The Coming of Age of Online Film Criticism

Though web film criticism is in its nascent stage in India, there are a few people who are soldiering on in the effort to establish portals for independent film writing.

A still from Nagraj Manjule's Sairat

A still from Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat

Escapees from the cuckoo’s nest – aka the print medium – have found an option, including yours sincerely. Strangled or almost so by the noose of intervention, stammering out compromised words in accordance with the mood swings of the owners and the Johnnies-come-lately on the management, it has been possible to stay alive and somewhat kicking, courtesy digital platforms on the world wide web.

Now that isn’t exactly hard copy. What is, is that journalism in terms of reports, comments, trolls, wah-wahs and vociferous opinions – call them faux editorials if you like – are open to every individual who aspires to be a cheerleader or a thumbs-downer as from those gladiatorial rings of yore. An incalculable number of flowers, running into lakhs are blooming, offset by as many thorns.

Frontline newspapers and a clutch of magazines are still the reads-to-go-to, largely out of habit at breakfast and partly out of a debatable trust factor. If a national newspaper says so, it must be authentic, goes the credo of the majority. A minority, however, has expressed thorough disenchantment, switching over to television and the internet for that daily news-and-editorial fix. The scene has altered, catalysed essentially by the fact that huge advertising budgets in every sector are being diverted to the satellite channels, web sites and portals.

Given the maelstrom, film criticism especially is witnessing a pluralism which has spawned that tiresome cliché, “Everyone wants to be a film critic”. At most, this amounts to a sour-grapes rebuttal to non-professionals evaluating the art or the lack of it, of cinema.

Film criticism by its very nature doesn’t require any formal training, be it at a media institution, random workshops or in a university curriculum. That several colleges across the nation have introduced film studies, appreciation and criticism, is more than welcome. But besides serving as a basic induction, can any education in the fundamentals of cinema prepare a film reviewer to be equipped with a fail-safe aesthetic compass? Arguable.

Unarguably though, anyone possessed by a rabid lust for cinema, hopefully of the eclectic kind, is far more eligible to become a film reviewer. Add to that the rare endowments of emotional honesty, a gift for detecting the sub-text of humanitarianism (as in the oeuvre of Satyajit Ray), the instinct to go with the flow of finessed entertainment (count the best films of Manmohan Desai, Vijay Anand and Mani Ratnam), revel in the highs and lows of an Adoor Gopalakrishnan as much of a Karan Johar. And the wanna-opine critic is ready to fly.

Reviews on blogs and social media often disclose insightful assessments, albeit without editing support which like it or not, is mandatory for a writer of any stripe. Also correctly, some reviews don’t inscribe their views in blood, thereby encouraging discourse. Others tend to be stridently unilateral. An ideal review is an invitation to debate. It cannot be a consumer guidance report, expressed in quickie one-liners and bedecked with a galaxy-full of star icons, as indeed the Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal is wont to do. Without articulating the reasons for a pick or a pan, such ‘reviews’ are mere fodder for the already bombarded stratosphere of Twitterdom.

Although web film criticism is in its nascent stage in India, the world over blogs and sites have evolved distinct identities ever since 2005. In an issue dedicated to a symposium on film criticism in the age of the internet way back in 2008, the editors of the American magazine Cineaste, had remarked, “If visitors to the web venture into uncharted territory, it’s likely they will come across sites that appear to be written by demented teenagers in their basements.”

As a participant in the symposium, former film critic of the Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum, had said that internet criticism “by broadening the playing field in terms of players, methodologies, audiences, social formations and outlets…certainly expands the options” for avid cinephiles.

Most respected global critics have acknowledged the internet as a community option, while a dissenting few have found online message boards and reviewing forums marred by rude postings, spoilers and miscommunication. Initially, bookmarking an internet site appeared to be as much of a hit or a miss as finding a match through an online marriage bureau.

Over time, SpoutBlog, www.slate.com, MRQE.com and Girishshambu.blogspot.com (from an American critic of Indian origin, who graduated from IIT Kharagpur) have featured among the prime net sources for film reviews and essays approached with unapologetic quirkiness, gravitas (it’s not a bad word, by the way) and above all, a passion for cinema.

At home, the blog site passionforcinema.com, now defunct, did establish itself as an outlet for independent writing. A cut above, it was devoid of tittle-tattle. Concerned with promoting Indian indie cinema of various languages, it amassed a loyal following. Run by an NRI based in Canada, it wound up for want of funds.

A last-ditch attempt to include a web-cinema site, through which Indian films could be viewed for a dollar, proved to be way ahead of its times. A pity because passionforcinema.com had also become a forum of filmmakers who couldn’t afford the crippling burden of buying publicity in the mainstream publications.

The online critic of Mumbai-produced films, Raja Sen, isn’t dependent on print. Neither is the Kochi-based Paresh Palicha who occasionally reviews films of southern India. Soumyadipta Bannerjee’s bollywoodjournalist.com doesn’t kowtow to PR machinery. Meanwhile, former contributing editor to passionforcinema.com and founder of madaboutmoviez, Sethumadhavan Napan, soldiers on. For sure, there are an infinite number of worthwhile sites and blogs waiting to be discovered, and multiplying by the minute.

Despite the absence of a strong film society movement, the Generation Now is more clued into world cinema, thanks to satellite channels, Netflix and DVDs. On the downside, simultaneously many more filmgoers have become obsessive about Bollywood than in the earlier decades. India’s film viewing audience is an odd, bipolar demographic. A section of campus students will appreciate the gutsy Aligarh. Alas, the majority will throng to the execrable Housefull 3.

Can reviews – which assess quality rather than its commercial fripperies – appeal to a deeply divided readership? Nope, not all. Reviewers will have their share of readers and their opponents.

All that can be said there’s a sliver of hope yet. Cinema literacy is rising slowly but steadily. And it is this audience which is connecting with online reviews of some sense and sensibility.

So back to the escapees, the grizzly gang of yore. Can print critics travel to cyberspace? Isn’t that like expecting them to give up books for Kindle? To that, a facile but precise answer would be, “Everyone’s a critic. So why be afraid of the old gringos?” To all their own.

More than the content of a review, it has become more important to post a review first, leading to an Olympian race to get to the laptop as soon as the film has ended or even while it’s on, in the hysterical format of tweet reviews. Abusive comments are hardly moderated by the online editors.

Film criticism means reflection and dare one say, involves styling and concision. Today the accent is on fastest-fingers-first. And why not? After all, all’s fair in criticism and catching eyes by the balls.