When it comes to reviewing, what the film is about is less important than how the film goes about realising its ambitions

I wasn’t very impressed with Hansal Mehta’s CityLights, and when I wrote a fairly negative review, a reader complained, “Even assuming that ‘Citylights’ doesn’t break new ground in terms of cinematic narrative, is it still not important that hard-hitting movies like this get made, if for nothing else than to make us pause and think about the lives of the less fortunate? Especially given the usual escapist fare that throngs our multiplexes week after week…”

Another reader had the perfect name for this line of thinking: the “A for Effort” syndrome. And this is a genuine issue when it comes to appraising movies. The essence of film reviewing is asking yourself these two questions. (1) Did you like the film? (2) If yes, why, and if no, why not? And as long as a film is structured along familiar lines (one might even say escapist lines), this rule of reviewing is fairly easy to follow. But when a film is “different,” we begin to feel somewhat uneasy with this kind of evaluation. We wonder: “This is not the usual film. Should we, therefore, cut the film some slack? Should we consider the fact that a film of this nature at least got made in this escapist-blockbuster climate?”

There may be something to this, but these considerations shouldn’t be confused with reviewing the film, which is always something you do through your eyes, your viewpoint. (Hence the “you” in the first of the two questions above.) I can write a column or an opinion piece from a social perspective, stating why CityLights (or any other film that had a “worthy” subject) needed to be made, and why it’s heartening that someone has invested time and money in a project that’s not a prefab blockbuster. But this shouldn’t be a factor while writing a review, where you look at what the film aims to do and how it achieves these aims – and this is always a personal perspective. Thus, if a film has a “worthy” subject, but – in your view – if the way it handles this subject from a cinematic perspective isn’t impressive, then you should try to say that instead of awarding a gold star for trying, which is that whole “A for Effort” thing.

I’m not saying I always manage to do this. This sort of barbed-wire fence between what a film is about and how it goes about realising these aims is particularly difficult to put up in the case of a first-time filmmaker who genuinely thinks out of the box – like Halitha Shameem, who made the really interesting (even if not entirely successful) Poovarasam Peepee. If I were to write an opinion piece about how Tamil filmmakers are opting for increasingly offbeat subjects, then I would have nothing but words of praise for Shameem and her film – but a review of the film can only consider what she wanted to achieve and whether she achieved it. A review isn’t about being fair to a first-time filmmaker or to a filmmaker who’s set out to tackle a never-before subject. A review is about being fair to your viewing experience. It’s about what’s on screen and how you ended up processing it.

This is how reviewing is done everywhere, Consider, for instance, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, the Tom Hanks-starring 9/11-themed drama that bombed. As “worthy” subjects go, this is right up there with the Holocaust. But most of the major American critics hated it. Here’s one opinion that could fit CityLights as well: “Sorry, but there must be richer ways of dramatizing so obvious a theme.”

As I said, this isn’t easy always, whatever the art form. Remember the Eric Clapton ballad Tears in Heaven? It’s about a horrible real-life situation, a father coming to grips with the death of his young son, but the song itself, with its banal lyrics, is just schmaltz. Clash Magazine wrote that it “seems churlish to even contemplate getting gobby about Clapton’s ‘Tears In Heaven’ – a song written about his four-year-old son who fell to his death… Yet art is art and by placing it in the public domain you implicitly consent to dissemination, interpretation and evaluation regardless of the personal worth bestowed upon it by the creator. Accordingly…‘Tears In Heaven’ is less a song and more a mawkish treatise into a self flagellation, wherein Clapton smears his grief all over a cynically pious melody that is designed expressly to transform menopausal women into merchandise consuming machines.”

For a far better treatment of the same situation (albeit in a different medium), we don’t have to look any further than how Imam sahib, in Sholay, expresses what it means to lose a son. “Jaante ho duniya ka sabse bada bojh kya hota hai? Baap ke kandhon par bete ka janaaza.” Where Clapton makes the emotional twee and personal (I must be strong / And carry on), Imam sahib makes it universal and far more resonant: the biggest burden in the world is that of the father carrying his son to the funeral. Two ways of doing the same thing – yet only one is art.