By Rahul Desai
I recently reviewed a short film, as I do almost weekly, for Film Companion. The film didn’t work for me, and I wrote about the problems. Some might say I “panned” it. Almost immediately, the director sent me a private message on Facebook. He’d been on my friends list for a long time, and I had vaguely followed his career. His first film was quite a conversation stirrer a couple of years ago. Since then, I only knew him through his left-of-field sensibilities, his general anti-mainstream bitterness and strong but brave opinions. In the message, he taunted me (with those annoying smileys that most passive-aggressive artists use when they want to kill you with sarcastic kindness) about the “personal attack” and the “rant,” indirectly accusing me of attacking his film because he is not from a “clique” and because I had liked the YRF blockbuster WAR last year. “My film is way better than WAR,” he noted. “It’s obvious,” he continued. He was convinced that I had been biased and he was the victim of an intellectually corrupt gaze.
I know that film critics are the first to be mocked and pillared when they dare to like a big-budget film or pan an indie. We are immediately branded as “sellouts”. Some of the industry folk resent critics so much that they position their entire mindset in context of ours; if we like a particular film or show, they will go out of their way to dislike it and wonder about the “reviews”. Their entire life is composed to defy critical consensus. None of them are capable of individual opinions anymore. (I reviewed both Chhichhore and War positively last year, and discovered that the cinema-snob brigade is far more extremist than the cinema-mass brigade). But here was a guy, who I didn’t even know personally, having a poorly-worded go at me for not appreciating his risk-taking and vision. He spoke like it was his birthright to shame me, and like it was my duty to praise the air he breathes because of the smoke he inhales.
His reaction was emblematic of a long-standing problem with Indian filmmakers, and their opportunistic attitude towards film criticism. You’re a sellout if you don’t like their work, but an intellectual if you like the stuff they like. And it’s particularly sad when the more independent of the lot – the ones who struggle day in and day out to get their films bought and watched and written about – respond with such impunity. I understand where they’re coming from, but doubting the integrity of a multi-medium critic will do them no good. I’ve long maintained that the country’s self-made and non-commercial filmmakers – idealistic and proud of their taste in world cinema, dismissive of the masala that Bollywood churns out – have always suffered from a tragic persecution complex. They unfortunately reiterate the disillusioned-writer stereotype to a T, and paint themselves into a me-against-the-world corner after facing a lifetime of rejection. Some of them manage to let their work speak for themselves, but a majority of them blame the softest targets for their frustrations: The critics.
Most of them are tired of ranting about producers, so they turn to the “gatekeepers” of cinema with the misguided belief that it is our life’s mission to promote their struggles and life missions. It is not. It is not our job to review their process. It doesn’t matter to me what kind of film I am writing about. The names behind it are irrelevant. The scale is irrelevant, unless it directly affects the production value. While I appreciate every artist for having the guts to follow their passion and express themselves, opening themselves up to scrutiny and criticism and even rage is part of the package they choose. Most people spend so long working their way up and trying to remain uncompromised in their vision that by the time they make something, they confuse effort with artistic merit. It’s not their fault, of course. It’s the system – cliques, nepotism, mass production, businessmen – that drives them to the sidelines with so much resentment and regret. We as critics are naturally first in line to judge their work. And we, as the first eyes, are the first to be blindsided by their pent-up anger. I do hope that some of them understand that I, personally, have nothing to gain or lose by critiquing a film I do not like. My job is to accept and write about as much art as possible, without prejudice, without preconceived notions. In fact I didn’t even know who had directed that short film till the end credits rolled, before which I had already been put off by its lack of rhythm and pretentious cross-cutting. That being said, there are a handful of gracious filmmakers who, undeterred by unfavourable reviews, still find in them the grace to write in and thank us for the time. A tiny handful though – again, I’m not sure how betrayed they feel once I “turn on them” by disliking their next film.
I suppose being hated – not for the way we write, but what we write – is part of the package. I’m not here to make friends. I’m not here for charity. I’m not here as a crusader of meaningful cinema (It’ll be a cold day in hell before you catch me ending a review with “Watch this now! If you don’t watch this, you are not a truU supporter of CiNemA”). I’m certainly not here to be bowled over by the intent of people with refined taste. I’m here to watch films – big, small, dark, light, nameless. I’m not sure why I needed to have the last word (by writing all this in a condensed form) with the disgruntled filmmaker. I owe an explanation to nobody but myself. I don’t have to mention my moral stature. Maybe this post is a way of letting go to…just enjoy the show. *Cue Moneyball song*