04 June, 2016

Bothered by an opinion? Joke's on you

To take a critic's views to heart and allow it to erode your confidence is foolish. Instead, recognise them as one opinion among billion others and use it to improve yourself. If it's a comedian, though, what they say in their joke need not even be their actual opinion.

“I don’t know if I want to go on being a director after this,” 27-year-old Xavier Dolan told a Times journalist after his film It’s Only The End Of The World didn’t go down well with critics at Cannes.

Whoa! What? The film won the Grand Prix.

Dolan was peeved at a Playlist critic whowrote: “It’s simply impossible to believe that a story this stridently self-pitying could not refer, more or less explicitly, to writer/director Dolan himself… It suggests a level of martyred self-involvement on Dolan’s part that is tantamount to a persecution complex.”

“Who the ... does this person thinks she is? How does a person think they know what my personal life is? This is not journalism. It’s gossip. It’s pretending to be a sophisticated analysis, but really it’s cheap psychology,” Dolan told LA Times.

Ok, this might seem like more cheap-psychology, but isn’t Dolan just 27? We have seen filmmakers much older than him take reviews to heart.

To be honest, at his age, I did too. I remember writing long emails to the editors of Rediff and Economic Times(Madras Plus) because I was upset that my film, That Four Letter Word was reviewed by critics who were writing their first review but didn’t realise it was my first time too.

I used to react to every review and blog, taking every bit of criticism seriously until the makers of a superhero film threatened to sue me over a review I had written… for Rs. 25 crore! I remember what that felt like. It was — and still remains — the biggest compliment of my two-decade-old career as a film-critic.

That’s when I realised how I’d make critics feel every time I took their opinions seriously. The best thing to do to make one feel important is to take his/her opinion seriously, because you validate it with your response; you accord it the status of a verdict instead of just dismissing it as just another argument or opinion. A review or an opinion is never the last word on a film. Films outlive critics… and their critiques.

Nobody remembers the reviews Pyaasagot or the fact that it flopped at the box-office. It lives on.

While a lot of filmmakers have made it a point to debate a review, not many have had the grace to treat it as just that — a discussion over coffee or dinner.

I remember director Selvaraghavan taking all criticism of his ambitiousAayirathil Oruvan on the chin over dinner. I had suggested that it was “high time Selvaraghavan got himself equipped with the art of screenwriting or employed specialists to do the job for him.” He laughed and said he had made worse films.

I remember Gautham Vasudev Menon telling me he made a “f***-all movie” a week before its release and taking all the criticism it got with a smile. I also remember him telling me how he felt about my first film, mincing no words — it just didn’t work for him until the last 20 minutes.

Never once did Kamal Hassan make it a point to discuss or react to the most critical of my reviews over the years. Even when he had the chance to bring it up, considering we met regularly for over two months to put together a screenwriting workshop. Ever since, my respect for the man has only grown.

Bollywood, however, isn’t as thick-skinned.

Over the past year, I have seen filmmakers go to war with critics online, rant about conspiracy theories, ulterior motives and personal attacks. One filmmaker, to our amusement, even went on to call some of us film critics Naxalites and shared a Hitler video meme dedicated to us without the slightest inkling of how much it would tickle us.

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” Eleanor Roosevelt is supposed to have said.

The origin of this story, apparently comes from a Reader’s Digest anecdote: “A snub” defined the first lady, “is the effort of a person who feels superior to make someone else feel inferior. To do so, he has to find someone who can be made to feel inferior.”

Another filmmaker, who shared reviews of his film when me and critic friend Raja Sen called it his best work, thought it was a personal attack when the two of us called his next his worst. Despite us clarifying to him in person that writing about a film in the context of his body of work isn’t “personal” but according him auteur status, he chose to take offence. He chose to feel insulted; he chose to feel inferior.

To counter this new age culture of taking offence, Sen and me read out – with a smile – the most scathing reviews of our experimental independent film X – Past is Present.

Because it does not matter what your critics say — whether they have seen your vision; or whether they’ve even seen your film in the first place or not. It’s STILL just one person’s opinion… on a planet of over eight billion people, during a given point in time, on a scale of 13.8 billion years in the ever-expanding, infinite universe! When you do the math, a fleeting opinion about something amounts to absolutely nothing.

However, I have realised that wisdom lies in considering the good — and the bad — to shape the next film better.

As a creator, while it’s almost impossible to be dispassionate about reactions coming from all sides, I’ve realised I always have a choice with how I react to criticism.

Today, criticism comes in all forms; the nature of newspaper reviews changes from publication to publication, depending on the character of the paper and the readers. In addition to TV, radio and YouTube critics, there are social-media influencer responses, trade-analyst opinions, assorted trolling, meme reactions, comic-strip criticism and even full-fledged parodies, apart from sketches crafted by comedians.

It’s only fair that our response to it too is placed in the context of the aggregate and not the individual. Instead of getting caught up with opinions of one or two individuals, it might make a lot more sense to identify larger general points of criticism and arguments directed towards the film and address those through a simple blog post or Facebook update — should one feel the need to clarify.

Director Pawan Kumar posted a plea to viewers when his film released last week, targeting no particular critic, to read and understand the layers in his film “U-Turn” before criticising it.

And that’s exactly what directors need to do in order to keep criticism alive.

Because once a man of film goes to war with a critic, he will always continue to believe that the battle rages on, with every review, one film after another.

A purely professional opinion is then on seen as a fall-out of the last fight and is henceforth, examined with the lens of possible bias. Which is probably why some filmmakers target critics — just to pick a fight as insurance against bad reviews for the next film. By inventing a personal score when there was none, the filmmaker loses grace in trying to undermine the critic’s credibility. He just spawns more critics.

The healthier approach would have just been to ignore and understand that no matter how flawed, illogical or personal the criticism may seem, they are all just thoughts. Nobody is asking you to take them… and certainly not to bed. It’s just a bunch of people doing their jobs and forgetting all about it by the next Friday.

That’s how it ought to be.

When Woody Allen was asked how he felt about the rape joke made at his expense by stand-up comic Laurent Lafitte (who had targetted filmmakers accused of rape) at the opening ceremony at the Cannes Film Festival, he defended the comedian’s right to make the joke. “I’m completely in favour of comedians making any jokes they want,” Allen reportedly said.

As I type this, comedian Tanmay Bhat is facing the heat for having fun with Snapchat’s Face Swap feature (he staged his version of Civil War with a fictional improvised account of Lata Mangeshkar and Sachin Tendulkar trading insults).

This wasn’t even a properly-produced official sketch, just an improvised series of thoughts in front of a camera late at night for a platform that’s designed for look-at-this-and-forget-in-ten-seconds utility.

While the jokes can be criticised for not being funny enough, the comedian has not really committed a crime worthy of outrage or action from the cyber cell.

Insult comedy just needs to be funny, no holds barred. It was just a comedian trying to hone his skills with Snapchat as Open Mic.

Criticism, like comedy — its most scathing form — is just like the six blind men describing the elephant in the living room. They were invited to the party for that one purpose. Not to be hunted down by a serial-killing mahout.

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