About and around pop culture

Posted on August 29, 2015


When it comes to writing about cinema, the bad films are as important as the good ones.

“What makes you go watch this film despite knowing full well that it is nothing but trash?” Some version of this question crops up every time a critic reviews a “bad” movie. As subjective as the qualifier is, there are two kinds of “bad” movie. The first is a movie from a big production house or featuring a big star, or a movie made by a well-known director, or a movie about an issue – even if such a film is deemed bad content-wise, these other factors are seen as contributing to its “review-worthiness.” The idea, I suppose, is that people have heard about these films, so they’d want to know about the critic’s response to them.

We’re talking about the other kind of “bad movie,” the kind whose trailers leave us in little doubt that there’s not going to be anything good here. That’s where the “What makes you go watch this film…?” question comes in. As critics, we’re being asked: Why are you wasting your time reviewing these films? What can you possibly hope to find in them to write about?

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That word – “about” – is what most people think a review centres around. What is the film about? (The subject, in other words.) Which aspects of the film is the reviewer/critic writing about? (Stars, technical values, and so forth.) But there’s another word in the context of a review, and that’s “around.” You can write about a film. You can also write around a film. And it’s in the latter case that reviews of “bad films” become important – not always, of course, but sometimes.

Take the Sunny Leone film Ek Paheli Leela, released this April. Writing about it makes the critic observe that it’s a reincarnation drama spanning 300 years. Writing around it makes a critic muse about female nudity in cinema down the years, especially when it comes to the heroine (as opposed to the vamp). Or take the Tamil film Nannbenda, which was released around the same time. Writing about it makes the critic observe that the film centres on a man’s attempts to woo a reluctant woman. Writing around it is an opportunity to question how a film with such adult humour was certified “U” by the censors.

In other words, the “about” evaluates the film as a work of art, to be judged on the basis of criteria related to the art – say, the way the screenplay has been written, or the way an actor acts. The “around,” on the other hand treats the film as a cultural product and uses the film to talk about our culture, then and now.

There is a tendency to dismiss cinema as “pop culture” – or popular culture, as opposed to “high culture,” which the writer-philosopher Roger Scruton once described as “the self-consciousness of a society. It contains the works of art, literature, scholarship and philosophy that establish a shared frame of reference among educated people.” There’s always been some kind of snobbishness among these educated people when it comes to cinema, as if it was not as worthy as the other arts. But for better or worse, with increasingly distracted people spending less time on art and literature and suchlike, popular culture appears to have become the only culture.

And cinema being the most dominant form of pop culture, writing about it is like leaving behind a cultural record. Critics, really, are some kind of cultural commentators, even if the commentating happens within the very specific context of a film review. The around is within the about, and this is why it is as important to write about the so-called “bad films” as it is to write about the obviously good ones.

Of course, it is not always going to be possible to find an around angle. Sometimes a bad film is just a bad film. There’s barely any about, leave alone a cultural aspect – yes, like her or not, Sunny Leone is an aspect of our culture today – that can be teased out and written about at length. But even then, just writing about the film is creating a historical record, that such a film existed, that it featured these actors and was made by these technicians. It’s like how Wham! gets no respect from “serious” music lovers but the band’s music is absolutely essential in order to understand the 1980s – or the subsequent career of George Michael, for that matter. Good music, bad music, good cinema, bad cinema – it’s all created by people in a particular moment for other people in the same moment, based on what they like, what they want, which means that a hundred years from now, a film like Ek Paheli Leela will tell people what we were like in 2015. If that doesn’t make a movie “review-worthy,” I don’t know what does.

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