Readers Write In #27: A conversation on art, criticism and society

Posted on November 4, 2017


​’No a reviewer and a critic are not one and the same’

‘Both of them do the work of guiding a consumer to choose the better product. They help us to differentiate between a good and a bad film. Don’t they?’

‘No. You are defining a reviewer. He is probably cinema’s equivalent of a portfolio manager. A gadget guru who could help you choose a better smartphone based on your needs. A critic doesn’t fall in that scheme of things.’

‘All we need to know is whether a film is good or bad. What more do you want to know ?’

‘Alright. We are walking down this promenade beside the lake during a fine evening like this. How do you feel now?’

‘Ya I feel good.’

‘What will you do if I pinch your cheek now?’

‘What? Do you want to embarrass me in front of a lot of people’

‘Oh you will feel embarrassed?’

‘Yes. I am not like you, shameless fellow’.

‘Great. When I held your hand for the first time almost a year ago, how did you feel?’

‘Come on. What are trying to say?’

‘Answer me my buffalo’

‘I felt great. Ok?’

‘Now we have three words. Embarrassed, great, good. Do all these words mean the same thing?’

‘No. Each one is a different sort of feeling’.

‘Yes. When we watched Bahubali 2, weren’t​ you feeling romantic when Devasena climbs over Bahubali’s shoulders to reach the boat? And when Bahubali was killed by Kattappa, didn’t you feel sad?’

‘Yes, I did.’

‘So what a movie does to you is make you feel. It makes you pass through a plethora of emotions. So how can you reduce such an experience to something so mind-numbingly utilitarian – Good or Bad?’

‘But what is the use of watching a bad movie? I spend 150 bucks on a ticket, 200 for snacks and parking and if I all I get is a bad film, what is the use?’

‘Oh come on. I love talking to Mallu girls. But if u find me chatting with them, don’t you get angry on me ?’



‘What are you trying to say?’

‘Answer me’


‘You feel jealous. Why do you feel jealous? Because you are possessive on me. Why are you possessive? Because you love me. But I find your jealousy attractive. I want my wife to be possessive on me.’

‘Don’t beat about the bush’

‘What use is jealousy to me if it prohibits me from talking with my favorite women? And inspite of that, why do I find your jealousy attractive? ‘

‘Ok I get it’

‘Yes. Look at your face. A lot of pimples of random shapes and sizes. Of what use is a pimple to me? But I love your pimpled face. I would hate your face without them.’

‘You have started flirting’

‘No. I want you to come out of judging something based on its usefulness. Especially when it comes to art. Art is not meant to be useful. It is not even meant to be beautiful. It is supposed to make you feel something. Just like how your presence is capable of stirring feelings which I cannot conjure without you, art must be capable of stimulating me.’


‘People just don’t understand this difference. This is the reason why every moron who has some decent vocabulary thinks that he is a film critic on social media. But what is more worrying nowadays is the fact that even the best newspapers don’t have professional film critics. These so-called critics are not able to look beyond a film’s usefulness to society’

‘Why don’t you become one?’

‘Last week I read a column on Bahubali by a well-known critic on a famous newspaper’

‘Oh what did he say?’

‘He said that the film maker must have been from the RSS. He has mentioned that the film glorifies Varnasrama, male chauvinism and war mongering. I was deeply worried when I read that. I accept that the reviewer was a left winger. He knows more politics than cinema. But even politically, he is wrong. A film which is supposed to depict historical periods will reflect only the values of its time. Would you expect Jesus to lead a communist revolution and foresee a classless society? The dominant idea during the time of Jesus was monarchy and hence being a ‘reformer’, he denounced monarchy and discouraged indiscriminate accumulation of wealth. That itself was some kind of a ‘revolution’ then. He could have probably foreseen a parliamentary democracy where every citizen would have had a chance to vote. Can you expect him to see the possible challenges such a system would bring with it, like what we see today, money for votes, or excessive domination of the majority over the minority?’

‘You mean to say when you approach people of the past, you need to give them concessions’

‘Not exactly. You must try to find out how much they could have known during their time. Your criticism of art should only concentrate on how ‘well’ the specimen under examination says what it wants to say. You must not expect it to say what you want to hear. If film critics don’t have even that amount of maturity, I don’t know how could they call themselves one.’

‘Ok let me assume that a film depicting prehistorical times shows incestual relationships, which obviously was quite the norm then, wouldn’t that be morally offensive to today’s viewers?’

‘I am not saying it wouldn’t be offensive. Art is not meant to be politically​ correct or even morally benign. Art is not journalistic reportage. It doesn’t even have to be authentic. An artistic work could be nothing more than the artist’s version of something he came across. It must remain faithful to the impact it had upon him. That’s enough.’

‘But aren’t we cultured? Shouldn’t​ art too learn to show cultured people?’

‘No. When I am trying to be ‘myself’ with you, how cultured do you think I am? That day when we crossed the Pallavaram signal in bike, a teenager rode on the wrong​ side taking us totally by surprise and I couldn’t help swearing at him. I know you wouldn’t​ like that but..’

‘Ok I get it. But do you remember Premam? A student falling in love with his lecturer. Don’t you think that was morally wrong?’

‘Ok. There are two things you have touched upon. Morality and culture. Let me talk about culture first. Do you know when I learnt my first bad word?’


‘I was in tenth standard. We guys were teenagers and were waking up to our sexual consciousness and bad words came along. But I know some kids who belong to nearby slums who are more fluent in bad words at quite a very young age. Why did you think I had to reach tenth standard to learn my first bad word?’

‘Go on’

‘My dad too knew bad words but he won’t speak them in front of me. So I learnt them only after I grew up. In our conservative environment, bad language is lack of culture. But those slum kids would have learnt them as soon as they started speaking because their fathers wouldn’t have thought about censoring themselves. Speaking bad words is not considered to be lack of culture in their environment. It is quite acceptable there. Same way, women belonging to slums and even our middle class families cannot ‘drink’. But in high class families, it is quite a norm. So in such a highly fragmented society as ours, what exactly do you mean by ‘culture’? Can you define it rigidly? How can a film maker who might belong to any strata in the society conform to your set ‘standards’ of culture?

‘Now coming to the question of morality. We come across in newspapers often about illicit relationships in quite stinking detail. The teacher – student relationship in Premam, I don’t think was in any manner glorified. It just showed a man who happened to be a student fell in love with a woman who happened to be a teacher. Is it morally right? I don’t have an answer. All I can say is I would rather try not to fall in love with my teacher. If you say that such a movie might corrupt teenagers and adolescents, I can’t deny that. All that mattered to me was I bought that romance. During those 150 minutes, that relationship did not, even for one moment, given my conservative background, offend me. Even if I were a teacher, I don’t think I would have complained about the film. But again, when you say that a film is morally wrong, it is no reason to totally dismiss the film. Morality is only one angle to approach a film. You can take various prisms to examine a film – moral, emotional, social, psychological, political, etc. Even if the film fails on all these angles, I would choose not to dismiss it. A film is primarily a work of art and as a prerequisite, it must work, if not on all others, on the aesthetic angle. Aesthetics is all about how well a particular story is narrated. Premam is an outstanding achievement on that front’

‘So you mean to say that a film-maker need not be socially responsible? He need not worry about what his films convey to his audiences? If someone harms the society after watching a misleading film, shouldn’t we hold the film-maker responsible?’

‘See last week I came across a column in a Tamil newspaper. The column was about that actress who, a couple of months ago, was molested inside a car for more than an hour. The column was titled ‘What happened inside the car? A detailed report’. What do you think the intent of the column was? We all pretty well know that she was molested and that it was quite a barbaric act. Why do you think that the newspaper resorted to present that incident in detail? Is that a way of spreading awareness among the people on how uncivilized we have become? What kind of service was the newspaper trying to deliver to the society?’

‘I get that.’

‘A form of print media, which is supposed to be one of the pillars of our great democracy displays so much ‘social responsibility’ by appealing to the bestial instincts of its citizens. Politicians, who are very much in the public gaze and who according to me, must be model citizens, watch porn inside the walls of the Parliament.

‘This is the only thing I don’t understand at all. When every walk of our daily life has been corrupted, when those who make the law don’t give a damn about breaking it, when you have ensured that only those with ill-gotten wealth can sleep peacefully, doesn’t it sound absurd to you to put all the blame on the socially irresponsible film-maker?’

This post was written by Jeeva P