Monday, November 22, 2004

Whorism in film writing

Probably shouldn’t be writing this blog at all (indiscreet + not very ethical, given that I’m a sometimes-professional film reviewer myself), but couldn’t let the topic pass without saying at least something. Entire chunks – whole sentences – of Nikhat Kazmi’s review of Shark Tale in yesterday’s Sunday Times of India are lifted from Roger Ebert’s review for the Chicago Suntimes. (Just one sample: "Strange, too, that the movie’s value system seems to come from The Godfather, a study in situational ethics that preferred good gangsters with old-fashioned family values to bad gangsters who sold drugs.")

And where an attempt is made to alter the original text in a small way, here’s what results -
Original: The mob is ruled by Don Lino (voice by Robert De Niro, channelling Marlon Brando)...
Copy: The mob is ruled by Don Lino (voice by Robert De Niro, AKA Marlon Brando)...

A distraught Shougat called early on Sunday morning to read bits of both reviews out to me; he’s reviewing the film himself, and says he’ll purge himself of the irritation by referencing the Ebert review (in quote marks) himself and then arguing against it. Don’t quite agree with that approach, but I understand how he feels about the subject.

I’ll clarify that I have no delusions about the quality of film criticism in most of our newspapers/magazines, or the competence of those behind it – but one can always be surprised in new and terrible ways. For years I’ve gritted my teeth at the stultifying levels of ignorance on view on the front pages of the supplements of the most widely read newspapers in the country. The triflingness, the superficiality. I’m not talking so much about reviews here – there’s nothing wrong with opinion pieces, if they are reasonably well-argued (and assuming they aren’t lifted from somewhere else in the first place). But the lack of respect for basic facts - even in the past few years, with the Internet mollycoddling all of us – is abysmal. (And don’t get me started on the laziness in the use of terminology. My oldest peeve – dating back to when I was maybe 12 – is the use of ‘Hollywood’ as a generic term for every non-Indian movie; example Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood being included in a list headed "Hollywood movies based on Macbeth" a few months ago – this was when Maqbool was released.)

The inside buzz is that many of the foreign-movie reviews in most of our n’papers are dedicatedly compiled by interns from various websites, and it shows. (Actually, with the half-baked, ignorant nonsense that emerges when some of these ‘writers’ do attempt to produce something out of their own heads, unaided, I thank heaven for whoever invented plagiarism.) But this is the first time I can recall something being so blatantly, so cynically lifted word for word from another piece. Does this mean our reviewers have become completely apathetic about their job, about whether their readers are interested at all? I’m not sure. Maybe we do get the film writing we deserve.

31 comments:

  1. Great post. More power to you. Would add something relevant if I could think of it, but you seem to have said it all.

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  2. Brilliant post. The paucity of quality film writing in the mainstream Indian has been a bugbear of mine for a long time. I'm working on a post about it and will link to yours when it's published. Here in Bangalore the moratorium on non-Kannada films means Shark Tale hasn't been released here yet and consequently, the Bangalore edition of the STOI hasn't carried the review.
    I remember Prem Panicker's review of Kill Bill: Volume One had several phrases copied verbatim from the New York Times review and a few other more obscure publications that I remembered reading on Metacritic.
    I find it frustrating that there isn't much of a film-writing _tradition_ in India. A very interesting piece on watching Govind Nihalani's 'Dev' from a Muslim perspective published in the TOI a few months ago is an example of the kind of writing that's far too rare in mainstream (smaller journals do much better, but don't constitute a mainstream 'tradition') newspapers. Most reviews stop at providing a plot summary and a round-up of good and bad performances. To be fair to the reviewers, they aren't exactly given the kind of space I think reviews deserve, especially when we look at the length allowed to Roger Ebert's reviews of even the most awfully bad movies. Of course, one can hardly expect better from the TOI who consider book reviews beneath their dignity to print and whose coverage of theatre is restricted to photos of cast parties on Page 3. But even the HT/Hindu/DH reviews are hardly better written, in terms of eloquence of expression. And no one discusses the politics of films: a film about encounter killings will be reviewed entirely without reference to / debate on their morality, the only notable exception being Khalid Mohammad's occassional rants at films that display hints of Islamophobia, protests that are usually quite fair. Where is the Indian Kael?

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  3. The really sad thing about this is that Nikhat's no newbie--she's written books on cinema, been covering film for years, and does come out every so often with a real-live, genuine opinion of her own. I'm kind of mindblown at her choice of plagiaree (for want of a better word): Ebert isn't exactly some anonymous dude. Not that it would make it much better if she'd ripped off someone obscure-just that it's all the more baffling. Didn't she know she'd be found out? And (topic of great fascination to yours truly) would she plead the "unconscious plagiarism" defence?

    Can't find Kazmi's review on the Net, and stopped subscribing to the ToI a while back: could you post a few sections from her review, just for the sake of comparison?

    On the subject of film writing, what can I say? The only thing that makes me feel good about the state (pretty desperate) of book reviewing in this country is the state of film reviewing in this country. It's like, I dunno, comparing a collapsing building to a mass of full-fledged ruins. At least with book reviewing there are a few souls trying to shore the edifice up, pitching a shamiana here and there. Cold comfort, I know.

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  4. Apart from the passages I cited in the blog:

    Orig: The Godfather, which is behind most of the inspiration for "Shark Tale," is 32 years old, and Jaws, its other inspiration, is 29 years old. Time slips into the future, and movies still fresh in our hearts are considered by younger audiences to be ancient classics.
    NK: The Godfather is 32 years old and Jaws, its other inspiration, is 29 years old. Time slips into the future, and two decade-old movies are considered ancient classics by younger audiences.

    Orig: It takes place on an underwater reef where sharks are the local gangsters, and run things from their headquarters on the hulk of the Titanic. Coral formations, undersea debris and vegetation combine to create an aquatic Times Square, and, as in "Shrek 2," real retailers have their Toon equivalents.
    NK: The action takes place on an underwater reef where sharks are the local gangsters, and run things from their headquarters on the hulk of the Titanic. Coral formations, undersea debris and vegetation combine to create an aquatic Times Square.

    Orig: The movie doesn't follow the plot of "The Godfather" so much as recycle its characters, and the "Jaws" inspiration gets an early smile when the famous theme music, scary for people, is as inspiring to sharks as the national anthem.
    NK: The movie merely recycles the plot of The Godfather, and the Jaws inspiration gets a thumbs up when the famous theme music, scary for people, is an inspiring national anthem for the sharks.

    Orig: The mob is ruled by Don Lino (voice by Robert De Niro, channeling Marlon Brando), who is a ruthless but, by his own standards, a fair shark. His two sons are Frankie (Michael Imperioli), who has grown up to be a shark any dad can be proud of, and Lenny (Jack Black), who has disgraced the family by becoming a vegetarian.
    NK: The mob is ruled by Don Lino (voice by Robert De Niro, AKA Marlon Brando), who is a ruthless but fair shark. His two sons are Frankie (aka Sonny), who has grown up to be a shark any dad can be proud of, and Lenny (aka Michael), who has disgraced the family by becoming a vegetarian.

    Think the unconscious plagiarism defence will hold up here?

    Yes, Ebert seems to be the preferred mining ground not just for Ms Kazmi but for a few other reviewers in our newspapers. Not sure why that is, but I don’t think these plagiarists bother much about covering their tracks - they probably assume (rightly, in most cases) that anyone who makes movie-viewing choices based on STOI reviews wouldn’t have a clue who Roger Ebert was anyway. It’s a bit like the inside joke about why the Times of India doesn’t carry book reviews: because no one who reads the TOI would actually read books! (Now I know that isn’t strictly true, but can you fault the perception?!)

    About book-reviewing being in an almost equally bad state: it happens invariably that when I meet a visiting author for a profile I get a deeply grateful look sometime during the chat, accompanied by the remark, “You’re the first journo I’ve spoken to here who actually knows something about my book/has done some research etc” This might sound like I’m blowing my own trumpet, but it’s really much more a reflection of the general quality of “lit journalism” here. One girl I know coolly told me that she hadn’t even glanced through Kate Grenville’s book before going to meet her, and then added, “You’ll have to draw her out, she doesn’t talk much.” And last week at the Imperial I swear I heard one interviewer ask Peter Goldsworthy “Do you note various things around you before you write a book?”

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  5. The Bangalore (where Shark Tale released a week late)edition of the STOI has an entirely different review by Rashid Irani instead. A relief, but doesn't make sense to me.

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  6. Why just foreign reviews? Even desi reviews are happily picked up from here, there and everywhere. Taking "liberal borrowing" a step further, are those journalists who print studio approved interviews of foreign actors (hollywood and others) under their bylines, with an "exclusive" tag (Tom Cruise for The Last Samurai, recently George Clooney for Ocean's 12). Sic.

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  7. shougat? the name sounds familiar, if m not mistaken, did he work for that rag cald today, of course, he shud know abt plagiarism, he's the one doing it all teh time, n wat's worse is he's even less ingenious at copying, remember having read a TODAY piece on gothica, where he'd picked examples of bad dialogues, mentioned verbatim on a rotten tomatoes site .. and well, don't want to comment on teh 'writing' of other commentators to the post ..

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  8. read the posts: really shocked! but why don't you let NK plead her case--that'd be interesting

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  9. Your last line is the most pertinent. I review films regularly for the Economic Times (Chennai) and The New Indian Express, and for every discerning reader, there are three others who will ask you why your reviews are so analytical, why a film is compared with other films instead of just being judged by the universal standard of "timepass".

    Incompetency is one thing. Plagiarism is another thing altogether, and if NK's is as blatant as it is, he shouldn't really be on the staff of the Sunday ToI at all any more.

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  10. Does this whole imbroglio in some way mean that Nikhat K will never be able to fault a filmmaker for plagiarism?

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  11. Good point. A senior journo who shall remain unnamed was telling me about how, the one time he met NK, she was bemoaning the paucity of original ideas in Hindi cinema. Copy, copy, copy from Hollywood.
    Oh well, the philosophy is clearly: what's good for the filmmaker is good for the critic...

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  12. I am a bit late here but I feel all the more happy about ditching TOI way back. But today I saw something similar happening at The Hindu too via a blogpost (available at both Desipundit and Indiauncut). I wonder if I should stop reading newspapers altogether!

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  13. a movie "critic" plagiarising Ebert is like subash ghai plagiarising "attack of the killer tomatoes" which put together equals a bloody waste of everyones time.

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  14. I never wanted to write about Nikhat Kazmi on my blog , but I am forced to write and pour my heart out .
    She praises almost all the stupid movies, assigns exaggerated rating to movies, and writes in such diplomacy that irritates the people who read the film reviews.There have been many instances when she has written a good review and the film turns out to be totally crap.
    Let me share an example, the recent movie:Tom Dick and Harry . she gave a rating of 2, whereas all other film critic wanted to rate it as negative. Read the review of TDH by Masand on CNN-IBN Live and rediff.com.
    She has also given Fanaa , a rating of 3.5 . All other reviews of Fanaa rate it as 2-3.
    Just look at the words she uses, directly from horses mouth ,oops. (Horses or Donkey ,u decide)
    "Fanaa is a film that showcases Aamir as never before"
    Madam , how can u forget Rangeela,Sarfarosh,Dil Chahta Hai.
    Read her last lines"The film may not be a chatpata entertainer but there is an elegant charm and straight from the heart feel which makes it worth a dekko.Just don't go looking for fun and faltu timepass."
    What a diplomatic sentence, ohh.
    At last , Madam I am a big fan of Aamir, bigger fan of Kajol and like Yash Johar movies, but I cant buy anything crap you write .
    I am relived and now will never read Nikhat Kazmi film review.

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  15. quality film writing is a luxury for mainstream newspaper and journal readers of india. art (on the whole) has had to fall into the classic consumerism and 'wham bam thank you maam' type sell. I mean first of all 99% of indian movies (ok let me restrict this to bollywood) are not worth writing more than 4 lines for; a half-decent account of the remaining 1% loses to the story (and pictures ofcourse) of some disgusting village town hick item girl being kissed by some punjabi loser singer who's name i cant remember....

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  16. This may be late, but since I'm the affected party, here goes!

    I run a couple of sites, one of which is a 100 word review blog called Milliblog (http://www.itwofs.com/milliblog). The blog is reasonably popular. Recently, my 100 words on Emdan Magan, a new Tamil film soundtrack, with music by Vidyasagar went up on August 16th. I do have postings on a couple of other forums to back up the posting date in case my date is questioned. Rediff's review was posted by S Sudha on August 21st.

    http://www.rediff.com/movies/2006/aug/21emdan.htm

    Do I see a Kaavya-styled internalized lift here? Sample these!

    Mine: "As a soundtrack, Emdan Magan disappoints…"
    Rediff: "Vidyasagar's score for Emden Magan is not great; in fact, it is disappointing…"

    Mine: "Varaaru is marginally catchy, which will need significant help from its picturization to impress better"
    Rediff: "Vaararu Varaaru is marginally catchy, but will need significant help from its accompanying visuals to impress."

    Mine: "Kalloori is a routine youngster's track in the usual Vidyasagar mode."
    Rediff: "Kalloori is a routine youth track in the usual Vidyasagar style."

    Mine: "The composer returns to his Thambi-styled melodies in Koligundu kannu and Mannmeedhu - both are beautifully tuned and very well sung."
    Rediff: "He comes up with his Thambi-style melodies in Koligundu Kannu and Mannmeedhu, both of which are tastefully tuned and very well sung."

    How's that for plagiarism?

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  17. Hi Arjun
    May I lnik too your post in my blog?
    Thanks

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  18. graet post.ive seen her lift paragrapahs from PREMIERE.
    infat i had plans of witing to the guys at premiere.

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  19. Well done! I had known of this expose but am commenting only today! Better late than never!

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  20. Nikhat Kazmi is a pretentious slut. She cannot write a review or for that matter rate movies for nuts. She is as knowledgeable about movies as are the rest of us. She is driven by the bandwagon mentality. After seeing that slumdog won global acclaim, she preferred to give it a safe 4.5 instead of using her own mind.

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  21. Hi. I'm Maneesha Jacob, currently pursuing Journalism from Delhi University and interning at CNN-IBN. I am writing a thesis report for my college on how there is a forced definition of what is "Indian" in Hindi films and I want to interview a few film critics for the same. I would like to include your interview. If you are willing to give me the time, please do contact me at maneesha.jacob@gmail.com.

    Would really appreciate your time.

    Thankyou,
    Maneesha

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  22. Many institutions limit access to their online information. Making this information available will be an asset to all.

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  23. Wonderful blog, i recently come to your blog through Google excellent knowledge keep on posting you guys.

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  24. I was shocked by one particular comment here about Prem Panicker plagiarizing content from NYT. I have come to respect PP as one of the most versatile and adept writer around. So, I dug up the both reviews.

    http://www.rediff.com/movies/2003/oct/10prem.htm

    http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9804E6D7163FF933A25753C1A9659C8B63

    Can said Mr. Nakul point out the phrase that Prem Panicker allegedly "copied verbatim"?

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  25. NK is nothing but b...t. Watching movies based on her ratings are complete disappointments.

    Most dumb movie reveiwer from the present lot Indian movie reviewers.

    It did not surprise me at all.

    Nevertheless, I do read TOI and would continue to do so. I am also a little peeved at it for not giving me book reviews which it earlier used to do (when I was in 10th standard).

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  26. Duh, and all this while me was under the grand illusion that Nikhat's 'different' writing style every weekend was an indication of her brilliant writing prowesses!

    Besides, it can be noted that (and this was the talk of the town some months ago) she, for 'mysterious' reasons doled out four stars to high-budget, especially Yashraj flicks even if they were pathetic in their contents. And now toh there's hardly a mainstream movie which gets anything below three. WTG, Nikhat!

    All said and done, it can't be denied that there's a dearth of competent film writers out there and Nikhat certainly is the most celebrated one. In that case, my CV is always ready and raring to go :^)

    @Kartik:

    Didn't check the links; banking upon the quotes. But if found true, me would call it 'subtle plagiarism', something against which you can't really appeal, to the best of me's knowledge.

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  27. Duh?

    Does anyone remember when the stupid woman gave Zinda a 4 star rating saying 'who cares' and no one's ever gonna see the korean version.

    Not just shark tale...she's ripped off so many movie reviews that I stopped reading her reviews 5 years back.

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  28. Just posted this over at Indicine, which I happened to visit for the first time today while searching for reviews. The comment may not be approved there given the accusations (all true), so posting it here as well as an addendum to the brilliant article above by Jai. Thanks for reading and commenting!

    -----

    http://www.indicine.com/movies/bollywood/buddha-hoga-tera-baap-review-rating-5/#comment-108420

    I’m not going to comment on the movie itself, simply because I haven’t seen it yet. What I would like to comment on however, is the abysmal state of Indian film writing/reviewing. First of all, the numerous spelling mistakes in the ‘review’ above turned me off. I don’t know if it’s the fault of Indicine for not reproducing the article properly, or it’s the author himself who can’t spell for nuts, but things like “abuot”, “retured”, “bight night”, “mad whiltling”, “Huld”, “enless” are so irritating that the eye is drawn to them immediately, which in turn takes away from the rest of the article. Of course, since the rest isn’t all that great either, it may well be a blessing in disguise! Punctuation takes a beating as well, with no apostrophes to speak of. “its”, “dont”, “Bachchans” etc. are all bandied about numerous times, and conversely we have sentences with extra misplaced apostrophes such as “won’t be surprised if the ‘once more’ echo’s in the theater”. It’s “echoes”, not “echo’s”, Mr. Patel.

    Reading the entire thing, what struck me (besides the irritants mentioned above) was simply how juvenile it was in tone (at least in parts, and the reason the rest wasn’t equally so jejune is mentioned below). ”I felt like a teenager again appreciating the view of the thing that goes Boom”. Ugh. “The possible permutations were enless, but the winner was always Amitabh Bachchan.” So even when ‘Huld’ was up against He-man, the winner was Amitabh? Hmm... “Puri made I as an audience”. What the heck is that even supposed to mean? Is it some sort of deep observation about the director’s ego that I completely failed to comprehend? And you know what, Mr. Patel? Even though Amitabh might have “chew[ed] the action scenes” (?), my bones most certainly did not harden (!) “every time a muscle-bound guy dove away from an explosion in slow motion”.

    However, all this is incidental to what is definitely the most egregious thing about this so-called ‘review’. I knew there was a reason why I stayed away from most film reviews by Indian writers. Quite simply, it’s because they can’t write worth a damn, even if their life depended on it. Or maybe they can (after all, Indian writers have made massive contributions to English and especially post-colonial literature), but they are so bone lazy and morally bankrupt that they’d rather STEAL and PLAGIARISE articles penned by foreign writers. Yes, you read that right. This ‘review’ is nothing but a shameless mishmash of lines from various reviews for “The Expendables” (no doubt chosen due to the thematic similarity), interspersed and padded with wince-inducing gems that obviously sprung from Mr. Patel’s own fecund imagination.

    [Comment continued below; split up due to length.]

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  29. http://www.indicine.com/movies/bollywood/buddha-hoga-tera-baap-review-rating-5/#comment-108420 [Comment (part 2) continued below; split up due to length.]

    These are the original reviews in question (I’m sure there might have been others that were sampled as well by Mr. Patel, but to my knowledge these are the main sources):

    1. The Expendables review by Julian Roman: http://www.movieweb.com/movie/the-expendables/REPXbwE1TkTlTS

    2. The Expendables Blu-Ray review by Michelle Alexandria: http://eclipsemagazine.com/high-definition/21786

    Let us term these R1 and R2, shall we? Now sample these:

    1. What can you say abuot a movie like Buddha Hoga Tera Baap? Is it a movie that would have been so amazing to see about thirty years ago when this great action hero and the angry young man was kicking ass and taking pride in doing so in his prime? ... Watching Buddha feels like watching nostalgia and sometimes its good, in fact, very good because a film like this isnt an escapist entertainment alone.

    From R2: What can you say about a movie like The Expendables? It’s a movie that would have been so amazing to see about seven or ten years ago when this great ensemble of action stars where kicking ass and taking names in their prime. As it is watching the movie feels like watching nostalgia and that’s not necessarily a bad thing: just different than what it could have been.

    2. Every action hero fan would somewhere deep down question – ‘Oh I wish I could see Mr Bachchan kick some butt today’. Well Buddha Hoga Terra Baap is your answer. It is everything a fan of old school 80′s action films would want and a kind of love letter to the movies that he used to be a part of. Its tongue, firmly in its cheek and includes all the cliches that we love in those old movies of Bachchans.

    From R2: I mean every action fan has had the question who would kick whose butt Bruce Willis or Stallone or if Jet Li went Chop Sokki of Dolph would little Li survive the encounter? The Expendables is everything a fan of old school 80s action films would want. ... Again The Expendables really isn’t a movie, it’s kind of a love letter to the movies that Stallone used to make. It’s tongue, firmly in it’s cheek and includes all the cliches that we love in those old movies, we get to see Jet Li and Dolph Lundgren go at.

    3. While not everyone has long speaking roles, the characters are clearly defined and each have their moment in the sun.

    From R1: While not everyone has long speaking roles, the characters are clearly defined and each have their moment in the sun.

    4. Action junkies, take heed, your painful summer of withdrawal comes to an end with a sweet infusion of glorious violence and mayhem.

    From R1: Action junkies, take heed, your painful summer of withdrawal comes to an end with a sweet infusion of glorious violence and mayhem.

    5. This is a testosterone fueled kick for the true fans, the purists, the connoisseurs who expect to see the legend of action back in the ring.

    From R1: This is a testosterone fueled kick for the true fans, the purists, the connoisseurs who expect to see the legends of action rack up a serious body count.

    [Comment (part 3) continued below; split up due to length.]

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  30. http://www.indicine.com/movies/bollywood/buddha-hoga-tera-baap-review-rating-5/#comment-108420 [Comment (part 3) continued below; split up due to length.]

    Do I even need to go on? Frankly, this sickens me no end. I knew as soon as I’d read the entire thing that there was no way some of those sentences were penned by the same guy who’d written the rest of the crap in the article. Not that the originals are scintillating examples of great writing either, but they are by far several notches above what Mr. Patel seems to be capable of disgorging. A five second search was more than sufficient to expose the extent of regurgitation that had taken place. Honestly, in this day and age do people like Mr. Patel really think they can get away with this sort of daylight robbery?

    I must say however that I wasn’t all that surprised to see something like this. Jai Arjun Singh (Jabberwock) talked about this way back in 2004 (http://jaiarjun.blogspot.com/2004/11/whorism-in-film-writing.html), and obviously the practice did not originate then. Unfortunately, Nikhat Kazmi is still very much employed by TOI and shovelling out drivel every week. I don’t know just how much the Harrow Observer paid Mr. Patel for this article, but clearly they were gypped by yet another indolent and vulgar plagiarist, a phenomenon not all that uncommon in Indian film writing/reviewing.

    I guess in the end we get what we deserve or are willing to tolerate. When we have films/songs/serials coming out by the thousands every single year that are shameless rip-offs of original work by others (mostly foreigners) and when these are lauded as great (even original) works by both the unwashed masses or the hoi polloi as well as by a large section of our so-called intelligentsia, then what else can we expect of our writers? As long as we take pride in our “chalta hai” and “kya farak padta hai” attitude, wallow in our mediocrity and do not strive to achieve greater heights, we neither deserve and indeed never shall we obtain a better standard of entertainment (and just about everything else that matters in life).

    [End of comment.]

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  31. I worked with TOI, Blr for a while and got lucky to meet Kazmi on her visit. All I could think of throughout our meeting, was this post. Saved me from being overwhelmed with awe.

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