Star wars: The perils of being a movie critic
Too often, the tensions between critic and talent now play out in public. A review isn’t personal, why should the backlash be?
“I am a critic and commentator,” Addison DeWitt (an Oscar-winning performance by George Sanders) says in the 1950 American classic All About Eve. “I am essential to the theatre – as ants are to a picnic, as the boll weevil to a cotton field.” Actor Pankaj Tripathi expressed a similar sentiment in a less jaundiced way. At the first Critics’ Choice Awards in India, in 2018, he described critics as “khaad” (fertiliser), essential for growth.
While that may be, the relationship between Bollywood and film critics ranges from the cordial to contentious. It doesn’t help that many of us double as journalists, often interviewing the artists days before we review their new films. The personal interaction and a certain degree of camaraderie can give rise to expectations and wires crossing. I recall Saif Ali Khan once joking with me about the disconnect between our interview and my subsequent review. “We have a great chat and then I see your review and think, ‘Man, I thought she liked me’,” he said.
Criticism cuts deep. I’m married to a filmmaker. I know first-hand the arduous struggle of making a movie and the blunt agony when years of work is dismissed on a Friday morning. But reviews are part of the Faustian bargain artists make with their art. Even the mightiest talents must make room for a dissenting voice. In 2010, Toy Story 3 missed its shot at becoming the best reviewed movie in the history of movies with a 100% Rotten Tomatoes rating, because New York Press’s famously contrarian critic Armond White dissed the film as formulaic. (The review was titled Bored Games.)
A review is one person’s opinion on a work of art, and there is no right or wrong. Some takes are more persuasive and perceptive, better informed and better constructed, than others. Social media, especially Twitter, has exacerbated the rocky relationship between critics and talent. The tension now plays out in public. A case in point is the recent furore over The Indian Express critic Shubhra Gupta’s review of Haseen Dillruba. The film, which stars Taapsee Pannu and Vikrant Massey, didn’t work for Gupta, who described it as bland and flat. She wrote: “Pannu’s delivery is exactly the same in her films; only the costumes change.” Taapsee responded by calling Gupta a “troller”.
Gupta is in good company. In 2012, when The New York Times critic AO Scott wrote about the “bloated cynicism” and “the grinding, hectic emptiness” of The Avengers, Samuel L Jackson (who played Nick Fury in the film) responded with a Twitter post that asked Avengers fans to help find Scott a new job: “One he can ACTUALLY do!” In 1997, when Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan was unimpressed by Titanic (he said it was so bad that it “almost makes you weep in frustration”), director James Cameron wrote an op-ed in that paper describing Turan’s critical sensibility as the “worst kind of ego-driven elitism”.
Over the years, I’ve endured my share of nastiness, including trolling, horrific threats of violence and icy silences from stars who thought I was unfair. A leading director suggested that I wrote a negative review of his film because I saw him as a rival to my husband. After 25 years, I’ve made my peace with it all. But I think it’s bad form for actors to publicly hound critics whose reviews they disagree with. We are experienced professionals doing a job. And when an actor retweets a post in which someone has used a Hindi swear word to describe a review, as Pannu also did, they tacitly endorse that level of discourse.
One of poet-saint Kabir’s most famous couplets instructs, “Nindak niyare rakhiye aangan kuti chhavaye / Bin pani, sabun bina nirmal kare subhaye”, which loosely translates as “Keep your critics close to you, let their hut be in your courtyard / then you won’t need water and soap to cleanse your blemishes.” Perhaps Bollywood should consider that.