Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Its Personal!

Nandita Das' recent movie Firaaq (which I haven't seen) is apparently about the lives of some Muslims affected by the riots in Gujarat. Bharadwaj Rangan's review of the film led to several responses that criticized the one-sided nature of the film and used it as an example of a general bias towards the Muslim community when it comes to the press and even some forms of entertainment. Such responses led to this column where Rangan talks about reviewing films whose themes clash with ideas and beliefs we hold close to our heart.

I agree with most of the things he says there. It is definitely the filmmaker's prerogative to pick the subject matter of the film and decide the viewpoint that he/she wants to present. But Rangan also says that "For the purposes of a review, however, a film is evaluated on simply one criterion, and that’s how well it goes about doing what it set out wanting to do." That is a statement that made me think. Is it really possible for a reviewer to be completely dispassionate about a film? Is it possible to completely disengage oneself emotionally from a film just because we know that we are going to write about it? And if it is possible, does that make the review any less honest?

I've always been the first to admit that my reviews are biased. I've even gone as far as saying that every reviewer is biased and that its precisely the bias that makes a particular reviewer's opinions unique and interesting. And the bias is not just when it comes to favorite actors and actresses. It can be on the subject matter itself, the way it is handled, the director's style, certain aspects of the movie, etc. Bias on a movie's subject matter itself usually arises from the viewer's background, religion, caste and life experiences. This bias is naturally quite strong and that is what makes it difficult to evaluate a movie simply based on how well it achieves its goal.

Its easy to take sides in masala movies where the lines are clearly drawn. The movie itself might be well-made or badly put together but we always know who is good and who is evil and it is pretty obvious who we should root for. But the boundaries are not so clear when it comes to movies handling serious, heavier topics. And that's when personal preferences come into play and affect our opinion of the movie.

The role played by one's own experiences was made clear to me on this very blog a while back. I came down rather heavily on the vulgarity in Boys and said that the sequences where Shankar showed the heroes brushing up against women in public places were infinitely more vulgar than the more explicit scenes in New. My argument was that since the guys in the movie were the heroes and weren't shown as being punished for their acts, this would instigate even more youth to indulge in the same kinds of acts in real life. Some of the commentors who were against my stance brought in a recent post where I ranted against the banning of smoking in movies and said that the two weren't really different since the government's argument was that people were taking up smoking after seeing the actors smoke on screen. I did have some arguments as to how they weren't the same but they weren't really convincing.

But its quite clear why I reacted differently to the depiction of vulgarity and the depiction of smoking. When it came to the boys' behavior, it was something I disliked because I had heard my mom and my cousin sisters complain about the same kind of behavior after their everyday bus journeys. On the other hand, while some of my friend in school and college were smokers, I hadn't really seen anyone taking up smoking just because his favorite actor lit up on screen. So while the reel happenings were similar, my real-life experiences made me have totally different reactions to the two cases.

That's what I mean when I say that a viewer with some personal investment in the subject matter of a film would find it extremely difficult to view the film impersonally. So a Hindu who lost a loved one in the riots would likely have an adverse reaction to Firaaq. Just as a deeply religious man may feel KadavuL is a bad movie. And a Brahmin may find Idhu Namma AaLu to be offensive.

I like watching movies and penning down my thoughts about them. And I do try to remain neutral. But sometimes, it does get personal...


At 12:19 AM, Anonymous Skay said...

Hi Balaji,
To critique a movie is Bharadwaj Rangan's job and hence he has to be dispassionate about the way he goes about it. He is reviewing the movie as an art and not as a statement being made, hence his view "For the purposes of a review, however, a film is evaluated on simply one criterion, and that’s how well it goes about doing what it set out wanting to do" is right to that limited extent.

While you on the other hand, review movies for primarily as an expression of your views on the movie (as an art) and also as effect on the viewers. So actually, both of you are right in your own respects :)

At 12:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is absolutely no way of determining if an unbiased or dispassionate take on any subject is what a reviewer is expected to deliver.

There is almost an invisible line that is drawn between the prfession and passion - ie your views are subjective of your perception / passion. Therefore, any piece of journalistic endeavour must reflect the passion of the writer even if its delivery may result in some uninviting responses or lambasting.

At 3:46 AM, Blogger KayKay said...

BB, sometimes it goes the other way: Professional reviewers bring their own biases against what they feel a movie is propagating rather than to view it the way the film-makers intended.
2 recent examples come to mind:
Zack Snyder's Sparta epic "300" was derided as racist for it's potrayal of Xerxes'largely Persian (read:Muslim) army as a group of malformed freaks while the Spartans (Read: Caucasian) army were this bunch of perfectly toned male models when all the film-makers probably intended was to make an ultra-stylish hack-and-slash medieval action epic.
The recent blockbuster hit Taken starring Liam Neeson was criticized for its potrayal of Albanians and Arabs as a bunch of perverted sex fiends, when all I suspect its makers intended was to re-cycle the Commando formula (enraged dad hunts down his daughters' kidnappers) with an European locale and casting a genuinely talented actor as opposed to a muscle-bound star as it's lead.
In these 2 instances reviewers clearly didn't evaluate these films on "how well it went about doing what it set out wanting to do" but rather imposed their own prejudices on what they perceived was an agenda behind them.
In this politically correct climate with heightened cultural sensitivities, I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a truly objective review anywhere.
It's all personal, to some extent.

At 5:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When you say "I try to remain neutral" you are diluting your review to suit your readers.
Reviews are much better when presented as honest reflections of the reviewers Inner world. That would definitely improve our Cinema; most directors these days read Blogs and Reviews though they may not accept it in Public.

At 5:55 AM, Anonymous Ram said...

of course its personal! the concept of a movie can sometimes appeal more to us than the crafting...when we can empathize with certain elements of a movie, even if its just a scene, we always come out of the theatre thinking about those elements and in general, our opinion of the movie goes up. For instance, in my review of "Autograph" I wrote, "Especially the Sneha portions really touched a chord in me, not just because she is the best among the current crop of actresses, but because she is given a fabulously etched character that reminds us how great it is to have true friends."
The fact that I am immensely passionate about friendship is what really elevated these portions. Sure I liked the innocence of the school portions and admired the sensitive handling of the cheran-gopika romance but till date, its the cheran-sneha friendship that makes me fondly recollect Autograph as one of Cheran's finest. "Rhythm" is another example. I know that the film is not flawless. But whenever I think of the interactions between Arjun and his parents, it makes me feel even more grateful towards my parents. My Mom resigned her RBI job because she had gotten a transfer and my Dad and I couldn't go with her. After spending 6 months in Bangalore (by herself), she asked me whether I wanted her to come back to Chennai. I was 5 1/2 years then and yet my words were what mattered to her. My Dad was 44 when we moved as a family to the US. He got out of his comfort zone in India in order to give me the lifestyle that I enjoy now...
reason I am saying all this is because when I watch "Rhythm" I always think, "I should be as good a son as Arjun is." So, to me, of course its personal!

At 7:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I am so touched by your functional family.

At 10:15 AM, Anonymous Baradwaj Rangan said...

Whoa! My column wasn't about being some sort of oracular demigod of reviewing, free from bias. It rose from a series of comments on the review of "Firaaq," where the question was lobbed as to whether Nandita Das' truth was an "objective" truth, i.e. correspondent with what really occurred in Gujarat. And my point was that in the case of THIS particular film, that didn't matter TO ME, for I was affected regardless. Had the filmmaking not touched me so, I'd have not rated the film so highly -- and that automatically means that my evaluation was subjective, and subject to every single one of my internal likings/biases. I think "objectivity" in reviewing, as a general concept, is quite a bit of nonsense. The comments that follow the column may shed more light on the matter.

At 8:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the role played your experiences is pretty clear, i don't think anyone reading your reviews could possibly have a doubt about your caste, for instance. but there's something about the clarity and modesty with which you write that makes me still find your reviews rewarding. i think i wrote something like this once before.

b. rangan's pretentiousness is more than i can bear.

At 2:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anon...why do you "still" find bb's review interesting? Is there something reprehensible about bb's caste?

At 4:46 PM, Anonymous Namitha said...

A good thing that Marudhanayagam hasn't released yet!

Hmm, but Tamil cinema has portrayed the "Muslim population" in a rather shocking light, especially after the "war onterror" iniciative.

Whilst Bombay, Uyire, Udhaya all handed the issue sensitively. *This is a bad example, as it is a major gap between the class of filmmakers* Films such as Daas, Vijayakanth's films of the early 2000's, and even Dasavathaaram highlighted it with a satire, have shown the light that the world is beginning to stereotype that religion.

At 5:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

bombay handled the issue sensitively?

At 8:41 PM, Blogger Balaji said...

skay, in theory it does seem like a critic would have to be dispassionate about reviewing movies. but my question was whether it is possible to be dispassionate when it comes to movies dealing with subjects close to your heart :)

anon, "any piece of journalistic endeavour must reflect the passion of the writer" - well put. and its the passion that brings the personal touch :)

kaykay, i guess the professional reviewers aren't exempt from the bias either. One of the most famous examples was ebert's 0 star rating for 'life of david gale'. it was clearly a result of his stance on the question of capital punishment :)

anon, i think that 'neutral' comment came off wrong. i just meant to say that i try to list the negatives too in case of movies i am biased towards and vice versa :)

ram, yes i too mentioned in my 'thavamaai thavamirundhu' review that so many scenes reminded me of scenes from my own life. those kinds of movies always have a greater impact on us :)

baradwaj, i think you have mentioned the same earlier about the presence of subjectivity in your reviews. hence was a little surprised about that line. was originally going to post a comment on this but turned it into a post when it became a bit too long :)

anon, thanx you :)

anon, i think the "still" simply meant that he liked my reviews though my personal experiences and biases were part of them and didn't refer specifically to my caste :)

namitha, i've always thought that the Muslim community has been treated quite carefully in our movies :)

At 2:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

yes, balaji's brahmin bias is reprehensible. that you can't work that out for yourself is even more reprehensible, though.

At 5:37 PM, Anonymous Ravi K said...

There's no such thing as a "neutral" review. None of us lives in a vacuum. We react to a film (or book or song or work of art, etc.) partly because of our experiences. The goal in criticism is to find a balance between judging a film on its own terms and one's personal reactions.

As for the scenes of the heroes of Boys brushing up against women in public, if that's the kind of thing real boys do, I see no problem in depicting it. I hated the film overall, but I liked those brief flashes of authenticity.

As for Bombay, do read this essay:

At 8:43 AM, Anonymous Vinod Narayan said...

your opinions and thoughts are shaped by your experiences as well as what you hear, see and read. If the core theme addresses is that violence is often meaningless and inflicts the innocent most of the time, it makes sense, but if the message is that innocence is the character of a specific sect be it hindu or muslim, then I guess there is bigtime bias. While I have not seen this movie, I did like how parzania was made, and in parzania, its how people are judged not even by which sect they belong but the way they look, dress, speak. When madness is what is chasing you the chances are less that you can negotiate.

At 5:58 AM, Anonymous arun.k said...


That essay really cracked me up. When I was half through with the fifth page, I was like - "romba neram nalla thaane pesikkittu irundhaan..." :-)

At 12:08 AM, Blogger Nagesh.MVS said...

Good Opinion.

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