Between Reviews: Writing to a Writer

Posted on June 7, 2009


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Here’s a look at the letters that wend their way to your friendly neighbourhood film critic.

JUN 7, 2009 – WHEN YOU WRITE ABOUT FILMS FOR A LIVING, you get accustomed to three types of feedback. The first is the best kind, the most valuable kind, from the involved reader who devours your work with utmost concentration and is subsequently impelled to submit his raves or rants. I recently compiled – for Zeitgeist, coinciding with the release of Milk – a list of films where much-lauded actors had stepped out of the fictional closet, and an involved reader sent forth a “how could you” letter. “How could you make a list of gay-themed movies and not include the seminal (in every sense of the word) Brokeback Mountain?” The “how could you” letter can sometimes assume a combative pose, as if the aggrieved writer sustained serious bodily harm on account of my deliberations. (Sample: “How could you not see that Drona is a sun-ripened lump of goat turd?”)

This kind of feedback is valuable because it tells you, for one thing, that despite the Cassandras prophesising the demise of the reading propensity, there are people out there reading you. And secondly, they are involved enough with what they read that they devote a few precious minutes to record their impressions in the form of a letter. They may have misunderstood something you said, or wish you’d dwelt upon an aspect of a film that you opted not to, or better yet, they may have seen an entirely different film from the one you saw, which might lead them to, depending on their personality, either label your mother a canine or genuinely seek to reconcile the differences in viewing experience – but whatever the case, such feedback paints a vigorous portrait of who’s reading your work, how many of them, and (if you’re lucky) why.

For a critic, this is the equivalent of box office numbers for a star – a rating of relevance, so to speak, that’s touchingly compounded when a kind reader asks, as he did last week, why I do not write reviews of Hindi films anymore. (Simple answer: Because there are no Hindi films to review, a turn of events that looks to be remedied soon with the bloody bout between producers and multiplexes having entered its final rounds.) This sense of a critic’s relevance is occasionally inflated to unrealistic degrees, which brings me to the second kind of letter writer – the earnest enthusiast seeking a career in the movies, who treats the critic as some sort of gatekeeper manning those hallowed portals. I have received letters from fans of directors and actors requesting me to engineer an encounter with their idols, and from students seeking filmmakers to pitch their screenplays to.

I am flattered that I’m assumed to wield such powers of persuasion with members of the filmmaking community – many of whom, inevitably, treat the critic like, well, a sun-ripened lump of goat turd – but you’d have better luck making a cold call. Just how does one make it as a screenwriter, especially if you have no contacts, no helpful hands holding you through these tortuous terrains, where the quality of your contribution is frequently a secondary consideration to your talents at sucking up and selling out? Assuming there’s a surefire answer to this question, the person possessing the solution won’t spill his secrets in a column like this one, choosing instead to rake in crores writing a book on the subject. (Translation: That person is certainly not me. Therefore, much as I am sympathetic to your wishes of making it in films, your letters need to be directed elsewhere.)

The third kind of letter writer wishes to become a critic and wants to know how to go about entering a profession rife with the unmitigated joys of “how could you” feedback. The profile of this sort of correspondent is eerily like my own before I became a critic – a drone at a corporate job, discontent about making the kind of money that many others would gladly donate an arm or a leg for, and seeking to alleviate this ennui by scratching that creative itch. The contents of the correspondence go typically along these lines: “Movies are my passion. I have a blog where I write reviews. I’d like to do this full-time. How do I begin? How do I approach newspapers? What’s the money like in freelancing? Otherwise, without any previous credentials, how do I become the in-house critic (like you are) for a paper?”

Some of these questions are easy – you’d only need to call a local newspaper for answers. My beginnings were a series of flukes. I started writing reviews that I mailed out to friends, who then mailed them out to their friends, and this chain kept growing till my former editor chanced upon my writing and spoke to me about contributing to The New Indian Express. But this was before the blog era, and it’s so much easier, today, to train people’s eyes towards your writing. (Then again, considering the infinite dimensions of the blogosphere, perhaps it’s also that much more difficult.) But that’s just the humdrum mechanics of it all. Do you like to analyse film? Can you translate this analysis into writing? And are you honest about this process – to yourself first, and only then to your reader – even if goes against popular taste? Those are the difficult questions.

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