As the debate between two groups of film lovers — one that wants critics to go easy on film reviews and the other that believes in freedom of expression — rages on, Karthik Subramanian presents the case from both sides

If you cut off the anger and emotions on display between two sections of film lovers over the last few days on online social networks, there is merit to find on both sides. Like the two sides that churned the Mighty Ocean in Hindu Mythology, both sides are attempting the same goal, that of the divine nectar (let us call it a cinematic exaggeration for good cinema). But right now, all that is coming out is venom.

A group of Tamil filmmakers, especially producers whose fortunes hinge heavily on the opening weekend, are asking for the critics to go easy the first few days of the theatrical run before issuing damning verdicts. This side has a bunch of fans too that roots for its on-screen idols, no matter what. And in all fairness, even the producers and actors are fans first.

Unfortunately, in terms of technology (with the likes of Twitter) and the existing popular culture of instant gratification, the request for some ‘grace time’ seems bizarre.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are a group of critics and with them some outspoken filmmakers and actors too. These are the people who soak in the culture of free-opinion democracy that the Web has unleashed. According to them, every thing is fair game.

But where this side sometimes loses balance is when it starts hurling abuses on ‘commercial cinema’, without crediting the effort that might have gone into making it. And also in not acknowledging the fact that for some viewers, movies don’t last beyond the two-and-half hours within the cinema hall.

“The problem with the segment a radio jockey hosted on cinema was its tone,” a producer, who requested anonymity, told me. “No one has a problem with balanced reviews. But to run a programme that positions itself as helping the listener save Rs. 120 that weekend is unfair. It is very possible for someone to completely hate a movie and for someone else to like it.”

And thereafter comes the catch. “Radio stations play our songs to draw in the listeners, don’t they? So why can’t they have a balanced approach to reviewing?”

Are some people giving undue importance to the impact critics have on the commercial side of cinema? Or, are the lovers of art cinema — often the most vociferous on social networks — using their powers of carefully constructed logic thrashing out the voice of the passionate fans so badly that some producers feel belittled? Are the critics overruling the fact that sometimes kitsch is good for some viewers who are at the theatre just to have a good time?

It goes without saying that both sides — the commerce and the art — have to succeed should the film industry feel healthy. This was the crux of the Deepavali Day debate (telecast by a satellite channel) moderated by iconic actor and filmmaker Kamal Haasan.

Some producers disagree that critics seal the box-office fate of a film even though they empathise with the emotional quandary their colleagues might feel when they face some unabashed criticism. J.K. Satish Kumar points out that the film Thanga Meenkal by director Ram had overwhelmingly positive reviews by critics but did not really send the cash registers on an overdrive. The critically acclaimed Onaaiyum Aatukuttiyum ended up being a financial debacle for director Mysskin. When I met Mysskin a few days ago, the director said: “Financially, I can be better off. But nothing to worry, I will rise like a phoenix when I sign my next film. I am happy if I just have enough money to buy books.”

Fans praised director Selvaraghavan’s Aayirathil Oruvan when the film released, but several critics panned it. The young director nearly broke his career financially. But the Telugu version of the film was declared a hit.

A few years ago, a vernacular magazine carried a cover story on the financial poor health of Tamil cinema featuring a still of Kamal Haasan’s Anbe Sivam on the cover. Now, years later, whenever the film is played on television, it is not rare to find several fans tweeting about the movie being one of their all-time favourites.

The questions that underpin all of the controversies are simple: What is good cinema? Is a great film the one that makes you want to whistle while being in that moment or is it the one that strikes you maybe even a day later when you are able to find some silence within?

First, both sides would do well to learn to disagree amicably.

With regard to the question of art versus commerce in cinema, here is a poser involving two recent films. Was there not enough artistic effort in Azhaguraja where they have meticulously re-created a song in 1980s’ style? Were there not enough smart commercial elements in Mysskin’s Onaaiyum Aatukuttiyum that made you want to clap and whistle?