‘We must be examined by the same standards we set’

Critics-turned-filmmakers Raja Sen, Pratim D. Gupta and Sudhish Kamath. Photo: Aruanangsu Roy Chowdhury  

Three popular critics — Sudhish Kamath (formerly with The Hindu ), Pratim D. Gupta (The Telegraph ), and Raja Sen (Rediff ) — have come together as filmmakers (along with Suparn Verma) in X — Past is Present . The roles have been reversed: instead of analysing the release of the week, they will see others tear into their work. The trio came together for The Hindu to discuss what it meant to switch sides while Verma was busy shooting. In the spirit of their new film, in which the protagonist is simply called ‘K’, we’ll call our panellists by their initials.

Sankhayan Ghosh
What is the biggest challenge that you faced as a film critic-filmmaker?

P: My identity as a film critic in Kolkata is much bigger than as a filmmaker. When I first told the editor of my newspaper, where I work for ten years, that I plan to make a film and that I need sabbatical, he told me that I need to make three hugely successful films to turn my image over. I had laughed on the inside silently then. But he was so right. If someone has seen my film and read my reviews, he’ll refer to me as the film critic. Maybe three films down the line that might change, and I’ll be very happy if that changes.

Also, it changed a few things for me as a reviewer. Since I make films within the Bengali film industry, I stopped reviewing Bengali films. I didn’t review Dia Mirza’s Love Break Up Zindagi because she was actress of my first film Paanch Adhyay(2012). Swastika Mukherjee is in my next film Saheb Bibi Golaam; I didn’t enjoy Detective Byomkesh Bakshy (2015) but thought she’s done a good job. What shall I write then? What will people think? These sort of thoughts cross your mind and that’s a huge challenge mentally.

S: The challenge is not in the making of it, but in the outcome where you pay the price of being a critic. When Good Night Good Morning (2011) released, SRK fans who were reacting to my Don 2 (2011) review made sure that my film is rated 0 on IMDB. I had to create 50 fake accounts to try and cancel that effect without realising IMDB doesn’t work that way. You can’t create 50 fake accounts and offset the rating.

The challenge is that there are a bunch of people out there, who are saying, “You are a critic, we are going to make your life miserable. You don’t know what it is to be ripped apart.”

There’s so much vigilantism happening, there’s a lot of hatred. The star fans take it personally. And the kinds of films I make are off beat and we need the word of mouth. The IMDB rating makes a difference. So it hurts there, but no complains. Because I am doing what I always wanted to do: which is to watch films, write about them and make them.

R: I am very curious. I’ve been flamed many times online before twitter even existed. It was scary because when I started reviewing films I didn’t know people take them as seriously as they do. There is a frightening lack of perspective in how our country consumes cinema. Its like when you are watching a cricket match and everyone is an armchair expert. Similarly everyone thinks they know best even when it comes to movies. Dealing for those for about a dozen years has been interesting. Initially some of it was shocking, then you realise its important to get a reaction from the crowd as well and not to be ignored.

So far, I haven’t been shot down as much as other critics have been for whatever work I’ve done (he wrote dialogues for 99 and Go Goa Gone). X is my first attempt at direction. But when Sudhish’s GNGM came out, where I had a bit role, I was wondering what the reactions would be. But on the whole it was relatively friendly. I called Karan Johar to ask him if he will review the film. I had demolished his Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna many years back. But his response was relatively positive. Today when I meet filmmakers and tell them about my filmmaking ambitions, there is a sense of encouragement from some quarters which is quite heartening.

I think it’s a matter of quality. Khalid Mohamed’s early stuff such as Zubeida and Fiza were well accepted. And the latter ones which are not as good were not.

Audience doesn’t really care, ‘.. ki yeh critic tha ya nahi tha”. Even during X, when I was reaching out to actors, cinematographers to come on board with the guerrilla kind of shooting, less budget and limited resources, everybody was really keen. At some level, people are open to the idea that critics can make films too.

When you came into film criticism, did you see it as a springboard to make films in the future?

S: I wrote my first script even before I joined a newspaper. So, I was a filmmaker even before I became a film critic. I have not been a part of star based, mainstream cinema. I have always looked at cinema as something that I can do at a personal level, with limited resources, which is how I made three films. I thought I should take filmmaking more seriously since I have spent 15 years of my life as a critic. That is why I quit my day job and decide to do filmmaking full time.

P: I love reviewing movies too much to think of it as a springboard to make films. You do wish you didn’t have a day job and would chase studios and be proactive about your filmmaking ambitions. Maybe I would have made more films. But I’m good -- susegad, laidback and happy.

R: I love reading about movies. Its one of those great pleasures when you are growing up, reading old movie magazines such as issues of Leonard Maltin’s movie guide. We grew up at a time when there was no access to those movies we were reading about. But then, reading about them is an art form in itself, something that I always loved.

I still read a lot more about movies than I write even today. I’m reading stuff all the time. I also find cinema to be an open art form, not a closed aesthetic which needs schooling like art criticism. Someone who is new to a certain kind of cinema can come up with a perspective that is equally valid. So the conversations are a lot more radical and dynamic.

As a writer I started with Formula One and then I was offered to write about films. I said I don’t know if I watch enough Hindi movies to be able to write educatively on it. But I spent a few months in the trenches and started reviewing 11 years ago. For me, writing is on its own. Direction is something I don’t see myself pushing towards. Even when it comes to cinema, writing and editing are the two departments that really draw me in.

After having made films, do you ever reach a point where you feel that reviewing is not so much fun?

S: My first review was DDLJ , for me its 20 years and I am sick and tired of it. For me, it’s become just the same thing. Also, I have lived in Chennai all my life and I came to Bombay thinking that will also allow me to pursue journalism and filmmaking simultaneously. But after moving here I realised I cant do both at the same time, the pace of the city is just too hectic.

P: I think reviewing movies is satisfying enough, a lot of fun.

R: Yes, and it does serve a purpose. Not just for the reader but us as well. There are certain critic proof films, yes -- all the Rohit Shettys and Michael Bays of the world. But there are smaller films, ones we champion and push to people. There are times when we find an original voice we want to take it to people and we manage to do that. That’s a significant purpose. And this is a time in India where a lot of new independent voices are emerging; these young people trying to make different kinds of cinema. It’s important for some of us to talk about it.

P: I think it’s important for people like Sudhish, Raja and I to continue reviewing. Reading those who are reviewing right now, I get a feeling that they started watching Hindi films three years back. There is no history in their review. As Raja said, that he took his time and went to the trenches before starting to review Hindi films. You need to watch five Bhansali films before you go and review Bajirao Mastani. Because there is a pattern, he is trying to do something. That cultural context is missing. I think we three should continue reviewing regardless of what we are doing.

S: There are different kinds of film criticism emerging today. We were just talking about it in the morning. Earlier it used to be, “I like the film or not, and why”. But today it’s become about how bad it is, sometimes, just with the purpose of ridiculing or outraging and making fun of Hindi cinema. There is a need to preserve the old fashion of film reviewing as well. That’s not to say that the others shouldn’t exist. I love Sahil Rizwan and the other new guys like KRK.

In my case, I have changed mistresses. Earlier I was married to my job and flirting with cinema. Now I flirt with reviewing, writing occasionally in my website supporting films.

P: You feel like reviewing when you watch a PRDP. Or a Charlie K Chakkar Mein, when you want to write about Naseer, the guy who did Albert Pinto, what Charlie is he on? It’s a keeda inside, you feel like writing, even when you are watching an Anomalisa at MAMI.

S: Given that we all had the release of X coming up, we were still there watching movies at MAMI. Its one of those compulsive things we end up doing.

That’s because all of you are movie buffs above anything else.

R: Absolutely, when I am asked what’s the one qualification to be a film critic or a filmmaker, I say you just have to bloody love the movies. That’s the only real education that you need. You have to be able to consume it, believe in it, to hope every Friday that’s this is going to be good.

S: When you see something awesome you want to share it with the world.

R: We’ve all known to be harsh critics and that the harsher reviews are more popular and shared and all of that. But nothing beats the feeling of writing about a film we are genuinely blown away by.

P: In my case, when I meet someone after a long time, they always refer to a review of a good film, like the review of Lootera I wrote.

S: For me it’s been the longer ones, like the 3000 word essay I wrote on Rockstar.

Do the film critic and filmmaker in you inform each other?

P: They are very different ballgames. Directing has nothing to do with film criticism. Directing is managing two million things at a particular time. And writing in a private work in your office or home about a movie you watched. Where is the commonality in the two? Maybe when you are writing a script it’s a different scenario.

I think the filmmakers’ perception that, “Now that you have made a film, you know our pain,” that’s the biggest rubbish. You have every chance of quality controlling a film before it goes out in the theatres.

S: Filmmaking is like an image that you have in mind and you try to assemble this huge jigsaw puzzle with all the pieces that you can find in hand. The puzzle can be 20 pieces and it can be 4000 as well. You are dealing with elements such as set, costume, actors. A critic is someone who comes and sees the larger picture and then tries to make sense of it. So his understanding of deconstructing the image will differ from the filmmaker’s process of constructing it. These are two different skill sets. You don’t need to know how to make films to review them or vice versa.

P: Famous Jean-Luc Godard quote, “You don’t need to lay an egg to tell good one from bad.”

R: It’s a question of wearing different hats really. Putting myself out there for the first time, there has been a lot of second guessing. There’s significant self criticism. Like when I write scenes I try to look at them from a critical perspective, visualising them and see if they are adding up. As movie critics, we are analytical at some level. Like we were discussing of how we would review X. How many stars would we give? Would we like watching this movie as much as enjoyed making it? We can’t review it because we are too close to it to be objective. I don’t review movies that have close friends associated with it.

Are you little more forgiving towards filmmakers in your reviews after having made films yourselves?

*A resounding ‘no’ from all three*

R: Its unfair to judge it sparingly. We should expect more from our filmmakers. The goal posts should be harder. That’s why when we champion a film, it feels all the better because we are trying to hold them to certain standards. I’m not saying we have scaled that standard but as filmmakers we should also be examined in those very standards.

How critical can you be of your own film?

S: Sometimes you are in a state of denial. You are in the middle of the madness and you are not being able to see it. In the case of X though, there is still some amount of objectivity because the whole film is not made by us. Although our views are coloured, we have our biases, preferred segments according to sensibilities.

R: X is hard to analyse because its a mix of genres and each segment demanded a different tonal graph. For me some work, some don’t. At some level, for me, it’s hard to analyse because I am arriving at it from a different tonal level.

S: The idea of X is to embrace all genres, without judgement. It meant we had to every genre with its trappings, its limitations, in all its glory. If you are doing exploitation then bring on the breasts. That doesn’t mean all of us are obsessed with the male gaze.

R: Since this is a film about a filmmaker, we have all masochistically taken ourselves apart. In a way, we are saying how messed up we filmmakers are, its okay to be that messed up or not okay to be.

S: But it doesn’t represent any of us, but probably the person we fear of becoming.

R: As filmmakers, what I find interesting about X is that all of us came up with a character that is more of an anti hero than a hero. It is exciting because if that’s how we are viewing ourselves, then the level of self-criticism or loathing can be really felt.

S: In India we want to see the protagonist as the hero, which we need not.

One makes acquaintances within the industry as a critic, particularly ones based in Mumbai. How do you negotiate with that when you set about to making a film?

P: I think it’s the only advantage of a film critic turning into a filmmaker. When you make that phone call to an actress, you are not a random guy who wants to make his first or second film but someone he/she may have read. For example, when I called up Parno Mittra, the protagonist in my segment of X, she immediately recognised me. And then I went on to explain to her the concept. Industry kind of gives you respect if they’ve read you.

R: It’s a double-edged sword. While there is familiarity, some can be mean and disrespectful to you. There are people who have a vendetta against you. There are actors who will meet you and quote lines from your review.

Actors are very scary, I remember one who, referred to a review I’d done 6 years ago saying, “You had written all this. And now you are doing it yourself?” Actors are the most insecure lot. Directors come second. They are the angrier, belligerent ones. They call you only when drunk, actors don’t need to be drunk.

But Pratim’s right too. Within the world we work in, we’d like to believe that people are reading the kind of things we are writing, so that there’s a connect. When I reached to cinematographer Ravi K. Chandran, he was aware of who I am. That’s a good zone to be in.

S: I don’t think anyone in the industry reads reviews, but it’s an exciting phase to be in. We didn’t always have critics making films. If you’ve always believed in a certain kind of cinema, now is the time to do it, and change what you don’t like about it. The fact that we made something like X will tell people even if it fails, what to do and not to do when you make a film like that.

R: Also, Bollywood sets a really low bar. You watch them and you are like ,” Yeh toh main bhi bana sakta hoon. I can’t do worse than these guys who are making truckloads of money by making really bad films.”

S: Having said that, no one is going to invest money on you just because you are a critic.

R: It will get you a narration with an actor but they will not do you any favours.

P: I will go on to say that it works negatively with producers and financers. They’ll say, “Oh film critic? Wants to make film? My money is gone.” They think critics will only make film festival-type films.

S: Also, just to be clear to people, X is not an art house film just because film critics are a part of it.

R: There are no hard and fast, rules that a critic will make a certain kind of a movie, as a lot of people perceive. Pratim’s first film is a romance, his second is a drama with romantic and sexual elements. Sudhish has made a rom-com, and I’m currently writing a gory action film. Its not as if as critics, we will only try to make Day For Night (François Truffaut’s celebrated 1973 film). We would like to. But when you love cinema you love all kinds of films.

Who are your favourite film critic filmmakers?

P: Jean Luc Godard. In India, I really like Khalid Mohammed’s early work like Zubeida (which he wrote) and parts of Fiza.

R: Truffaut. In India, it’s a small handful. Khaled’s Mammo was a good film, Zubeida was good. Sajid Khan, Kunal Kohli were also critics. But no one has had anything significant cinematic impact so far. Even we are included in that.

S: I’ll skip the question

What are you expecting yourself do this weekend when instead of reviewing other’s films, you’ll be on the other side.

P: One has to draw his own line; otherwise there is no end to it.

S: I’m looking forward to not just reviews but feedback in general. But I’m on a mission to set my life in order. I’m going to Goa on Sunday to watch films at IFFI.

R: For us even switching off is watching movies. I am reviewing the new James Bond film Spectre. And honestly, I can’t wait to read the first reviews. When X premiered in New York last year and the reviews had just started coming in, we were all huddled up in a hotel room and reading it out to each other, excitedly.

P: Maybe we should review the reviews.

S: Yes, reading out tweet-reviews. That should be a good viral.

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2021 5:17:06 AM |

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