How I learnt to stop shying and start selling…

Posted on October 30, 2019


This post comes about because Tina, in the Saand Ki Aankh comments section, asked:

Also – why do we now have a reviewer who re-tweets actors/technicians who say he ‘gets’ the movie? Out of curiosity – does this happen anywhere else? It is really a bit annoying – because frankly, from my (very humble) perspective as a reader, what do I make of this? Even if you RT other tweets, somehow, where is the arms distance if you were to acknowledge the praise for your review from the very subjects in the review? What is to say you are not (subconsciously) seeking a mention from these actors when you are writing the review?

She added that this did not seem professional, and took away from the “sacrosanct-ness” of the review.

Now, this is something I have wrestled with a lot and talked to a lot of people about and changed my attitude towards over the years.

In the pre-Twitter years, I used to think like Tina. I was in my little box in Chennai, and whatever appreciation or criticism I got was through the blog. It was like a cosy little bunch of people who became like family, and (by extension) earned the right to praise me or rap my head with their knuckles in the comments section.

But post social media, my audience became “the world” (in the sense that I am still nowhere as popular as, say, Blue Sattai or Prashanth or Taran Adarsh etc.) but among the people who read my kind of review, the audience base started increasing hugely. So the people praising me or rapping my head with their knuckles weren’t just this “cosy family” on this blog, but also complete unknowns.

Plus, the digital-ness of the new era meant that oceans of information kept washing up at our feet. So why do I retweet a comment by Taapsee (or even an unknown tweeter)? (1) So that those who don’t know me but follow Taapsee or that tweeter will know that such a review exists. The tweet becomes a sort of “ad” for the review. The “cosy family” doesn’t care (they already know; they need no incentive to read the review), but for the others, this “ad” may make them check out the review, which adds to the views count of the review, which means my company benefits.

And (2), there is so much “noise” on the internet, that one tweet saying such a review exists is not enough. You have to keep plugging a piece, hoping that each plug makes it travel a little more.

Why is this important? Because we are in a situation today where we have to be present in the digital world, but very few people have figured out how to monetise this. So the more you retweet, the greater the chances of you furthering your company’s “brand”.

And the more the chances of you furthering your own brand (which in turn helps your company; it’s a little like how a more “known” actor would help a movie’s prospects). A long time ago, when I interviewed TM Krishna (man, how I miss doing those Carnatic music pieces!), he said to me very plainly and unapologetically, “I am a brand”.

I think, as Indians (especially as south Indians), we are brought up with notions like “it’s wrong to blow your own trumpet”. So I was surprised that this (south Indian) artist was being so matter-of-fact about his position, essentially saying that “people don’t just come to me because they want to listen to this raga but because they want to listen to how TM Krishna sings this raga.”

But today, I realise I was being so naive about this (about my being surprised that someone would openly admit this).

What Krishna said (from the piece linked to above):

“Of course, Krishna didn’t just say that. He’d talked earlier about how the leisurely-paced padam is a lost art in concerts today and that it needed to be revived, and I’d asked him if audiences these days have the patience to sit through padams and javalis. That’s when he whipped himself into corporate mode. “The first time you come to a TM Krishna concert, you just listen. The second time, you expect something based on the previous experience. And so on for the third and fourth times. Now who decided those expectations? I did. I fed you with the data every time you came to my concert, and that data formed the basis of your expectations. Put in business terms, I am a brand. The qualities of a brand are decided by the manufacturer, which is me. You buy the product once. If you like it, you buy it again. So if I think I can create an audience that can listen to a padam or a javali, it’s up to me to try and do it. I don’t agree with artists who say that they do things because their audience wanted those things. That’s the biggest lie. Nobody wants anything from you except honesty.”

In my case, I am the “manufacturer” and my “product” is the review or interview or whatever. My company promotes my “products” to an extent. I should, too – through the “ads” I was talking about earlier. Because if we don’t promote what we create and give it the best possible shot at succeeding, then who will?

Now, to the main question. Does this end up compromising the “product”? I have a simple rule that I follow. If I know the review is going to be less than complimentary and if I know the filmmaker in any capacity, I send them a Whatsapp note saying that the film did not work for me. Why? Because I feel they should hear it from me first before they read it on the web. I did this for Vetri Maaran with Asuran, Mani Ratnam with Chekka Chivantha Vaanam, Lokesh Kanagaraj for Kaithi, Gautham Menon for Achcham Enbadhu Madamayada… I don’t know if this makes a difference to them, but it makes me feel sorted, and then, I can write my review with a clear head.

Because if you have been in this game for as long as I have – some 17 years – it’s inevitable that you get to know people from the industry. And this is long before I started doing video interviews. Sometimes, you run into them at events. Sometimes, you end up having long chats with them at film festivals. Sometimes, you are called to moderate a panel discussion. Sometimes, a publisher says, “Why don’t you write a book on so-and-so?” (If memory serves me right, I did end up writing that book.)

Some critics have an iron-clad rule about not meeting or knowing anyone from the industry they write about, but I don’t subscribe to this notion. I think you can do both, without “compromise”.

So yes, things are certainly different from the times I was “just a blogger”. For better or for worse, I am a brand, and I am learning to not be so embarrassed about it and for promoting my brand.

As to whether you “buy” my review, I have always maintained this: I take great care to “explain” why a film worked for me or did not work for me. I don’t just say “it sucks” or “it rocks”. So ideally, you would read the review for those reasons to see why the film worked for me (even if those very reasons are why the film did not work for you).

But of course, there are those who feel things like I have become more “compromised” by these interactions over the years, and frankly, these things are for each individual to decide. My job is to write. I have no control over how that writing is “read” by the reader. All I do is “push” that writing as much as I can.

As always, I am not saying I am right or wrong, or that you have to buy what I am saying here. Over the years, several readers have stopped reading me for various reasons. But this is an important subject and I am glad Tina brought it up, because I have been wanting to talk about this for a while.

Over and out.

Posted in: Personal