Towards a better critical culture in Tamil cinema

Posted on April 14, 2015


With the Internet’s help, we finally seem to have entered an era with more people being able to say what they really want to say. No wonder actors and filmmakers appear rattled.

There used to be a fairy-tale time when only a handful of reviewers opined about a film with some kind of seriousness. These reviewers existed in the mainstream media space, and they were read only in the places where the physical newspaper or magazine was available. So people in the film industry didn’t really pay much attention to reviews. Well, maybe they felt bad if they didn’t like something in the review, but in the overall scheme of things that wasn’t – as they say these days – such a biggie. After all, these reviews didn’t contribute all that much to the word of mouth about the movie. They didn’t go viral. Also, actors and filmmakers got so much from the non-reviewing side of the media, all those photographers and writers who made stars and directors feel like gods, and entered into an implicit pact that nothing too harsh would be said (otherwise future photo-ops and interview-ops would not be made available). Sometimes stars and directors would “cultivate” journalists, instil in them the feeling that they were friends, and thus ensure that nothing really bad got written about them outside of the reviews.

And then the Internet happened. Suddenly, reviewers could not be ignored. Everyone with a blog, a Twitter handle, a Facebook page began to voice his or her (very valid) opinions about a film or an album or a star or a song. With newspaper reviewers, there’s still the effort to maintain a sense of dignity in the writing, meaning that you try to remain polite even while expressing strongly negative views. “Not getting personal”, it’s called. Of course, sometimes the films are so bad that they demand you get snarky – and then all bets are off. My rule of thumb is this. If it’s a film made with some level of sincerity or if it’s by newcomers, then even if things aren’t great, I try not to get snarky. If the film doesn’t work for me, I’d just say the film doesn’t work for me. But if it’s something that’s consumed crores of production money and there’s nothing to speak of, then yes, snark is par for the course. Because these aren’t newbie mistakes. These filmmakers have treated us with contempt, and it’s only fair that some of this contempt makes its way back to them.

But this newspaper-contempt is nothing compared to what’s out there on the web. Newspaper reviewers may still be taken a little more seriously – but given that most of the people who matter read newspaper content on the web (or on their phones), the fact that one writes for a newspaper is beginning to matter less than the fact that someone out there on the web is writing something sarcastic and entertaining. Of course, there are serious web-based critics, but their readership is outstripped by that of writers who just aim to deliver a few laughs. And those writers don’t give a rat’s behind about the filmmaker’s (or star’s) reputation or body of work or the trials during the film’s making. Their thought process is extremely uncluttered. I liked it. I didn’t like it. It’s the purest, more elemental form of reaction. Black. White.

And here’s what’s terrifying for film folks. They could like the film and still make fun of you, and those jokes will go viral, and even the people who liked your film will laugh at those jokes, and sometimes that could end up defining your reputation for a while. “Total damage,” it’s called. There’s nothing you can do except mutter to yourself that you shouldn’t enter the kitchen if you can’t stand the heat.

So for the first time, an actual critical culture is looking possible in Tamil cinema. An actual critical culture can happen only if there are no sacred cows, and despite this government’s policies, the Internet has systematically gone about butchering all sacred cows. Those ivory towers where you locked yourself with a few fawning yes-men – all gone. Who you were doesn’t matter anymore. What you did doesn’t matter anymore. Even who you are, what you do doesn’t matter all that much. The only thing that matters is what side of the bed the Internet wakes up on the day your movie is released. It’s that arbitrary. Trying to control this is like trying to control the wind. Today, radio shows freely satirise and make sarcastic remarks about stars and directors, and then slap on a disclaimer at the end that this isn’t meant to hurt anyone. Even that disclaimer sounds sarcastic. In the mainstream-media era, this might have been considered disrespect. But today, it’s just irreverence. It’s a quality that’s fairly new in India. Or maybe it always existed, and it’s just now, with all this media around us, that we’ve realised just how irreverent we really are.

So what do you do if you’re from the film industry? My unsolicited suggestion: Write back. If a newspaper critic says something you don’t agree with, write back to the newspaper. Start a dialogue. The newspaper will happily publish your side of things. This back-and-forth interaction, without fear or favour, is a part of a robust critical culture. All bloggers already do some version of this on their comments space, which is open to everyone. And here’s what I’ve found. If people realise that you’re being sincere about your work, that you’re not just shooting your mouth off, then even if they think you’re an idiot, they’ll take pains to point out why they think you’re an idiot – and a lot of the time, they’ll do this nicely. Sometimes this helps. It makes you regard your work a little differently. But even if it doesn’t help, it’s part of the critical culture I’m talking about. I am a critic, but my word isn’t the final word. My readers are critics of my criticism. Some of those commentators turn critics of other commentators. It goes on.

This feedback, this dialogue is the thing that’s fostering a robust critical culture. And if you’re making movies with sincerity, you’ll find that there are enough people out there who’ll stand up for your work and counter the trolls. And if you’re just in the industry to make money, if none of this matters, then you shouldn’t care at all. It’s really the distributor who’s suffering the losses, right?

Posted in: Cinema: Tamil