The reasons that drive people to dislike a piece of art are sometimes those that you cannot think of in a hundred million years.
I was speaking, recently, to a young filmmaker. The conversation was initiated with single-minded purpose – he wanted to pick my brains about something (I still don’t know how much I was able to help him with what he wanted) – but it gradually expanded to include anything and everything. We spoke about the nature and the purpose of criticism. We spoke about the tendency of people in the film industry to gloat over the failure of their peers. (You haven’t seen Schadenfreude, first hand, until you’ve watched the glee spread like sunshine over the faces of industry folk when a much-lauded director lays an egg; it’s chilling.) And we spoke about the humbling nature of audience response. Each of us had experienced this in different ways – he through the people who have seen his work, and I through those who have read my work. And funnily enough, both of us produced an anecdote about Mani Ratnam to illustrate our experiences.
K’s story revolved around Kannathil Muthamittal, which (in case you don’t know) is about a little girl who’s told by her father that she’s adopted, and that her birth mother is from Sri Lanka. This becomes the impetus for the family to journey to the island, where they are trapped in the midst of war – not just in the general disruptions to normal life caused by a long-running civil war (which makes it difficult for them to make enquiries about people and travel from place to place), but also in the gunfire that erupts around them when they are seated in a park. And K said that a friend of his who worked in advertising didn’t care for the film at all. I thought that maybe the subject was too grim for her. Or maybe, like those who worked in the adoption circles, she felt that the way the child had been apprised of her reality was very cinematic, and this killed the film’s premise for her.
But no. K told me that his friend’s reason for disliking the film was that there was no duet. I said, “Surely you’re not serious.” And he smiled and said he was. The friend’s logic was simply this: How can you have Madhavan and Simran in a movie and not have a romantic song picturised on them? The slight issue of where this duet could have been incorporated into a movie about a couple worrying that they may lose their child did not seem to bother this friend. Seen one way, this is not a completely unreasonable expectation. Such a song probably could have been included in the flashback that details the couple’s courtship, which is better described as a somewhat accidental getting together. This flashback does have a number that plays in the background, Sattena nanaindhadhu nenjam – but it’s not a full-fledged song, and it’s not exactly capital-R romantic. And this absence was enough of a deal-breaker that all the other wonderful things about this movie paled into insignificance. The film, in the friend’s eyes, was a dud.
My story is slightly more bizarre. I was invited, some time ago, to a radio station to talk about the Oscars. Usually, these things are done over the phone, but this time, for whatever reason, they wanted me there. So I went. The person hosting the show was seated opposite me in a sound-proof booth, and as a warm-up to the conversation (the headphones and the volume levels take a bit of getting used to), she began to talk about reviewing. She asked me what I thought of Raavan. I said that I’d found it intriguing, and even if it wasn’t a consistently successful film, there were a lot of fascinating things in it. She asked me why people seemed to dislike the film so much. I said I didn’t know – who can really say why someone doesn’t like something? And then she said she’d hated the film – not because of the story or the performances, but because there was too much moisture.
At first I didn’t understand. What did she mean by “too much moisture”? She explained that the film looked too wet, that it was always raining, that there was… too much moisture. I didn’t what to say. That humbling moment, to me, was a revelation, my Bodhi-tree burst of enlightenment. You can pour blood, sweat and tears into making a movie or writing something or putting up a painting or composing a piece of music, and then someone will come along and dislike it because it’s six in the evening. I wrote, last week, about people who undertake a profession in the public eye – I said that they needed to equip themselves with mental armour. They also need to equip themselves with a mental sieve, to separate the criticism that is informed and well-judged from that which is just a visceral reaction. The former, at least, you can do something with. The latter is nothing more than an affirmation that you can never please all the people all the time.
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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