Between Reviews: To Read… or Not to Read

Posted on March 27, 2010

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TO READ… OR NOT TO READ

To know, beforehand, or to walk into a movie unencumbered by knowledge? That’s the dilemma dogging the critic in this age of information overload.

MAR 28, 2010 – BEFORE MOVIES STOPPED BEING ABOUT popcorn and started to mean pay-cheques and punishing deadlines – namely the days before I turned critic, a tranquil period that now resides only in the mind’s eye, warmed by the golden glow of a panoramic David Lean sunset – I was a serious consumer of entertainment literature. (Well, not literature literature, but you get the picture.) Filmfare. Sun. Cine Blitz. Connect. Stardust. The pop-rock essays in Gentleman. Tinseltown. Bommai. Pesum Padam. Sunil’s Lights On column in Kumudham. Even the odd issue of Mayapuri plucked from the wedges of a wooden berth in an express train snaking out of Kanpur. It wasn’t just about who was warming the bedcovers with whom (rather who was “we’re just good friends” with whom). The entire industry was shrouded in a fog of wonderment – you could reach but you could not touch. There were articles about star sons waiting to join the constellation. Or a director, no longer on the fast track, would indulge us with a fond look through his cracked rear-view mirror. Or a musician would open up about the genesis of a riff and we’d gasp as if handed the key to the universe.

Or a mini-booklet of lyrics, tacked on to a flimsy back cover with a measly staple, would finally clarify for us that, in I Wanna Hold Your Hand, The Beatles weren’t pursuing this aim through the use of recreational drugs (“I get high, I get high”) but rather with unconcealed desire (“I can’t hide, I can’t hide”). Or, even better, the gods would descend from Sinai and deliver their commandments, the first and foremost of which was: Thou shalt not bestow allegiance on a rival actor/star. Up in the old loft, under webbing so fine it would turn to powder with a breath, there’s still a cardboard box containing the collected clippings of every word bequeathed to print by Kamal Hassan and Amitabh Bachchan for a period in the eighties. That was a time entertainment information was still rationed out – monthly or weekly, depending on the periodicity of the magazine or television show. There was no daily dose of star news, simply because the only dailies – newspapers – were too dignified to devote supplements to the colour of nail polish on the starlet’s hand as she blew kisses to a phalanx of supplicant photographers.

Today, of course, Page 3 – not the monstrously overrated Madhur Bhandarkar movie, but the devil-spawned culture it set out to skewer – is part of humanity’s collective bloodstream. Prick your thumb and a viscous snippet about Frieda Pinto’s prospective stint as Bond girl will ooze out – and now that it’s everywhere, I have no interest. I don’t flip through movie or music magazines anymore. I delete the entertainment updates that skulk into my inbox. I don’t seek out interviews because they’re often little more than aggrandising puff pieces, the patronising platitudes of stars and directors and singers who know they’ve got to reach out and stay visible at least until time that the wide-eyed public views (or listens to) their product. I hate to be an old gramophone record stuck on a those-were-the-days groove – but most entertainment news, today, is simply snippety gossip. The nostalgia pieces, the mining of golden memories, the salutes to craftsmanship – these have gone the way of the bug-eyed villain and his moll with the ostrich-feather boa. And while I’m not immune to startling exposés about Sandra Bullock’s marriage hitting the rocks mere instants after she scooped up Oscar gold, I’ve ceased to care.

Perhaps I overstate a tad. I do care for the small section of entertainment journalism that still services the notion of cinema (as opposed to being devoted to chronicling every momentous minute of the lives of stars). But – here’s the paradox today – I cannot afford to sip from this unpoisoned well either, at least until after the release of the film (or album) under scrutiny. If the honourable attempt is to free the mind from every possible external influence, to walk into the theatre with a blank slate, I cannot read, beforehand, directors’ interviews and I should not squat down before making-of featurettes on television. And anyway, even with utmost trying, some information almost always slinks through the alligator-strewn moats you’ve consciously constructed around your brain – news about the intents and purposes of the filmmaker, or a squabble about a casting decision, or some rapturous early word from a fortunate soul at the rushes monitor who sped back to his blog (or logged into his Twitter account) and spilled his excitement. So a blank slate, in theory, is impossible today, short of taking up residence in subterranean grottos – peopled by fellow noble-minded, albino-skinned film critics – and surfacing only every Friday for the new releases.

But to the extent possible, I strive to stay away from early word, advance buzz, or any such information that could spoilerify my viewing, which is why – and finally, after all the rose-smelling scenic detours, arriving at the point of this piece – I observed, in my review of Dibakar Banerjee’s Love Sex Aur Dhokha, “The first segment of the triptych is the weakest. Poor-boy Rahul and rich-girl Shruti fall in love on the sets of the student diploma film that he’s directing (and she’s acting in)…” Apparently, this wasn’t the slant of this segment at all. According to a news item reported at ndtv.com (before the film’s release), “A cut with reference to caste in the love story between a low-caste boy and a high-caste girl by the censor board has left Dibakar unhappy.” And the director said, “This completely changes the perspective of my story as now the caste-challenged love story is turned into a poor-boy-rich-girl romance.” And that, precisely, was the ossified object of my contention.

Should I have divined the director’s purpose through preparatory reading, like a diligent student before an all-important examination? Along with this snippet, should I have also leafed through Love Sex Aur Censor, the Open magazine feature about the director’s harrowing wait while the Censor Board twirled its pencil moustache and debated on the many mutilations with which to mar his baby? But isn’t the purpose of a review to assimilate only what’s on (and not what went on behind the) screen? Because, otherwise, wouldn’t a sympathy factor, say, colour your analysis, and wouldn’t you begin to indulge in futile what-if games? Or wouldn’t a filmmaker’s elaboration of his visions influence you to watch the film that he wants you to see (as opposed to the film that you actually see, because the intents of a director needn’t always translate into tangible results, and consequently, the film that one wants to make needn’t be the film that one has ended up making)? Perhaps I’d have been less guarded in my response to Love Sex Aur Dhokha – which I still think is a laudable experiment – had I gone back to the person I was, that covetous consumer of movie and music literature. That, I’m sure, would have been less unfair to the film, less unfair to the director. But then, that wouldn’t have been fair to my viewing, or to my review.

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