It’s not just these dumb comedies that make critics irrelevant. For a certain kind of reader, it can also be the deepest of dramas.
At any point now, I expect the director Sajid Khan to prop a ladder against the side of his house, clamber up, cup his hands around gleeful lips and cry out to the world that critics do not matter, proffering as proof his Housefull 2, which has been living up to its name at theatres everywhere despite a rash of reviews that retreated from the film as if from a flatulent grandfather in a closed car. The logic bolstering this critics-don’t-matter thesis, of course, is the apparent reality that few people make up their minds about a movie based on what critics say, and that even sleeper hits like Paan Singh Tomar and Kahaani have less to do with rapturous star ratings than the word on the street that these are movies worth watching. I know, at this point, that I seem poised to jump to the defense of my profession and say why Sajid Khan is wrong – but I’m afraid he’s right, absolutely right. Critics do not matter.
At least, they do not matter in the usually accepted sense of serving as some sort of consumer guide, shepherding mindless masses to the multiplex. I have written enough about my dislike for this perceived aspect of the profession, where we’re likened to traffic cops holding out STOP and GO signs, so I will spare you more hand-wringing. Should the day arrive that these brain-dead comedies are exempted from reviews, everyone will explode in ecstasy, the critics as well as Sajid Khan. The last thing any critic wants to do is write about something that cannot be written about in any interesting fashion, or attempt to manufacture an essay of a desired length from a subject that warrants, at most, a word or two. The usual term for these films is “critic-proof” but I’m more comfortable with “criticism-redundant” – it’s not so much that these films do not need critics to help them succeed as their not needing to be written about at all.
But critics can be redundant with dramas as well, those films whose seriousness would suggest that they can be written about in a meaningful manner, irrespective of their prospects at the box office. Because unless the reader is willing to accept a contrarian point of view as a valid approach to a movie, unless he’s willing to scratch his chin and say “Hmm… maybe, just maybe, there’s something in this line of analysis, even if I don’t see the film that way,” any critic whose opinion matches yours becomes a useful critic, and everyone else becomes redundant. If you’re not interested in someone else’s point of view, you are only interested in hearing yourself speak, and for that you don’t need to reach for a newspaper or visit a critic’s blog – you only need to stand in front of a mirror. Like certain comedies, your views too are “criticism-redundant.” And that’s perfectly fine. If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like to be told (through a review) that your opinion could be “wrong,” who can argue with that?
The ideal reader of reviews, in my opinion (and only in my opinion; I’m not making a generalisation here) is someone who is secure enough in his own estimation of a film and is now looking at what the critics have to say, hoping that someone out there may have a useful point or two to add to the discussion that, so far, you’ve been having with yourself. The ideal reader, in other words, would let these other voices mingle with the voices inside his head, and keep the conversation going. But if you’re going to “fix” your opinion about a film after you’re through with your discussion with yourself, why would you even bother to read what someone else has to say? Isn’t it just easier to claim, like Sajid Khan, “Critics do not matter,” and move along? Critics matter only if you’re willing to engage with them, wrestle with their opinions, treat them as the equivalent of the friend in college you’d keep arguing with well past the fifteenth glass of rum. Otherwise, they’re all redundant.
Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.
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