Film criticism is an art form which requires a great deal of skill, practice and integrity. Well-reputed film critic and Entertainment Editor for The Huffington Post India, Suprateek Chatterjee talks to us about his journey to film criticism, the significant impact of cinema on our lives, the economics of the film industry and the importance of life experience for a critic.
How did film criticism happen? Is It something you’ve always wanted to do?
Yes, in a way because I grew up watching a lot of movies as a kid and I used to love reading film reviews. I remember when I was 10 or 11 my dad made it a point that I should read the newspaper every day, and the two sections that interested me the most was sports and the film reviews. At the same time, I remember he bought this book, which was a kind of catalogue of Blockbuster, the American video library chain. It was a catalogue of all the films they had available in alphabetical order and every movie had a short review, maybe 100 words. So at a very young age, I was very familiar with film because I would read that book with great interest. I was too young to watch some of those movies but at that age I was already obsessed with the idea of watching Stanley Kubrick or Martin Scorsese.
That’s really interesting, I don’t know many 11-year-olds who enjoy reading film reviews..
I guess maybe it’s because we’re Bengali, and in Bengali households there’s generally a lot of encouragement given to appreciating the arts.
How do you balance being a critic and having your own band Hologram 28? It’s such a curious and interesting combination. How did that come about?
Well, how I manage to balance the two is I don’t, because Hologram 28 isn’t doing much at the moment. It’s very hard to balance it now because my job isn’t just film criticism, I’m the Entertainment Editor for The Huffington Post India so that’s a lot of work. I oversee and edit a lot of stories every day, and there’s a lot of emails, meetings and keeping track of analytics to see how the section is doing. And I do regular stories, news stories, features and opinion pieces. And I don’t always just write about film, I write about web culture and pop culture in general. It’s a very vast job, especially for just one person to do.
What’s your view on the year so far in terms of Hindi films? A lot of people feel it’s been underwhelming, would you agree?
This year what has really happened is a marked improvement in the quality of the average commercial film, not only in terms of quality but also what the audience likes and dislikes has changed. So last year for example, I think it was a big surprise for people that Piku became a huge hit. This year the same has happened with the likes of Kapoor & Sons and Neerja, I don’t think anybody expected them to be such big hits. I mean there are the obvious ones like Sultan and Housefull 3 which everybody knew was going to do well. At the end of the day its just economics, it’s very simple. There aren’t too many theatres in India so distributors and theatre-owners are always looking for sure-shot films, so they’d rather give more shows to a Khan-starrer rather than anything else because they know they’re going to make that money back. So it’s a huge problem. The big numbers will always be earned by the films that have a 2000 screen or more release
So would the solution to that be the addition of a lot more screens?
We do need a lot more screens, but there are actually a lot of problems with having more screens. Not only is that a huge investment, there’s a lot of reasons why more multiplexes haven’t sprung up. It’s incredibly hard to make new theatres in terms of the laws, regulation and red tape bureaucracy in India. And you never really know if it’s a lucrative business, I mean 80% or more of films are flops. In the last decade or so, 80:20 has been the hit-flop ratio, 80 being flops. So it’s that 20% that’s keeping the industry afloat every year. So it’s really dangerous and not at all healthy, and the film industry really needs to do something to be sustainable. Neerja and Kapoor & Sons are relatively smaller films, which have stars but are more sensible and competent at the very least, and these are examples of a step in the right direction. I mean even a Sairat, which isn’t technically Bollywood, its Marathi, but why did it become the first 100cr Marathi film? It was a strong film with a strong story and acting etc, but it also had that commercial element of Ajay-Atul’s music, and the love story arc. It showed that you don’t need to make something half-baked, badly-written, and not very well thought out, for it to be a hit. You can make a good, sensible film and it can still be entertaining. So 2016 is that, but it’s still been a pretty bad year, there’s been many bad movies and it’s very sad to see how decent ideas on paper are messed up completely because of some misguided notion of trying to appeal to the masses or whatever. No one seems to be trying to make movies honestly anymore, they’re just trying to have a successful investment so they can make another movie later.
You’re someone who doesn’t use the five-star rating system when reviewing films. Is that because you don’t believe in that system of reviewing, or because you feel people will focus on the rating and ignore the content of the review?
I think most good critics worth their salt hate the five-star rating. I honestly think it’s a very reductive rating system because I mean, obviously when you’re reviewing a film, you’re reviewing it in a certain context to an extent. I also agree that you mustn’t give too much importance to context because then you can defend anything. Like right now the whole conversation is going on about Kabaali, with half the people saying it’s crap, and the other half saying “what do you expect it’s a Rajni movie”. So I agree that context shouldn’t be your only parameter but at the end of the day, if I’m reviewing a Masaan and I’m reviewing a commercial film like Airlift, I would have given Masaan a 4-star rating and I would have given Airlift 3.5 stars. Now that doesn’t mean that Masaan is only half a star better than Airlift. There’s a lot of differences between the two, you just can’t compare them. I’m looking at Airlift as a commercial Akshay Kumar-starrer and I’m liking it for what it does differently within its bandwidth.
There’s a huge misconception about reviews. Reviews are not the final word on a film. A review isn’t to say ‘ I recommend this movie go watch it’ or ‘don’t watch it’. That purpose of a review is a collection of thoughts a film critic has after watching a film. It’s about understanding how you interacted with that film and what that film’s place is in the space it released in.
I don’t think any film critic should stay stuff like ‘avoid this’ or ‘go watch this’, let viewers make up their own minds. It’s an analysis that should be as objective, honest and heartfelt as possible. The idea of a film review is not to tell the reader that you know better than them. You watch the film in your own way, bring your perspective to it, write about it, and express it as eloquently as you can. Essentially you’re telling the reader ‘Here, this is what I thought. What do you think?’ And that’s true for film reviews, art reviews, music reviews. Reviews of all kinds.
You famously supported last year’s Court. Do you see the role of a critic as someone who should encourage certain kinds of cinema do you feel that can also be a conflict in some way? Is it a critic’s role to be objective?
Of course a critic should be objective, but I don’t understand why this is not objectivity. It’s as simple as that. When we watch something really bad, we slam it, if we watch something really great, what’s wrong with urging people to go watch it? Because at the end of the day film critics exist for one main purpose, to help shape and guide the conversation around cinema, and I don’t think that’s a small task because cinema is a very powerful medium. It affects a lot of us in ways we don’t even understand. We learn about the world through cinema. For example, something that’s particularly true for the Indian youth is that we learn about love and relationships through films and TV shows, and for the small minority of Indians who read, books. Because we don’t see it in society and it just isn’t something that’s talked about. We aren’t a society that’s big on PDA, which is surprising considering all our legends and myths are love stories, but in public we are very hypocritical about it. So the whole concept of falling in love and having a relationship are all concepts we’ve picked up from the movies. Which is why when we say a given film is glorifying stalking, for example, it’s an important conversation to have because you can’t counter argue and say ‘this is happening in reality that’s why it’s in the movies’. It’s happening to a large extent in real life because it’s seen on-screen. In India, films are extremely popular and very influential. There is definitely a greater responsibility filmmakers have that they can’t just let go of. You can’t just wash it away and say your just making entertainment. You’re not just making entertainment, you’re literally changing lives.
In terms of Court, I saw it at MAMI and I knew nothing about it, but I was blown away by it. I couldn’t believe this was an Indian movie, it was just so sophisticated. And usually you know the kind of Indian film that’s going to get an award, it typically has a lot of poverty and slums etc. Though Court does have some of that, it’s not poverty porn. It also shows you posh bars and a lawyer living in upper-class society. It was unlike any other Indian film I had ever seen, so I approached the makers Chaitanya Tamhane and Vivek Gomber at the MAMI after party and I told them I really loved the film and I do a little bit of social media work, and asked if I can help them with social media for the film.
Court was India’s official entry for the Oscars last year. What’s your view of the industry’s obsession with the Oscars? Do you feel it’s justified?
I think it’s justified in the sense that on the world stage we’ve not really done much as much as other countries have, in terms of cinema. After Satyajit Ray died, Indian cinema has not really been recognised at the big film festivals as a serious contender for the top awards. So I think Court is the first Indian film to rip apart the international festival circuit in years. It has won more awards than any other Indian film ever, which is a fact.
Many leading film critics in India are also entertainment journalists who have their own shows and interview stars, etc. Do you see that as a conflict? Do you think it hampers their ability to be objective?
Oh absolutely. In fact, it shouldn’t happen, it’s a huge problem. It’s a problem that happens in India a lot because we don’t understand the value of good film criticism and the value of objectivity. I have fought against it, but I am also equally guilty of it because I write reviews, but I have also interviewed stars, and it can’t not affect your objectivity and anyone who says it doesn’t, is lying. For example, I am now friends with Chaitanya Tamhane, so I can’t review his films, I know I won’t be objective. You have to step away from it. Although I’m in the entertainment industry and for my job, I should be going out there to interact with the industry, I don’t. I don’t know any stars, I make a conscious effort to keep my distance.
In the West pre-screenings of films are quite common for critics, who are then made to sign NDAs to not discuss the film until the release. But here in India, it’s a practice that seems to have all but gone. Is that because studios are really that worried about the impact of reviews on their box office numbers?
Yeah it’s very contradictory. On the one hand, they say that critics don’t know anything, and their opinions don’t affect their earnings because audiences are different and critics are influenced by the West and everything. But then at the same time in the last one year, they’ve been doing this a lot where they either keep a press show literally at the last minute on a Thursday evening or they keep it on Friday morning. It’s a problem for us because it completely throws our schedules and there’s a mad rush to get our reviews out as soon as possible.
So do you dread Friday mornings?
Yeah completely, it’s the worst. And I’m not good at writing that fast, I can’t bang out a review in an hour. I could, but it wouldn’t be a good review. There are reviews that I’m not happy with that I bang out in an hour, hour and a half because we have to get them out quickly if you want traffic on the site. It comes with the territory, but it’s not ideal at all. If we all had a choice in the matter, we would all put it out on Sundays like the old days and you get time to really think about the movie and even rewatch the movie if you can. But the problem is today everyone with a smartphone is a reviewer so no one is going to take that chance.
So then how would you define a film critic? With social media and everyone jumping on a blog to push their own views, how do you differentiate a critic from a blogger? Is there a minimum standard of what constitutes a critic?
I actually have a very academic answer to this because I’m asked this question a lot. So basically there are three main things that are required in varying amounts and two things that are constant. The two things that are constant is that a) you should be a good writer and b) be objective and unbiased. You should be fearless and not afraid of making enemies of filmmakers and actors. These are a given.
The other three, I think of as a triangle, and it’s not possible for every critic to have all three in equal amounts. The first one is you should be knowledgeable about films and the technique of filmmaking. You should know the difference between a dolly and a reverse dolly. You should know what a Jimmy Jib is, what a flycam is, what a match cut is. You should know what they convey and how filmmakers use them and what kind of emotions they evoke. You should know the technical terms and essentially understand the medium as far as you can. Now obviously this isn’t something you can be 100% qualified at, it’s a lifelong learning curve.
Secondly is the history of film, to understand context. You should watch as much cinema as possible. In today’s day and age, the more access you have the harder it is to do, you cant keep up with everything, it’s not possible. But you should try and do as much as you can. Watch the Indian stuff, Hollywood, TV shows, some foreign films. You try and catch as much as you can. Try and cover as much different kinds of genres and languages as you can, but accept the fact that you will never be able to watch it all.
The third is a very underrated aspect, but I believe that its very important that a film critic has a very interesting and active life. A critic should have a social life, and do interesting things with his or her life, and be observant about what they do in their life. Because films are about human relationships and life and alot of times criticism is dependent on your observation and your ability to discern whether something has been depicted in an accurate and honest matter. How will you know that if you haven’t had any experiences? If you shut yourself in a room for years and only watch cinema, you won’t have major life experiences that you can relate to. This is a very underrated aspect. So when you aren’t watching films please have a life. Please go out, have relationships, go for concerts, go on holidays, go on treks, go deep-sea diving, go snorkeling. Do stuff. So that when you see that in a film you’ll be able to tell whether this is an authentic depiction of it or not.
What was the last film you saw that you loved, or had a profound impact on you?
The last one which had a truly profound impact on me was Embrace Of The Serpent. It’s a Columbian film from last year. It’s a black and white drama, shot in the remotest parts of the Amazon and it’s set in two eras, early 20th century and 30 years later. And its about two white explorers who come for the same expedition to the Amazon, to find this rare plant which is said to have many magical medicinal properties. Both times they are led down-river to the place where the plant grows, by the same boat man, 30 years apart. And it’s a very interesting take on how colonialism and capitalism destroyed indigenous cultures and how human beings destroyed the environment for their own gain.
What’s the one upcoming Hindi release this year, that you’re looking forward to most?
I’d say I’m looking forward to Rangoon, Vishal Bhardwaj’s upcoming film.