Earlier this week, the Hrithik Roshan-starrer Super 30 was screened for the press. There’s a scene in which a journalist tells a powerful coaching class director at a public gathering: “Media ko dhamki nahi chalega (threats to the media won’t fly)." It’s a mildly funny moment, but the laugh that echoed through the hall was immediate and knowing. It’s clear this particular crowd was thinking about Kangana Ranaut.
A couple of days earlier, the actor had been promoting her new movie, Judgmentall Hai Kya, in Mumbai. In an amateur video of the event that circulated on social media, Ranaut is about to be asked a question by PTI reporter Justin Rao. He’s barely introduced himself when Ranaut rounds on him. “Justin, you’ve become my enemy now," she says. “You’re writing terrible things, dirty things. You bashed my film Manikarnika…" Rao defends himself, saying, “You cannot intimidate a journalist because you’re in a position of power here."
A little later, Ranaut, speaking off the cuff as she always does, says something revealing. “You spent three hours in my van," she tells Rao. “You are a friend…"
The implication here is that Rao, having been given unusually prolonged access to a star, was expected to behave like a “friend" and not like a critic. Rajeev Masand, a well-known critic and an entertainment journalist, says the misconception exists on both sides. “I think many journalists make the mistake of thinking actors (and filmmakers) are their friends," he wrote over email. “Because you see them frequently on assignment, share a laugh or two, or find yourself being wooed by them to portray them in a glowing light does not mean they’re friends."
Ranaut’s accusation will be familiar to anyone who’s worked in Indian film journalism. I gave you my time; you owe me. The implied quid pro quo extends to other areas as well. Organizers of press shows have been known to tell critics that they could go ahead and post their reviews if they were positive, but should hold on till Friday if they didn’t like the film. And in an 8 July circular, the Tamil Film Producers’ Council Consulting Union and South Indian Film Media PRO Union said they would bar critics who gave “unnecessarily harsh reviews" from all film-related events (the decision has since been rescinded).
Indian film critics had a right to feel under siege this past week. A couple of days before the circular appeared, director Sandeep Reddy Vanga was interviewed for the website Film Companion. Responding to Anupama Chopra’s question about the perceived misogyny of his film Kabir Singh, he described the criticism as “pseudo", brought up Masand’s review and called him a “fat guy", and characterized critics as “parasites" and a bigger threat to the industry than piracy. “These guys should reinforce our work," he says, “they should not hamper it." You spent three hours in my film!
“Pseudo" was also a term used by Ranaut—attached to both “liberal" and “journalist"—in a video shared by her sister, Rangoli Chandel, on Twitter on 11 July. She begins by thanking members of the press who’ve supported her career, before describing an unspecified few as “termites", “deshdrohi (anti-national)" and “nalayak (unworthy)".
There’s always been tension between the film industry and those covering it. Directors whose films aren’t received well tend to take refuge in box-office numbers, as Vanga did in the Film Companion interview (“The biggest misconception both film professionals and the public at large continue to have is that critics are expected to reflect popular public opinion," says Masand). Ranaut and Vanga’s hostility, though, suggests we may be moving onto dangerous new ground, where powerful movie stars could effectively dox those who criticize their work.
No one likes to have their work taken apart—especially if it’s done ineptly or viciously. But to dismiss criticism that bites, or simply disagrees and dissects, doesn’t augur well for the development of the form. In a mass medium like cinema, popular success isn’t a great predictor of quality. A certain amount of push and pull between creators and critics—and among critics, as we saw with Article 15—can only result in better films. As American reviewer Pauline Kael once said, “In the arts, the critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising."