I recently spotted an advertisement in The Indian Express which confirmed to me that I should have listened to my favourite college professor and become a social worker instead of a film journalist. The tiny advertisement crowed over the fact that Sangeeth Sivan’s Ek, which released a few weeks ago, was a “hit” despite the two-star ratings it received across the board. The ad went thus: Dev D got a five-star review but look how much it earned at the box office. And look at the revenue Ek has earned! The masses have scored over the elite. Since it’s generally tough to get accurate figures for box-office revenues, I can only conjecture that the person who commissioned the ad loves reviewers as much he adores Dev D.
Ek, which stars Bobby Deol as a murder accused and Nana Patekar as the cop on his trail, actually got one star in several publications. Also, one of the leading industry trackers, www.bollywoodhungama.com, has declared that it’s doing poor business. But let’s not get bogged down by details here.
There are two types of star complexes in Bollywood. One is an obsession with the actor who is bigger than the film. Then there’s the other obsession with the number of stars a film gets on the weekend of its release.
Bottom line:Nana Patekar (left) and Bobby Deol in Ek.
Every week, reviewers like me troop into preview theatres to receive the latest product to roll off the Bollywood assembly line. We evaluate the film on various parameters—some as basic as whether the story makes sense and if the lead can act—and return to our offices to bang out our reviews. We top our opinions with stars. Evaluating a movie on a one-to-five scale makes it easy for the weekend reader. Readers get the drift, advertisements for the said movie quote the number of stars, and there’s a general feeling that reviewers have fulfilled their end of the bargain, which is to further business.
I hate giving stars. Quite a few films are two-star affairs but some movies, especially the more independent-minded ones, don’t lend themselves easily to such a reductionistic approach. Yet starred reviews have become very important at a time when movies are publicized more heavily than they ever were and need every bit of a leg-up to maintain a foothold at the box office. The conundrum is that viewers don’t seem to care too much either way. If four stars helped a film, Little Zizou and Firaaq would have been superhits.
Most reviewers don’t bother to analyse films too deeply. If that happened, the level of vitriol jumping off the pages would have ruined many weekends for the film industry. The reason for a slap on the wrist rather than a rap on the knuckles is that few Bollywood productions lend themselves to deconstruction. Should we get into, for instance, the amateurish camerawork and editing that scar most formulaic films? Should we really take our knives to the abysmal standards of acting by many of our so-called top-line actors? Should we start delving into the source of the story and give readers a shot-by-shot breakdown of how much a movie has been stolen from another?
If we became as honest as some English and American reviewers, most film-makers would struggle to decorate their ads with stars. The truth is that most Bollywood films are more or less critic-proof. If a film works, repeat the formula. If it fails, try to fool audiences again a few more times. Mainstream film-makers care for slobbering praise rather than genuine criticism. At least they used to, until the economic downturn made audiences turn away from the cinemas and spend their hard-earned money on more meaningful pursuits.
Nandini Ramnath is the film editor of Time Out Mumbai (www.timeoutmumbai.net).
Write to Nandini at firstname.lastname@example.org