Readers Write In #124: In these turbulent times, has film criticism become the most politically honest element of journalism?

Posted on December 23, 2019


(by Alex John)

The less than enthusiastic critical response to Malayalam superstar Mammootty’s latest mega outing ‘Mamangam’ prompted me to write this. I was thinking, how easy is that in today’s politically divided India? I mean, here we have a big star who is also an actor with openly testified political views, a mega-budgeted flick, roaring fans and the reports of box office collections pouring in on the first days of it’s release. And yet the critics remained largely unmoved, from almost all the corners. I was moved. though, as I felt that the ominous political drift that has upset our country and the world,and has surreptitiously seeped into our movies, has largely eluded the world of movie criticism.

Yes, one could argue that the public watch movies closely , which make it hard for a film critic to sneak his political favoritism into movie reviews, but doesn’t the public also watch the political hokey-pokey the mainstream media is so biased about? Doesn’t it take a close look at the media’s partial depiction of matters pertaining to peoples daily lives? I’m not sure which medium backs which political party, but am sure a needle in a haystack will be easier to find than an unbiased online/TV/print medium these days. Even the most heinous and perceptible crimes get so one-sided portrayals from the most established media elements that nobody actually knows whom to trust for unadulterated information.

This is where I believe movie criticism remains largely unmarred. I am not trying present the review world as some kind of unblemished Utopia where everything is pure as snow because I know critics are people too, people with politics and partisanship to various parties, but these predilections are the least visible in this wing of journalism than any other.

I witness this rather closely as a person who comes from Kerala, where the left-right wing polarization is probably one of the largest among the Indian states. The less said about the umpteen congregations inside the left and right wing the better. But when an almost propagandist film like’ URI:The surgical strike’ is released in Kerala, it is lauded for what works in the movie, at least by the mainstream critics, irrespective of their political leanings. (read this along with the fact the this film was given a considerably lesser number of theaters in Kerala than other Bollywood films owing to reasons that can be guessed without getting any prizes).And a few Malayalam films that propagated left wing ideology (S. Durga, Jallikkattu) almost got the same kind of treatment from the critics including the rightists. What were good in those films were raved and what were less than good were ranted in their reviews, as it should happen in an ideal world. Here, I am just trying to say that even when film industries are being engulfed by the cancerous political overkill, movie critics at least try to play fair for the most parts, at least in the mainstream division of their domain. And obviously this is not confined to a state in India. Critics from all over India and the world exhibit an almost unbiased literary pattern, and this is definitely worthy of a note of praise. Just as a stubbornly ideological political system can stand in the way of a movie being available to the audiences, a politically dependent film critic could confuse the readers, dishearten them and essentially cut the branch on which he/she sits.

Does being impartial equals to being apolitical? In a world that growingly believes so, I beg to disagree. Take the case of films like ‘PM Narendra Modi’ & ‘The accidental prime minister’. These are the kind of Cinema that begs any critic to be entirely dismissed as propaganda, but they were called bad films for the bad cinematic elements in them, while the political intentions were definitely pointed out. The incompetent artistic and production values of these films were harshly met with, and so were the political and historic blunders. I believe the reviews these films got in general were lessons on how politics in films could be discoursed without being heavy-handed about it, especially in these times of turmoil. Does this trait owe to the fact that film critics prepare themselves to be flexible about their job (they say a critic has to be a fan of every film genre)? Or is it because of the inclusive nature of the art form they evaluate? Or (a stretch, may be) is the sheer diversity of films they watch gifting them the forbearance of a globetrotter? I am not sure, but I’m sure there is a laudable element of altruistic political approach among movie critics. Film criticism is both press and literature, and I wish this element disseminates to the other parts of these professions before we cease to recognize anything from outside our political beliefs.