Review at your own peril

Seeking a gag on online film reviewers is an attack on freedom of expression

October 31, 2023 02:30 am | Updated 02:30 am IST

A screengrab of the Malayalam film Aaromalinte Adhyathe Pranayam.

A screengrab of the Malayalam film Aaromalinte Adhyathe Pranayam.

In early October, ‘review bombing’, a concept of relatively recent origin in the video gaming industry, entered public conversations in Kerala. Mubeen Rauf, director of the Malayalam film Aaromalinte Adhyathe Pranayam, approached the Kerala High Court seeking a gag on social media and YouTube reviews for at least seven days following a film’s release, claiming that they pose a threat to the industry’s financial stability.

Mr. Rauf also claimed that some vloggers resorted to extortion and threatened to post negative reviews if the producers did not pay up. The High Court, which sought to make a distinction between objective, professional reviews and subjective, personal opinions on movies, also touched upon ‘review bombing’, the practice of a large number of people, or a few people with multiple accounts, posting negative reviews with the intention of harming the box office performance of a film.

Last week, the Kerala Police booked seven online movie reviewers and social media platforms following a petition by Ubaini E., director of the film Rahel Makan Kora. At the same time, producers and people from the industry demanded a clampdown on online reviews. A section of the regional media also seems to have been weaponised to target online reviewers.

All these incidents have raised concerns that there are attempts to silence freedom of expression. It has missed no one’s attention that the movement against online reviewers has begun at a time when a majority of Malayalam films are failing at the box office, leading to criticism that the producers are looking for scapegoats. Last year, only a handful of the 177 films that released made profits. This year, of the 190 films released until October, only four had significant returns. This grim picture, which raises concerns over the long-term sustainability of the industry, is a much less discussed side of contemporary Malayalam cinema.

Most of these films, especially the much-hyped big budget ones, which failed at the box office have evoked negative reactions from a wider audience on social media following their release on OTT platforms. This raises questions about the claim that a few online reviews played a part in their box office failure. It is another matter that OTT platforms were the favourite whipping boy of film producers until recently — the immediate release of films on such platforms was pointed as a reason why the audience stays away from theatres.

The critics of negative reviews do not seem to have a problem when the same online reviewers publish glowing reviews, which even end up as promotional material for some producers. It is also no secret that some producers spend money to garner positive reviews online. Somehow, spending money to generate an artificial, positive narrative is not seen in a negative light.

Some producers also argue that vloggers get a wider reach and consequently more revenue through negative reviews. There have also been cases of some vloggers posting reviews even before the first show of a film is over. In response to producers accusing some online reviewers of extortion, the reviewers have sought proof. Even considering the possibility that a few indulge in such practices, it is unfair to club together all online reviewers and call for a blanket ban on the free expression of opinions. It is disappointing that such demands are being made in a State known for its vibrant public sphere where books, films, works of art, and political stances are subject to harsh, all-round criticism.

There is an attempt to view film criticism as an attack on the film industry as a whole. What this debate mostly lacks is a discussion on the quality of the content being produced. Those who slam online reviewers often say that these opinions spoil the efforts of hundreds of people and affect their livelihood. The fact is that a majority of the people who work on a film get a fixed payment irrespective of the fate of the film at the box office. The profits are mostly distributed among producers, theatre owners, and distributors. The interests of producers who sustain the industry have to be protected, but not at the cost of freedom of expression.

A list of films that the producers claim have suffered due to negative reviews is being circulated on regional media. However, the quality of these films serves only to negate their arguments. If a film has solid, novel content, it can overcome any bad review and find its audience.

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