Baradwaj Rangan has a great piece here about reviewing - do take the time to read it all the way through if you're at all interested in what a good review can and should be. I've touched on some of these points myself at various times on this blog, but he brings them together superbly.
Incidentally, a few weeks ago I was speaking with Baradwaj about the ways in which people react to film reviews, and we agreed that one of the most annoying varieties of feedback a reviewer can get is when someone says, “Nice piece, but you didn’t say anything about the music [or about such-and-such song]”. Or “Nice piece, but why didn’t you mention XYZ’s performance?” Or “Nice piece, but what about that shot – you know, the one where Aishwarya dangles artistically from the tree branch before falling in slow motion?”
This sort of thing derives from a long-established culture of mainstream movie writing in India, where reviewers are expected to touch on every imaginable element in a film in 400 or fewer words (while not saying very much of worth about anything) – in other words, to be a one-stop shop for information. The idea of a review as an analytical, personal take on a film, where the writer might selectively discuss the things he found most stimulating – and ignore everything else – is sadly still a radical one.
Of course, even a lengthy film review in a journal usually doesn’t run beyond 1,500 or so words and I think most people would ultimately concede that there are a limited number of things you can write about in that space. But what happens when you do an entire book about a single film? In such a case, can the writer still concentrate on what he chooses to, or does he have some sort of moral obligation (all those poor trees!) to be “holistic”, to present the mythical Complete Picture?
I’ve had to think about this question ever since I started working on the Jaane bhi do Yaaro book. JBDY is a very interesting movie to write about, with many potential talking points. It was made by a group of people whose ideologies reflected the times they lived in, as well as the discontent of a generation that came of age in the late 60s and early 70s. And because it’s a polemical film in some ways, I’ve been asked a few times already if I’ve written at length about the socio-political backdrop of the time.
My answer is no, I haven’t written explicitly about this, though it is lightly woven into the main narrative, which is about the circumstances that led to the making of the film against many odds. I found the movie’s back-story, with its many twists and turns, fascinating: to begin with, I was intrigued by the series of events that led someone like Kundan Shah – a man from a business family – into a creative field. I was also intrigued by the strange workings of the moviemaking process and by the very different sort of movie Jaane bhi do Yaaro might easily have become, given what its original English-language script was like. Those are talking points too, and though they might not appear to have the “wider relevance” that a socio-political focus would have, they can tell us interesting things about how a work of art comes into existence, and why it strikes a chord with an audience in a particular time and place.
Besides, eventually, I had to do the sort of writing that I was confident of doing – and which employed my own strengths as a journalist/reviewer – rather than force myself into writing the sort of book that I might not be best suited for.
I know people who are bemused by the idea of a book about a single movie: how much can you write before you simply run out of things to say? But to the contrary, I think it would be possible for 20 writers to produce 20 good books on the same film, taking entirely different approaches, and without at all intruding on each other’s space. (This would have to remain a hypothetical situation, of course – no commercial publishing industry would permit such an apparently self-indulgent venture!)
In the best-case scenario, the books that would emerge wouldn’t just be “about the film” in a narrow, confined sense – they would be at least equally about the authors, and about the many ways in which it’s possible to respond to a creative work. (One of my favourite film books, Peter Conrad’s obsessively detailed The Hitchcock Murders, was as much about the author’s private fears and paranoias – and how Alfred Hitchcock’s cinema had tapped into them, intensified them and occasionally even provided a form of release – as it was about the movies themselves.) Film writing of this sort, when done well, can be very rewarding for the writer as well as for the reader. And it has no pretence to being all-encompassing.