Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Succumbing to the temptation of year-end lists

For the last couple of years, I've stopping doing something that I once thought I could spend a lifetime doing: reviews.

I had set out (in journalism) seriously thinking that, since books and movies were so much fun, there was no better job than to first read/watch, and then talk/write about them. That's what I'd wanted to do, week after week. And initially, I did. For my first job with a web portal's news section. For a youth magazine, afterwards...
Gradually, I came to the conclusion that I lack the true soul of a professional reviewer. My response to most books and movies and music was reduced to very few words - 'nice', 'okay', 'fun', 'loved it', 'bleah!' 'whatever...' ouch'. (In a profession where many of us are paid by the word, this clearly does not bode well.)

Yet, I miss reviewing sometimes. I miss the exercise of describing a creative thing like a book, or a movie. The challenge of using words, as orginally as possible, to describe what could be a very original way with words. The magic of infusing a film review with 'ambience', beyond narrating the bare bones of a story outline.
On the other hand, I find it harder and harder to pass judgement upon any such creative work. The fact that I don't like it means nothing. I am not the world. And if I do like something, that is very likely a reflection upon me - my tastes, my values, my sense of humour, my needs.

Which is why, I've more or less stopped reading reviews. Especially movie reviews, since I realised how upsetting the star-rating system can be. Most publications have a five star rating scheme, where:
5 stars = fantastic/unmissable.
1 star = awful/please-avoid.
1 and a 1/2 stars = so-awful-that-we're-feeling-sorry-for-the-filmmakers.

I didn't think anyone really cared for the reviews and the stars, but now that most cities bank on the educated multiplex audience, it does make a difference. I noticed this year that my aunt and cousins actually refused to go watch a film because the ToI had given the movie only 2 stars. Which was horribly unfair, not just because I wanted to see that film, but that the ToI's reviews are sort of... well, suspect, at times.

I recall a time when I used to look forward to Khalid Mohamed's Sunday reviews in the Bombay edition of ToI. His make-fun-of-everything style, his silly-billy rhyme-shyme was amusing, if not edifying. But then, one day, he reviewed the film Love ke Liye Kuch Bhi Karega. He refused to give it a review or a rating. Not even 1 star. He said it didn't deserve even that!

Since it was an E. Niwas film, we watched it, anyway. It was a very decently made film. I was laughing almost non-stop. (Some people suggested it's lifted from somewhere else in the western hemisphere; I really don't care. That's the newest fashionable thing, nowadays - spot the slightest similarity between any old English film and any new Hindi film, and accuse the filmmaker of 'lifting'... besides, no western movie could ever have had anything as remarkable as Aslam Bhai).

That day, I lost respect for that review-column. Now, I've stopped reading film reviews. I'll read them if I'm curious about the story, or if the reviewer is a fantastic writer. But I refuse to accept reviewers' verdicts, even when ALL of them say the same thing. In fact, if they all say it's great, I get a little suspicious. If they uniformly hate it, I'm immediately curious. For instance, Apharan has good reviews but I'm not too keen on it.

For one, I'm suspicious of words like 'precocious' and 'middle of the road' and 'experimental' and 'breaking new ground' and 'dark' and 'sensibilities'. Over-used words like 'pacy', 'fresh', 'young', 'understated', 'brooding', 'original'.

I'm also irritated with 'We've seen this one before' or 'ABC film can be summed up as UPO meets YZX meets RTS meets CAB'.

My reaction to that is: "Yes, we've all seen everything there is to see, they say there are only 8 original plots on earth.... And if ABC film is suggestive of mixed elements from all these films, clearly, it is not like any one of them; right?"

Similarity of plot is neither a virtue nor a vice. After all, Mera Gaon Mera Desh is very similar to Sholay. But Sholay is a classic that I've seen eight times; most Indians remember each scene, verbatim (some day, I hope to see it on the big screen!). Anarkali had the same subject as Mughal-e-azam. But there's no comparison, is there?
Originality is not always a good thing - I have never seen anything like 'Bal Brahmachari'. I hope to be spared, in the future.
Also, subtlety or understatement is neither a virture nor a vice. Manoj Bajpai in Pinjar was understated to the point of being invisible and inaudible. Amitach Bacchan in Baghbaan was not subtle; he was heart-wrenchingly believeable. When anyone says that performances are 'low-key', I want to remind them that we grew up on and with Bollywood... Low-key?! What makes you think we want low-key? Even Naseeruddin Shah is not really low-key!
Nor is 'pace' any measure of cinematic worth. Dev had no pace to speak of, barring the riot scene, but it's worth the watch.

Also, this whole post has been one long rant against nothing and nobody in particular. I have a suspicion that I've begun to babble. But since everybody's doing their year-end lists, here's mine:

I loved Black and Iqbal. Also Bluffmaster and Bunty Aur Bubli (which I've seen twice for the sheer fun and enthusiasm it fills you with.) Both these movies - like Main Hoon Na - belong to that category of cinema that you want to re-watch when you're feeling down, and don't want to stay down.

I thought Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Maara had a great concept, but was just about rescued by Anupam Kher (I'd have given a lot to have Urmila Matondkar replaced by... anybody else. But I also thought it was a film that deserved to get made). Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi was alright - the word 'hard-hitting' comes to mind - but it engaged only my mind, not my heart.

I have nothing against The Rising. Didn't love it, but I didn't think it was all that bad and I'm still in love with Aamir Khan's moochhein... and the fine wrinkles round his eyes. (pause, sigh deeply) By the way, WHY does everyone go on and on about Madame Kher's cleavage? I completely fail to understand what the fuss was about. There was cleavage, yes, but in the age of Mallika and the silicon brigade... and considering everybody's been watching Baywatch... this should've passed unnoticed. I, for one, didn't bat an eyelash.

[PS - I know I have not linked to all the things and people I should have linked to, as blogosphere etiquette demands, but there are simply too many film and actor names and I don't have the time.]


Anonymous said...

Loved your post:) But Bluffmaster????
And what about this madame kher's cleavage? Who's madame kher???

Madhat said...

Who's madame kher???

yeah, who is that? any relation to Anupam Kher?

I will not even comment on your choices of movies...

Jabberwock said...

"I'll read them if I'm curious about the story, or if the reviewer is a fantastic writer."

But those really are the best reasons to read reviews anyway. The reviewer’s opinion or “verdict” should be almost irrelevant. Pauline Kael is one of my favourite reviewers – but going through a collection of her writings the other day I realised that I disagreed with most of her opinions. The point is, I love the way she expressed and justified them.

And oh yes, “low-key” – the most overrated virtue ever when it comes to discussing performances.

Suhail said...

Heeee!! LkLKBK has that awesome punk-qawwali.. I watched it twice, the second time just for that song. Ofcourse the movie too was a fulltoo laugh-riot. After Hera Pheri, DCH probably one of the best comedies in recent years.

Janaki said...

This from someone who decides on movies based on trailors.. Karam was considered a bad movie even before it was released! :)

R. said...

I think google has been good for plagarism, no?

Annie Zaidi said...

Pawan: bluffmaster :) maybe i should do a review after all...
madame kher is kiron kher (spelt Kirron, now?), actress and anupam kher's wife.
Apurva: wise move; don't comment.
jabberwock: true, true. but why do so many reviewers say things like 'give this a wide berth' or 'don't waste your money on this'?
suhail: but i actually prefer Hungama to Hera Pheri... yes, i have a taste for slapstick. :)
jaygee: Karam promised to be a slick thriller, by the looks of the trailor. :( not my fault if they paid the promo-cutter better than the script-writer

david raphael israel said...

Interesting thoughts, Annie.

Besides standard reviews, it should (in principle) be possible to write in differnt ways/forms about what one finds interesting in films & books etc. The whole form of the film review / book review has become a bit of a stricture. Perhaps the form needs to be abandoned / disassembled / broken up / reworked. Perhaps (for instance), a film review that is partly about a film, partly about other thing; or that discusses some interesting detail and refuses to summarize the story . . .

am simply thinking aloud (thoughts your diatribe & rumination gives rise to).


p.s.: I've only seen 2 films in the last couple months (had been traveling in India; caught both of these back home in US in the past week or so) -- both superb (in very different ways). The big-Hollywood film King Kong is an amazing embodiment of mythology. The superbly literary film Capote tells things (and in exquisitely communicated ways) I didn't know / wouldn't have known ....

good anyway you follow the impetus (or lack-of)--

I do think "critical" journalism could use more (& fresher) creative forms than we much see.

1conoclast said...

Reviewers are pretty biased and I do believe that Khalid Mohommad was prone to writing for cash/bashing movies he didn't get paid by the producer for!
I have always decided to watch a movie based on the Actor or the Director. Therefore I always watch an Amitabh Bachchan movie (Mrityudaata included), Aamir movie (The Rising included), a John Matthew Mathan movie and a Govind Nihalani movie. Similarly I steer very far froma Shahrukh Khan movie (too many cases in point to list here) and a Subhash Ghai movie (Yaaden, Kisna... ab aur na!)
Going by established stars makes me conclude which directors to watch/not watch also: Mehul Kumar or Ketan Mehta are cases in point.
Directors in the West do not disappoint so easily. Spielberg, Zemeckis, James Cameron... you can watch anything they've directed.

Anonymous said...

Here's something no one seems to have noticed: Annie's claim that there are eight basic plots is a major addition to the vast and completely pointless literature on this subject. Those of you who have nothing better to do, such as work, play, or playing with yourselves, might want to take a look at

Vijayeta said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Vijayeta said...

Hey!I agree with the "feel-good" factor of films like Bunty Aur Babli, Bluffmaster etc. We've all grown up on fairy tales, and our modern day cinema is just rehashed versions of those same stories. And leave us with the same happy feeling after a happy ending.
As for our cinema being loud, and those who exhort the virtues of "low key" performances...well, look at our traditional entertainment forms, the nautanki, the kathputli performances and even nukkad nataks. These have always been loud, always a bit over the top, always with loads of music and dance... Bollywood is just continuing the tradition. Just like those old Hollywood musicals are inspired by their operas etc. So it is very unfair comparing the two cinemas, and even if a plot is "lifted", we definitely treat it differently.
The rating system in reviews really doesnt work as films are an individual experience rather than a collective one (Like, a cricket match, maybe!) So, if i like a particular film despite it getting no rating by some snobbish reviewer-slash-bad filmmaker, how and why should it matter to me? In my opinion, if a film manages to lift your spirits, its time and money well-spent!

Annie Zaidi said...

david and vej: you're both right
opinionated: don't think we should make allegations about what we don't know... and all said and done, i retain my respect for khalid mohammad for writing films like Mammo. i think he's fine as a script-writer, and i don't know his motives wrt giving a positive/negative review, so will keep shut on that count.

Ranjit Nair said...

Annie, great post here. I used to like Khaled Mohammed, and liked Mammo, Sardari Begum, Zubeida, Fiza etc. But after that, I think he's lost it (the last one - about 3 women - was terrible!).

Have linked to this post in my blog.

Anonymous said...

if you didn't know, "Love Ke Liye Kuchh Bhi Karega" had innumerous digs at many film-related personalities, of which KM happenned to be one. In the movie, Aftab and Fardeen pretend to be big-shot gangsters. The names they use were Khalid Mohammed and Sultan Ahmed. A reference to the 2 famous (and caustic) critics :)). I have not read KM's review of this movie. But, perhaps he was pretty pissed off with that..

Saugato Datta said...

Annie - Excellent, excellent post. You've summed up exactly what i think about film reviews in the Indian media, and why they exasperate me so much. At the same time, I think it's a shame, to put it mildly, that this has to be the state of affairs. I liked your comments on bluffmaster - that's roughly what I want to know from a review: Did it work for you? What did you like? What annoyed you, and why? Not the rubbish I usually read, about whether it will appeal to the 'gentry' or the blahblah group.

So, a question for you: Do you think there are enough people like you and me who one could arm-twist into writing sensible, interesting, engaging reviews about films? And enough people who would read them?

I guess I'm asking, wanna start a movie blog?


Unknown said...

urmila did a great job in maine a matter of fact. her was complementary to that ofanupam kher's... lol ....

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