Between Reviews: Meetings and Misgivings

Posted on February 5, 2011


Should people who comment on art – namely critics and reviewers and other assorted chroniclers of pop culture – be allowed to meet the artist?

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FEB 6, 2011ONE OF THE NICER THINGS that happened to me, professionally speaking, was an interaction with Kamal Haasan in front of an awed audience. The actor had consented to perform Chief Guest duties at a function to induct Stars From Another Sky – Khalid Hasan’s translations of Saadat Hasan Manto’s acidic observations about the Bombay film world of the1940s, long before it became Bollywood – into the Penguin Classics Library. The people from Penguin called and asked if I would talk to Kamal Haasan about the book, and for an instant, the mind was a fog of incomprehensible emotion – a vague mix of surprise, delight, nervousness, shock, and ethical (perhaps even existential) hand-wringing. I agreed, ultimately, and I’m glad I did, for it was an unforgettable evening, but at the crux of it all lay a prickly question about how close to a star a critic (or even a chronicler of pop culture) can get, should get. Did Manto endure these misgivings when he chose to cohabit with the stars he wrote about?

For starters, you’re never really yourself while around a star you admire and respect (and have admired and respected from a time you didn’t even know what a star was, for Kamal Haasan, in a sense, appears to have been a fixture of the Tamil film firmament forever). It’s one thing to gaze at him from your seat in the theatre, wisecracking friend by your side, the motormouth Rajinikanth fan who keeps needling you that the object of your admiration and affection is not all that he’s cracked up to be. There’s a distance – you know he’s just a moving picture on a white screen. But when you’re across him, when he’s flesh and blood, the interaction becomes two-dimensional. Suddenly, it’s no longer just about what you think of Kamal Haasan – the star up there on screen – but what Kamal Haasan thinks of you. There’s a desperate need to be liked, to be thought of as interesting and intelligent. This was the first time, ever, I was meeting Kamal Haasan (a few days before the actual event), and I think my opening salvo, after an unsure pause, was something along the lines of “It’s such a thrill,” at which he seemed to register some sort of embarrassment and gracious acceptance, and I felt it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if the ground beneath his Alwarpet office opened up and swallowed me whole – either that, or Christopher Reeve from the climax of Superman should have rotated the earth on its axis and flung us back to an earlier time when I would have been better prepared, with the most dazzling opening line spilling out of my lips.

So there’s this uneasiness about existing out of your skin, as if you’re watching yourself watching the actor watching you – unsure if a joke would be appropriate, if a casual statement might offend, or even worse, if you’re going to end up a fawning fan. It’s one thing to have fought for Kamal Haasan at the school playground, when Rajinikanth fans were breathing down the neck, but now, all grown up, those silly shenanigans aren’t supposed to matter any more. At least, that’s what I tell myself. But what if, heart of hearts, I’m still that kind of fan, the fan whose life officially came to an end when Uyarndha Ullam bombed at the box office? (Terrible film, I know, but try telling that to a teen!) What if – like how unpleasant inner truths can bubble up and slap you senseless at the psychiatrist’s couch – this realisation happens now, as I’m sitting across him, and what if I begin to blather like an unstoppable idiot? Will the shadow-person sitting beside me, the one outside my skin, slink away from the room in horror, unable to stand, any longer, this spectacle of mortification?

But that’s just one side – the personal side. There’s also the professional aspect that you carry into such a meeting. Does Kamal Haasan read me, either in this paper or on my blog? If so, will he remember that I loathed Dasavatharam? And is he one to harbour a grudge? Will he use this opportunity to tick me off, to tell me a few things about why the film is nowhere as bad as my hysterical rejection of it would appear to indicate? Or won’t he care? Perhaps, to him, I’m just another pesky reporter, hardly worth bothering about, and perhaps he just swatted away my opinions about the film – assuming he read them in the first place – like how a nonchalant Sydney Greenstreet swatted away flies in Casablanca. Or maybe he remembers me from my positive evaluation of Man Madan Ambu, an imperfect yet hardly insignificant film that few seem to have gotten, fewer still seemed to have liked. Who really knows? Who can really tell?

And how do these interactions impact the work that you do? Regular readers know, by now, my feelings about the critical profession, that it can never really be free of personal bias. (There is, therefore, no such thing as an objective critic.) So the problem isn’t whether my personal predilection for Kamal Haasan’s work colours my writing about his films. That it surely does – you cannot be a fan of Tendulkar and not have it show, at least if you’re honest with yourself, and taken that way, even my profound disappointment with Dasavatharam could be just a factor of a fan’s crushed expectations, and perhaps if I’d cared less about Kamal Haasan’s body of work, the legacy he was leaving, I wouldn’t have cared so much about how graceless the film turned out, or how he doesn’t act in all that many films anymore, or that he looks a little ridiculous costarring with actresses half his age, or that he hasn’t directed anything after the magnificent Virumaandi.

The baggage you bring with you, about an actor (or any creator), is never the problem as long as your readers know about it and you don’t pretend otherwise. The real problem is whether an interaction with an actor (or a director or a painter) can begin to influence the way you think about their work. A really persuasive creative person can be something of a hypnotist – and an accomplished actor especially so – and you could easily be swayed into thinking about their work in a particular way. The foundation of criticism (or rather analysis, which is the way I prefer to see it) is that you look at the film through your eyes and deliver your opinions, but what if meeting an artist makes you begin to look through their eyes? Will you, then, begin to deliver their opinions? But will the reader really care so long as you present an original prism to view the work through? I must say that the mind is as clouded in a fog of incomprehensible emotion after meeting Kamal Haasan as before.

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