Friday, August 08, 2008

A matter of taste

Every summer it seems that North American film critics have to respond to why they did not like a certain Hollywood blockbuster film. Two years ago, A.O Scott tackled this issue when discussing the newest Pirates sequel:

But the discrepancy between what critics think and how the public behaves is of perennial interest because it throws into relief some basic questions about taste, economics and the nature of popular entertainment, as well as the more vexing issue of what, exactly, critics are for.

Are we out of touch with the audience? Why do we go sniffing after art where everyone else is looking for fun, and spoiling everybody's fun when it doesn't live up to our notion or art?

I have often read comments along the lines of why some critics cannot "lighten-up" or "loosen up" when it comes to reviewing certain commercial titles. But why is it assumed that a commercial film should be liked by everyone? And that too, why must all critics conform? For example, this summer The Dark Knight is already considered to be "the greatest film ever made" and any critic who dared to think otherwise was abused (ranging from mild words about their small brain to "you are a #$#%#$"). I often find it amusing that some people can get quite abusive when others offer a differing view on a film. Seriously, how can everyone like the same movie? For the most part, films are always perceived with a subjective lens, no matter how much a person tries to approach it in objective terms. Ofcourse that does not stop some people from trying to stamp an objective verdict on a film by calling it "the greatest film ever made" or "best film of the century", etc. If all the film going public around the world were to vote on the best film ever made, you will never get one unanimous answer. Yes, there are numerous annual "best of.. lists" and each get votes from film critics, industry personnel or film buffs. Sometimes the same titles pop up in these lists but I find it more useful to read why certain people chose a particular film – there is a possibility that they saw noticed a quality in a film where others had failed to.

Over time, if people continue to read a certain critic’s reviews, they can develop a sense of the films a reviewer likes or not. And even if someone normally agrees with a critic’s views, there will always be cases when a difference will arise. The difference should be an opportunity to exchange viewpoints and not merely a chance to slam the door with words like "if you don’t like the movie, you are an idiot".

Differing treatment of film critics in Hollywood vs Bollywood

Hollywood still has a need for movie critics even if quite a few of them are losing their jobs. Evidence can be found in how the industry still continues to hold advance press screenings of their movies. And if a critic likes a movie, then their blurbs are plastered all over the movie poster. When a film does not have an advance screening, it is immediately assumed that the movie is awful and the producers/distributors are hoping to recoup as much weekend box office money before the negative reviews hit the headlines. Now admittedly, quite a few reviews do not go into in-depth critical analysis of a film but merely present the synopsis with a movie rating. That raises another contentious topic of how many people actually read a movie review and what are they looking to get out of it. Do most people just care for a number rating? Or are they just interested in going to see a film just because of the actors or genre? The answers to these questions circles back to the start of A.O Scott's article regarding the need for a critic and of people's tastes.

On the other hand, Bollywood as an industry does not respect a film critic and as a rule ignore their verdict. There are hardly any advance film screenings and even before a movie is released, the film producers/directors/actors go out of their way to ensure their movie is critic proof. Most interviews with the film-makers involve the following chosen words about their newest Bollywood movie:

  • It is a juicy "masala" movie

  • Meaning: A typical Bollywood film with action, songs, dance, romance, emotion, etc.

  • "Entertaining movie", fun for the whole family

  • Meaning: comedy movie with good songs

  • "Fresh love story"

  • Meaning: The movie is unlike the countless other stale love stories that get released every year. Also, means a film with new actors.

  • People should go enjoy the movie and "leave their brain at the door"

  • Meaning: The film has no plot, so one should not question anything. Just laugh.

    When a Bollywood film does well at the box office but gets negative reviews, the film-makers say the movie is "for the masses". When a film does poorly at the box office, then the film-makers say the movie is "for the classes", referring to the middle class and elite sections of Indian society who can apparently appreciate the mature themes shown. And when both the classes and masses reject a movie, then the film-makers say that the movie is too sophisticated for the Indian audiences and is made for the foreign crowd (Indian diaspora, film festivals, etc). When everyone rejects their movie, then the film-makers say that the world is not ready to understand their unique genius. Honestly, how can a critic be ever expected to fight against Bollywood's built in critic-proof ego?

    Note: India has to be the only country in the world where people line up in millions to see a movie which they know nothing about. This is because the trailers are only clips of the film songs, sometimes spliced with few movie scenes. In most cases, even the story is never really revealed in advance. Critics only get to see a movie on the Friday afternoon opening shows along with the rest of the audience and their reviews are not available until later on Friday evening and in the weekend publications.

    I left my brain at the door. So should you.

    Only in India could such a film review get published. In reviewing the newest Bollywood film Singh Is Kinng Taran Adarsh begins his review thus:

    Just a word of caution before you watch this film: Singh Is Kinng is not for the intellectuals or those pretending to be one. It's not for the hard-nosed critics either.

    He even explains what is wrong with the audience if they do not enjoy this movie.

    You know the rules when you watch a hardcore entertainer: Just don't look for logic. If you do, too bad for you, for you would never enjoy a film of this genre and more specifically, Singh Is Kinng.

    And Taran goes onto praise the limited talents of the film-maker.

    Anees Bazmee's films are very high on entertainment. The plotline may be paper-thin, perhaps ludicrous and farcical, but when did Bazmee ever promise a SCHINDLER'S LIST [sic] or a SAVING PRIVATE RYAN? [sic] Singh Is Kinng works because it delivers what it promises: Full on entertainment!

    Hilarious. Here is a critic actually admitting a film-maker’s flaws but yet endorsing the movie because it is “Full on entertainment”. That’s right. None of this half-on or quarter-on, it FULL ON baby. He might have added India’s favourite words right now "Mind blowing".

    Oh but to give credit to Taran, he does say that the film is not perfect.

    But, wait, Singh Is Kinng isn't a foolproof product. It has its share of flaws, the turn of events aren't captivating at times, but Singh Is Kinng moves so fast and packs in so much, there's no time to think or analyze.

    You mean the movie is “shock and awe”? Genius!

    And here’s the final verdict:

    The final word? Singh Is Kinng is a delicious and scrumptious pav-bhaji served in the finest cutlery. Your taste buds are sure to relish it... and ask for more!
    On the whole, Singh Is Kinng lives up to the hype and hoopla. Want a joyride without taxing your brains? Board the Singh Is Kinng wagon. At the box-office, the film will fetch a hurricane-like start. The paid previews, the opening weekend, the first week business, everything will be record-shattering. Notwithstanding the new oppositions in the weeks to come, Singh Is Kinng will rule the hearts of the aam junta [whose verdict matters the most] as also the box-office, proving a record holder in the final tally. Blockbuster Hit!

    Come on, who does not like pav-bhaji? Actually, since I had pav-bhaji 2 nights ago, I think I might hold off getting me some cinematic version of this Mumbai dish.

    But Taran is not all fun and games. He does get serious sometimes. For example, he was troubled by last year’s No Smoking

    After having watched NO SMOKING, the first thing you want to do is ask Anurag Kashyap, the director of this misadventure: Now what was that? Cinema is all about three Es -- enlighten, educate and entertain. But NO SMOKING neither educates, nor enlightens. As for entertainment, forget it!

    You try so hard to understand what NO SMOKING tries to say, but the film is like one big puzzle that refuses to get solved.

    What ails NO SMOKING, did you ask. Simple, it’s the most complicated cinematic experience of 2007.

    Errr. It was not that complicated really. Heck, I loved it. But Taran does not share my views:

    NO SMOKING leaves you exasperated and disgusted. Exasperated, because till the end credits roll, you just don’t know what happened in those 2 hours.

    Were we watching the same movie? I was not disgusted but rather left with a giddy sense of excitement because watching No Smoking reminded me of films like David Fincher’s The Game & Fight Club, Alejandro Amenábar's Open Your Eyes (remade as Vanilla Sky), The Devil's Advocate and one scene even reminded of David Lynch's Inland Empire.

    Although I see the real source of Taran’s disappointment: There’re hardly any songs in the narrative but the one filmed on Jesse Randhawa [‘Jab Bhi Cigarette Peeta Hoon’] is imaginatively filmed. Surprisingly, the popular Bipasha Basu track, which has also been publicized extensively, is placed after the end titles.

    A Bollywood movie has to have atleast 6 songs. Come on. That is the golden rule.

    Taran wants people to take an Anees Bazmee film on face value and not question anything but then shouldn’t one take Anurag's film in the same manner? If an absurd film like Bazmee’s No Entry has no logic and people are asked to ignore its shortcomings, then why is there the need to understand No Smoking? Ah. But as per Taran, No Smoking does not entertain. I do not share his opinion regarding No Smoking which I thought was an extremely intelligent film packed with plenty of ideas. But thankfully I do not read Taran’s film reviews but I am sure there are plenty out there who read and listen (via his tv show) to what he has to say (scary thought that).

    A matter of taste

    Film fan #1: I only like comedies and stay away from action flicks.
    Film fan #2: I only like action movies and cannot stand chick-flicks.
    Film fan #3: Sci-fi does it for me.
    Film fan #4: I only like foreign films.
    Film fan #5: I like everything but foreign films.
    Film fan #6: I like all kinds of movie.
    Film fan #7: I like all kinds of movie, provided they are made well.

    Restaurant patron #1: I only like steak.
    Restaurant patron #2: I am vegetarian, which eliminates 90% of the menu items for me.
    Restaurant patron #3: I only like sushi.
    Restaurant patron #4: I only like spicy food.
    Restaurant patron #5: French food is the best cuisine. Everything else is substandard.
    Restaurant patron #6: I like all kinds of food, provided it is presented well.
    Restaurant patron #7: I like all kinds of food, provided it is cooked well.
    Restaurant patron #8: I like all kinds of food, provided it tastes good.
    Restaurant patron #9: I like all kinds of food, provided it is presented nicely and cooked well.
    Restaurant patron #10: I like all kinds of food, provided it is presented nicely, cooked well and the tastes are nice.

    Patron #X shares his dining experience from the Sing-Song Multiplex Restaurant.

    The entire dish was so beautifully presented that I was beside myself. I have to say, the meal was “FULL ON” value for my money because a beautiful waitress brought it to me in the most gorgeous plate I have ever seen, with the finest cutlery. I cannot criticize the meal because everything was so beautiful that I quickly swallowed the meal without having time to chew or think about the tastes. The restaurant delivered solid entertainment. What a gorgeous waitress. I would gladly eat any dish that she serves.

    Owner of the Sing-Song Multiplex Restaurant:

    We found out that most people coming to our establishment do not care for the food. So in order to save costs, we serve stale meat, our sauces are either too salty or too spicy depending on which ingredients are still left, and most often our vegetables are rotten. For desserts, the cherries we place on top of the cakes are always moldy. For the most part, no one complains. They keep coming back because we have the most beautiful women working in the place and we have a very vibrant atmosphere. Occasionally, a snobby food critic comes to our place and demands healthy & tasty food. But no one really cares to what he/she has to say. We keep making money. That is all that matters.

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