In search of a new Ebert

August 17, 2017 12:00 am | Updated 04:42 am IST

The 2017 Mumbai Film Festival kicked off with a two-day Young Critics Lab

“Anyone can cook,” is the motto of Chef Gusteau in the Pixar film Ratatouille (2007), and the meaning of which the food-critic Anton Ego explains in his famous monologue. Ego’s words, “Not everyone can be a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere,” can be considered an essential commandment for any art form, which applies to film criticism as well.

On August 12, about 90 students and professionals from across the country (with a dismal gender ratio), belonging to the age group of 18 to 25, gathered to attend round one of Mumbai Film Festival’s Young Critics Lab where they were mentored by National Award winning film critic Baradwaj Rangan.

“The discourse on cinema is decided by people who write about cinema,” said Smriti Kiran, the creative director of the Mumbai Film Festival. It is in keeping with this thought that one of the first workshops of the festival’s 2017 edition is about fostering and grooming young writers. The next logical step for the young critics is covering the festival in October and being part of a parallel jury for the films in competition.

Being a past participant of the lab’s 2012 edition, I noted the differences. What was then just an intense two-day workshop (with German film-critic Daniel Kothenschulte) for a select 25 students before the festival, is now more extensive (three months). Broadly, the lab’s generous aim is to introduce film criticism to whoever is interested in movies and writing. “We are not even assuming that the applicants can write. The aim is to find the skill, not hone it,” shared Kiran. Also, the participants are luckier this time to have Pulitzer Prize finalist Stephanie Zacharek as one of the mentors for the final round. Is there a plan to open this lab to international applicants, on the lines of Berlinale, Locarno, Rotterdam? “That will take time. We have limited budgets,” Kiran responded.

To make the discussion conversant and familiarise participants with cinematic discourse, Rangan handpicked 50 essential films for the participants to watch before attending. The list included ten films from Hollywood, India, other foreign languages and a few genre films. How did he go about choosing the films? “It was to give a representational idea, that if you say this film, then it represents this movement in France or something,” he reasoned. Does a film critic need to watch a lot of films, like a movie geek? “I think it is very important to watch every film — good films, bad films, because you have to acquaint yourself with history, movements, and types of films,” shared Rangan. “It’s okay that you don’t like Bergman, but you have to know what he stood for, what kind of movies he made, what he brought to it — the unique mix of film and theatricality in his work. Because today if you are watching something then you have to know enough to say what is Bergman-esque,” he emphasised.

Rangan has been teaching cinema to kids for years now. “One of the reasons why people like us are respected is because there is certain quaintness in the way we approach films, maybe a little professorially. It also sets us apart because we are not a part of the ‘cool gang’, you know, we are not doing the Buzzfeed kind of stuff,” he said.

On quizzing him about how the art of film-criticism is shaping up with the millennials, his response was that the nature of the game is changing. “But I at least try to instil in them that don’t look at film writing as just writing about films, but also as writing.”

On the second day of the workshop, before Rangan asked the kids to write a review of Satyajit Ray’s Charulata , he introduced them with the two pillars of film-criticism: Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael, through their reviews of The Godfather . Most of the kids identified with Ebert’s style of writing. Talking about current scene of film-criticism, Rangan asked, “So, who is today’s Ebert?” The question remained hanging in the air. Come October and we’ll know whether it was someone in the room.

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