’s a certain way your mind works — that is the most difficult thing. Of course, there is going to be a style and voice, but I am talking beyond that. Also, you don’t want to make fun of a mediocre movie because you want to make fun of it. You make fun of it because there’s a certain level of cluelessness in it, because as long as there is some kind of sincerity, dedication and application in the movie, you don’t feel like taking a tone of derision even if it doesn’t succeed.
And it’s not like you decide on your tone as you are exiting the theatre. You don’t say, “Oh, this is a movie that I am going to [slam].” It’s as you write the review, that the tone really pops up, because when you go and sit down for a movie, if you are a critic, you should be willing to accept the fact that there could be a film that may surprise you. You can’t go to a movie and say, “Oh, dear lord, I have to watch this.” Then you really shouldn’t be a critic at all, or you should let somebody else review the film. Moreover, I tend to see the review as two things: one, my report on the experience of a film, and, the second, some kind of entertainment for the reader who spends five to ten minutes reading a piece. So if I can’t make huge arguments about this or that kind of craft, and if the movie has given me absolutely nothing, then one part of me says, I might as well try to entertain the reader, because the film is so hopeless that there’s nothing in it.
For someone who critiques or, to put it less elegantly, ‘criticises’ movies for a living, how do you perceive comments on your writing? What kind of criticism or feedback do you take more seriously?
Like any writer, I like to be told that I write well. It’s a special thrill when someone singles out a line you agonised over and says it worked for them. That is the ‘form’ part. As for the ‘content’ part, I don’t treat my reviews like the final word. I like to think they are the beginning of a conversation that goes on in the Comments section of my blog. So agree or disagree, we talk about it there. I take all kinds of feedback seriously. Even if someone’s tone is belligerent and annoying, the point they are making may still be valid. But if you are just trolling, then I tend to ignore that. The funny thing is how much I have discovered about myself through these writings, and through people pointing things out. It’s been interesting, to say the least. Scary too — the prospect that there are so many people out there who kinda-sorta know the way I think. But I guess that’s part of the fun of being a bit of a public figure.
I have said this before, I really hate the word ‘critic’ — because it sounds like ‘criticise’, which is so not the point. Why not use the word ‘analyst’? You have, for instance, people who analyse/evaluate the share market based on trends and history and their own expertise, but we don’t call them ‘stock critics’. We call them ‘stock analysts’. I know ‘film analyst’ doesn’t sound very elegant (or maybe it just needs some time getting used to), but the point is that the profession is demeaned by this word. This horrible word makes people think we are just out to rip apart movies and have a great time. It doesn’t take into account the joy you get in discovering a small film like Kirumi (2015) and announcing the arrival of a terrific new filmmaker. Films like this make me wonder how much people are really influenced by critics. For the big films, even if I say it’s terrible, everyone will go out and watch it and then come to the blog and express disappointment and rage. And I will be like, “But didn’t I (and so many other critics) say this? Didn’t we warn you? Why did you bother? Instead, if you claim you love cinema, why didn’t you watch a Kirumi?”
You review Hindi films exclusively for your blog, usually publishing them on Sunday — and some of them are quite long. Is that a conscious decision? Also, what’s notable, you don’t just review a few select Hindi movies but nearly every film that hits the theatres. Do you think you would have kept at it if not for the number of readers your blog attracts?
I used to review Hindi films and write columns on Tamil films for New Indian Express. And after a point, when I became known as a reviewer, I found that people were coming to my blog to find my take on a movie. So it’s more like I just wanted to keep in touch. Because I sincerely feel that writing is a muscle, and you have to keep exercising it, and putting yourself out there by reviewing more. Right now, I think there are certain things that I do much quicker than I used to earlier. For instance, I had to sit down and think really hard to do certain things — like if I sensed the paragraph was too grim, and I felt I had to inject a joke or something to lighten the tone. But now it doesn’t take that long, and I think that is one reason why I have kept at it.
The other reason is also that I enjoy the conservations on my blog with the readers, and some people look forward to my take on a film, so it has become a reflexive thing more than any huge conscious plan.
In your Kick review, you noted that Indian masala movies are essentially warm movies, and that they need spicy colours, item songs, melas and other clichés. This new habit of shooting most movies (especially spy thrillers) abroad to ape the West’s ‘tone’ and production values, and then trying to weave these glum locations into the script rarely works — isn’t escapism being treated too literally by our filmmakers? It’s practically the difference between films like Johnny Gaddaar (2007), and, then Agent Vinod (2012) by the same director…
I think one of the reasons these big-star movies are shot abroad is that it’s easier (less crowds, etc). Plus, I think they get concessions and production becomes cheaper. But yes, masala films look out of place there. While talking about Hey Ram (2000) once, Kamal Haasan said that the film uses vivid yellows and reds, and these colours are sometimes disturbing (even violent) for foreign audiences. But to us, these are comforting colours. We see them in as everyday a place as our kitchens; it’s the colour of turmeric. So when you go out and shoot a masala film in a place filled with blues and greys, something’s lost visually. And visuals are a big part of the movie-watching experience. Colours affect us in unconscious ways. The entire duration of Kick, there isn’t one stretch as zingy as, say, the Aa re pritam pyare number in Rowdy Rathore (2012). The nightclub song is no match. We see this even in the actresses these days. Look at Katrina Kaif in Chikni Chameli. She does all the right moves, but she doesn’t have the earthy oomph of a Jayshree T, who would have done the same number in a ’70s masala movie.
You noted in the essay Performance Appraisal, published in your second book, Dispatches from the Wall Corner, that after you wrote a mildly favourable review of Drona (2008), a reader wondered whether there were people ready to buy you out. This kind of suspicion — a critic accused of being on a production house’s payroll — wasn’t uncommon then. But has that faded with time, and, possibly, been substituted with a different kind of criticism?
That Drona review was my first encounter with the horrors of the star-ratings system. I thought it was an average film, and I gave it three stars, which was “Average” as per the scale adopted by The New Indian Express. But then, everyone started yelling that I had given the film three stars, and I learnt that in almost all other papers, three stars meant “Good”. So they weren’t reading the review, or even the guide beneath the stars — they were just looking at the number of stars. That’s where the discussion began and ended: “This guy has given three stars to Drona.” This made me really wary of this system.
I think I have established myself enough for people not to think I’m getting paid for reviews. But yes, a contrarian review does bring about its own set of assumptions as to why you have reviewed the film this way. The fact that you may have genuinely felt about the film this way doesn’t occur to many people — they like to look for a ‘motive’. They want to frame your writing in a narrative that may have nothing to do with your intentions. But it doesn’t matter in the end. Or maybe it does.
There’s a related incident involving my book Conversations with Mani Ratnam. Now Mani Ratnam was someone who shot to fame in the 1980s, when I was growing up. And we all know that the things we fall for during our pre-teen and teen ages are the things we are very passionate about and feel in our loins. And I thought that’s what my introduction to the book should reflect. I thought it would be nice to give non-Chennai-ites a glimpse into how Mani Ratnam’s films impacted someone like me, and how we worshipped him then. And then, as the decades rolled on, after Roja (1992), my tone becomes more sedate, reflecting my more considered approach to films now. The people at Penguin warned me that I should maybe tone the early parts down, because it was sounding fanboyish. And I said I wanted it to feel fanboyish — because that’s how we were in the ’80s. But they were right. Some readers didn’t get what I was doing, and took into the book the tone of the introduction — they regarded the book as a hagiography.
But do you think the star system is also a necessary evil for young critics to stay in the conversation, to stay relevant — as the reading mass invariably associates a review with the stars given to it by the reviewer?
I don’t find it useful at all. It’s not like I am rabidly against the star system or something like that. But I find it reductive because it reduces the nuanced discussion of a film to numbers but, at the same time, that happens even when I am headlining the review of a film — “a few laughs but not nearly enough,” or something like that. That, in itself, is some kind of a rating. Anybody who sees that headline is going to understand that the film is great, middling, or bad. So I think, in my headlines, too, I am inadvertently following some kind of a star system. And also in India, most of the well-known critics who are followed or whose blurbs come in the paper follow the star system simply because their publications insist on following it. They have to do that.
I look at review more as feature writing than news, so, for me, unless you have a voice, unless you have a unique way of looking at a picture — either innate or developed — there is really no point adding your review to the mass of reviews. Because you aren’t saying anything new.
Your reviews are mostly apolitical — that is, they talk about a film but mainly stay within the ambit of cinema (concentrating more on its aesthetic, less on the actual politics). Have you ever thought about being more political in your reviews — especially in films that demand introspection of that kind?
The first and foremost obligation of a film should be to fulfill what it set out to do. So if somebody wants to make a film about the reservation system, but if he wants to make it in a slightly fanciful way, that is perfectly okay because the aesthetic of a film is tied to what it sets out to do. So when you are talking about a political review, I look at it this way: There are people who come from a political or a gender studies background, and they are very good at looking at a film from a particular political position, because they have been trained to study cultural information that way. But I am not; so the value that I bring to this is, by looking at cinema as cinema and as a cultural document that provides some kind of a narrative.
But even when a movie is done in a particular mainstream fashion, you can’t really haul it up by saying that it didn’t do this, it didn’t do that. Because people are bashing Airlift (2016) today for not being true to the real events; but if you look at hundreds of films made around the world on real-life heroes, they are all fiction. Airlift’s obligation is not to tell a Kuwaiti story. Airlift’s obligation is to tell the story of Ranjit Katyal [the film’s hero] in the most convincing manner possible. There’s a big difference between the two.
But, at the same time, I am not blaming those who are saying that Airlift is ridiculous or fictional. I am just saying that that’s how I look at it. For me, the success and failure of Airlift depend on whether the story of Ranjit Katyal is told convincingly, and not whether the story of Kuwaiti evacuation is told convincingly. So the way I look at it, inevitably, I am not going to do a polemical or a political deconstruction, simply because for me the content and form of the film are pretty much within the narrative framework. Which is why I end up mostly talking about the writing and the craft rather than the context in which the film is set, unless there’s something egregious about it that is hugely insensitive. But then, one thing that most people don’t understand is that most films are stories of people behaving in a particular way. It’s only when you extrapolate it and say that people in films should behave like how you imagine people should behave – that’s when you get into all these problems.
Talking about politics — of all kinds, gender, class, caste — brings to mind a review of yours: of a 2014 Tamil film called Madras, where you didn’t get that the movie was about a Dalit boy and caste politics in Tamil Nadu, a fact that later took you by surprise. So when something like this comes up, do you introspect about your reviews?
When I saw Chauranga (2016) or Fandry (2014), for instance, there was no doubt that these were movies about Dalits, because they very specifically pointed towards that direction. But Madras was a commercial Tamil film, and it was very much a template movie, which has been seen in Kamal Hassan’s Sathyaa (1988), which was, again, a remake of Rahul Rawail’s Arjun (1985) — an angry young man who rebels against the system. Here, the director doesn’t want to use the ‘D-word’, so he’s just given a few signifiers here and there — like a book being read or [B. R.] Ambedkar’s picture on the wall. So I missed a lot of things because, according to me, the film itself wasn’t telling a particularly Dalit story. It could have been the story of any upwardly mobile person who has dreams and bashes his head against the system. If you market your film as a Dalit movie, your audience will shrink, and there are certain pockets in Tamil Nadu where it will be a huge political issue, and you will have problems releasing it. So Madras was downplayed as a Dalit film and marketed as a star movie. So, yes, I missed on those signifiers present in the movie, but I don’t know if you can take a look at Ambedkar on the wall and immediately jump to the conclusion that it’s related to Dalits. So in the movies where you are not completely clued in to the specifics, it’s still possible to view the film as a narrative experience. And I don’t know if it’s fair to expect me to know these things, because not everybody is aware of everything that goes on.
Very few senior Indian critics have left an indelible mark with their writing and film analysis. Mainstream reviewing is now restricted to delivering verdicts. Where are the legacies? Or is that an advantage — something that can limit derivative styles and aping sensibilities?
Regarding styles and sensibilities, I don’t think it’s a bad thing that there isn’t much in terms of legacies. After all, we all have to — if we are to be considered unique — find our own ways of saying things. What I miss is a body of work. We certainly have had very good critics — Iqbal Masud, Chidananda Dasgupta, Maithili Rao, or even Khalid Mohammad. He [Mohammad] would get into that characteristic punning, mocking mode when he didn’t like a film, but when it worked for him, he would treat it with respect. And most importantly, he took commercial cinema seriously. I remember his description of the “discreetness” of a rape scene in Saudagar (1991). I wish more people had written lively, personal, involved, contempt-free reviews about commercial cinema. You can make out the difference between a writer being mildly indulgent towards commercial cinema and one whose juices get flowing. It’s the latter kind of reviewers that I wish we had more of. I find it strange that people deign to review commercial cinema, when they don’t really get the point of it, or have much familiarity with the kind of narrative tropes and so on. Would you review a book on physics if you weren’t a science graduate?
What do you think about the current generation of critics? Any advice to young (or old) aspiring film critics?
Um, I would like to think that I belong to the current generation, too. What do I think? I think there needs to be more engagement with the kind of cinema you are writing about. I think many of the people writing today are good writers — I’m talking about language. And they are certainly engaged with the medium. They understand the nature of criticism. But I see many of them writing about Indian films through a ‘western’ lens, if you will. You can sense their confidence when they write about niche, multiplex films — but when it comes to the more Indian films, they sound either dismissive or patronising, like they are not sure what this beast is, and they don’t want to sound like they don’t get it. Even the way they write about songs, for instance. You don’t get the feeling they are really getting it. It’s more like, “wow, such fun, so Bollywood”. And while that’s certainly valid, there are going to be western reviewers who will do just that.
So what we can and must do is offer a uniquely Indian way of viewing films. That’s what’s valuable. In a way, I realise one must have been exposed to a certain kind of cinema right through, right from childhood, in order to have that ‘DNA’ — but even otherwise, one must certainly try. As for advice, I would just say that writing about cinema is a form of writing first. So, as with any other writing, you have to do a lot of reading. And not just about films. About dance. About drama. About books. Read short stories and novels. Read articles, both short and long. Read really, really good writing — and not just by the writers you instantly warm up to. That will help with the way you structure your pieces and also help with finding different ways to say the same things, which, let’s face it, is something that’s a part of this profession.
Do you think most Indian filmmakers are naturally, and even intentionally, impervious to criticism? Most acknowledge (and retweet/compliment) only those critics with generally positive feedback, and selectively dismiss the other ones…
But isn’t that true of most creative people? It’s not as if filmmakers from other countries are welcoming critics with open arms. You always recognise and engage with critics when they are talking about someone else’s work. But when it’s your work they are evaluating, you do tend to become defensive. And this is natural. The ‘unfair’ thing about art (as opposed to something measurable, like sport) is that you have to allow that your masterpiece, when viewed through someone else’s (subjective) eyes, may be a piece of junk. Even if you say you are okay with it, and you may well be in theory, I’m sure there’s going to be some rankling, some resentment.
You have been writing professionally for more than 13 years now: Does it get easy?
I don’t know if it gets easy, but over the years — and I am not sure if that’s the right answer to this question — you learn to be a little kinder towards yourself. Initially, I used to get very upset if my reviews didn’t turn out a certain way, and I wanted everything to be perfect, but now I am a little relaxed. I know that every review cannot be great, and I know that there are going to be times when people are going to misconstrue what I am saying. Or I am not going to be able to put something that I want to say very clearly. Or I may offend someone with something that I am saying. Earlier I used to try to be very careful about all these things — double, triple check whether all those things were there or not. But now I am okay with the varied responses that a review is going to get. I think it’s also about getting more comfortable with yourself and where you are. I don’t know if the actual writing itself gets easier. I do, however, find it much easier to sit down and commit a block of time to write without getting too panicky and nervous about facing a blank page.
(Baradwaj Rangan blogs at baradwajrangan.wordpress.com)