What makes a critic

Some might feel that this admission to subjectivity makes all criticism pointless. But that’s only if you believe the main purpose of reviewing is to supply a final assessment or stamp

Dharmendra in ‘Mere Hamdam Mere Dost’ (1968).
Dharmendra in ‘Mere Hamdam Mere Dost’ (1968).

One of the most fun things I did last year was to sit down with a group of critics and film-makers to draw up lists of must-watch films for a magazine. Over a freewheeling conversation that spanned everything from Orson Welles’ distinguished Citizen Kane to Kanti Shah’s disreputable Gunda, from Akira Kurosawa to Manmohan Desai, we were clear that this was a purely-in-the-moment exercise—we weren’t aiming for a definitive collection of Greatest Films.

In fact, we weren’t even aiming for a signed-and-sealed list of our own favourite films, because we knew how easily one’s feelings and prisms can shift; how, as we gather new life experiences and change, our reaction to a film (or a book) can alter dramatically. For instance, you probably know what it’s like to feel a strong sentimental connect with a movie at first viewing, but to find it manipulative during a subsequent watch (whereupon you feel sheepish about your earlier reaction). This can run in the other direction too—I often find that I am a more “emotional” viewer today, more open to films and scenes that I might once have thought mawkish or over-the-top. And perceptions can change in other ways: After watching news coverage of an aged Dharmendra weeping like a baby at his brother’s funeral last year, I doubt I will be able to see the actor’s emotional scenes in old films (some of which came across as amusingly hammy) through the same lens that I once did.

Some might feel that this admission to subjectivity makes all criticism pointless. But that’s only if you believe the main purpose of reviewing is to supply a final assessment or stamp—the equivalent of the star rating, so loathed by most serious film buffs. Good criticism is a lot more than that: It should be good, engaged writing on its own terms, containing the rigour that an essay on any other subject should have, not intended to tell the reader, “Watch this” or “Don’t watch this”, but to provide a sensitive, informed, well-articulated perspective. And possibly say: “Here is one way of responding to this work. What do you think?”

What about reportage—isn’t that more objective and reliable? I know people who think a research-driven biography has more inherent value than a critical study (“mere opinion”) does. But memories are more fluid and unreliable than we realize. Here is a first-hand experience that was both startling and a little demoralizing for me. Three years ago, while collecting material for a book about Hrishikesh Mukherjee, I had a very pleasant phone conversation with Gulzar, who had worked closely with Mukherjee—as lyricist and later as dialogue writer—on many well-loved films. One of those films was the 1973 Jaya Bhaduri-Amitabh Bachchan starrer Abhimaan. Gulzar-saab told me about how he had worked day and night to produce a screenplay on a tight deadline, but how eventually, after the script underwent minor revisions, his name wasn’t included in the credits.

And this, he said, was not unusual for the “middle cinema” of the time, though it might sound strange to us today. Mukherjee was helming many projects simultaneously, with different teams of writers contributing bits and pieces to various screenplays. Since his producers weren’t willing to shell out full salaries to a large number of writers for each film, the opening credits were sometimes “manipulated”—writers’ names were distributed across films to ensure that everyone got fair treatment. “We understood the reasoning and were fine with it,” Gulzar-saab told me on the phone then. “It was a genial family atmosphere and we were all learning—there was no unhealthy competition.”

This information, along with his quote, went into my book as a testament to the communal spirit in which those movies were made. No wonder then that I was a little shaken when I met Gulzar-saab at an event a few months ago and found that his memories of those days were no longer so cheery. He had been under the weather, or maybe he was just in a bad mood—whatever the case, when our conversation turned to Abhimaan, his face darkened. “Itna bura lagta thha,” he muttered, “itna kaam kiya uss film ke liye (I worked so hard on that film, and felt so bad)”. Speaking as much to himself sotto voce as to me, he mentioned an older writer who had been in financial distress at the time the film was made, and who was given writing credit as an act of compassion.

By the end of our little exchange, the veteran writer was sounding more like a raving Lear than the kindly man I had spoken with earlier, remembering warm old days spent in the company of a mentor. It was a reminder that if a critic or researcher has biases or blind spots, the same can be true for his subject. Keep that in mind the next time you read a quote in a biographical work, even when you have full faith in the author’s integrity.

Above The Line is a fortnightly column on Hindi cinema and how it presents the world. Jai Arjun Singh tweets at @jaiarjun.

Also Read: Jai’s previous Lounge columns

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