Why a critic’s emotions matter
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After around an hour of watching Ranveer Singh as the obscenely privileged but oddly vulnerable rich kid Kabir in Dil Dhadakne Do last year, I leaned across to my wife and said, “I think this guy might be our best lead actor since Bachchan in his prime.”
By the screening’s end, I was already feeling sheepish about this little exclamation. Not because I had changed my mind about the quality of Singh’s performance (a year on, I still think it was one of the highlights of 2015, at least as good as his much awarded, more “respectable” turn in Bajirao Mastani) but because, you know, if you’re a critic reaching for the nuanced argument, for a considered view of things, you’re not supposed to make such impulsive pronouncements—even when you’re expressing a view that has been part-sanctified by time (“Citizen Kane is the greatest film”; “Nutan is the best Hindi film actress”). When you’ve watched so many different sorts of films, representing every creative approach, you know it’s silly to grade them on one scale. You rally against pompous notions about something being summarily “the best”.
But here’s a counter-argument: Why should anyone, even a professional critic, be measured or rational when something sneaks up on him and takes a firm grip on his emotions? For a jaded scribe who has written thousands of words about cinema, it’s good to be reminded that one is still capable of being electrified, in a childlike way, by a film. Or by a scene. Or a gesture. A line of dialogue, a swell of music working in just the right way alongside an elegant camera movement. Once you’re back in the real world (or whatever vestiges of it may be seen in the section of the mall beyond the multiplex’s exit door), you might feel embarrassed about your hyper-dramatic reaction—but that reaction was an honest one.
Some viewers deny their gut feelings, as if the movie hall were a confessional where one’s guilty secrets are forever to be left behind. This is especially true of genres that produce strong visceral responses, such as horror, slapstick comedy or action. I had a talk about Mad Max: Fury Road and Baahubali recently with someone who had clearly been stirred by both films and reacted to all the key scenes in exactly the way the film-makers had wanted viewers to react, but who was now saying, “Yes, I enjoyed them at the time, but come on, they aren’t good films!” (I’ll save an extended discussion for another time, but for now I’ll just say I don’t understand that sentence).
In my own instinct-vs-cerebral struggles, there is a personality factor at work. On the scale that has Highly Emotional Viewer at one end and Highly Analytical Viewer at the other, I am much closer to the latter extreme: Rarely do I get so immersed in a film that I stop thinking about its nuts and bolts. It is often said admiringly of an actor, “He was so good that I could see only the character,” but it doesn’t work for me that way—I never forget who is playing the part, and in some cases my appreciation is deepened by associations with the actor’s earlier work (as when someone is cast against type: for example, 1980s girl-next-door Supriya Pathak in sinister roles in Shanghai and Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela).
Given my boring aptitude for “rationality”, I am all the more mindful of the need to be honest when there is a strong emotional reaction. And as a writer, this is tricky: You have to articulate the whys and hows of your viewing experience, even though you are writing the piece hours or days later, in a dusty room under a malfunctioning tubelight, with your dog pulling at your sleeve.
I started thinking about these matters when I realized that last weekend marked the 15th death anniversary of the legendary film critic Pauline Kael. Now there’s someone who could write wonderful, analytical prose without jettisoning her deepest feelings. In her later years, Kael sometimes accused younger critics of being giddy hero-worshippers—but the splendid irony is that in her own best writing, she reveals her emotional life, and what excites or appalls her. As just one example, here she is on two of her personal heroines becoming sentimental figures in middle age: “In Pocketful Of Miracles, when Bette Davis became lovable and said ‘God Bless’...with heartfelt emotion in her voice, I muttered an obscenity as I slumped down in my seat. I slumped again during Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, because Katharine Hepburn had become sweet and lovable too…. They have become old dears…there’s a feeling of dismay, and even of betrayal, when we watch them now....”
This little rant isn’t the 1960s equivalent of a casual social-media update; it is part of a well-argued piece that serves both as film review (of The Lion In Winter) and a rumination on star personalities. There are hundreds of such moments in the Kael oeuvre, and it’s what keeps her work—the best of which marries passion with contemplation—so alive.
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