Thursday, October 25, 2012

Adventures of an intrepid (and very patient) film critic

[Did a shorter version of this review for Tehelka]

If you’re a weekly film reviewer – working with limited word-space and tight deadlines – and if you spend any time at all thinking about your job, you’re likely to be assailed by questions and self-doubts. In a media-and-Internet-saturated age, being one voice in a cacophony of opinions can be daunting to begin with; even as a firm believer in the power of subjectivity and in the worth of your own views, a time may come when you wonder if the world needs another talking head holding forth (however intelligently or articulately) on such review-proof movies as the latest Salman-starrer or the new Yash Raj Films opus. But how does one escape the obligation to cover the big releases, the films that everyone is talking about – even if that is exactly what makes writing about them seem a little pointless? And what of the small movies that your publication never has space for?

In January 2011 journalist Anna MM Vetticad undertook a mission that most reviewers would baulk at: to watch, and blog reviews of, every Hindi movie released in the NCR that year, even the almost unheard-of ones showing in nondescript halls. The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic chronicles some of the high and low points of that journey. One can imagine such a venture begetting a weighty, in-depth study of the movie industry – and perhaps Vetticad herself will do this someday – but this is not that book, nor is it intended to be. It is a collection of vignettes about the many little worlds that exist between the cracks of what we call “Bollywood”, the bizarre workings of its PR machinery and the struggles of outsiders. It opens a window to a place well beyond the purview of most multiplex-goers (and, I suspect, many professional film writers too) – a place where halls might refuse to screen a film because only one ticket has been sold, or where once-big stars like Jackie Shroff might do unfathomable walk-on parts in barely-directed movies as a sop to an acquaintance.

Vetticad encounters such characters as a Mozambique-based businessman-actor who financed an incredibly tacky film (with the tagline “For the first time on the Indian screen, an actor arises from Africa”) and better-known figures like the director Rohit Shetty, who has a laughably unrefined view of criticism. In an initially funny but ultimately sad experience, she watches Dev Anand’s last film, the disastrous Chargesheet, in an empty hall and calculates that it may have sold only around 2000 tickets nationwide. She discovers a cast of wonderful child actors in an unheralded film called Kaccha Limboo and has a revealing conversation with Onir, director of the sensitive, under-seen I Am. There is even an appendix with the text of the pseudo-scientific concept note for a movie titled Impatient Vivek (the “junk genes” reference is not a comment on the leading man, but it could have been).

The book's chatty, blog-like structure – with detours, ellipses and parentheses – is well-suited to this material, conveying a sense of the many conflicting things going on in the author’s head as she drifts from one theatre to another, and the few forays into overly casual writing (a cry of “Halleluiah”, a sentence beginning “C’mon, doc, I mean...”) are leavened by a basically refined, probing sensibility. As someone who thinks a lot about the issues surrounding reviewing, I enjoyed Vetticad’s reflections on the nuts and bolts of her work, including her uncomplicated explanation for why she never discusses a film with anyone until she has finished her piece. (Personally I’m not that rigid, but I make it a point not to read a review by someone I respect if I am planning to write about the same book or film.) Or the polite tap on the knuckles she administers to people who ask such questions as "Who's forcing you to watch [the bad films]? Why don't you just watch the good ones?" In fact, one of the book’s pleasingly unflashy illustrations – a depiction of the author holding up a magnifying glass to the screen to scrutinise the pimples on Emraan Hashmi’s torso – seems to exemplify the bird-like attentiveness that lay behind this project.

“To my mind this book is a celebration of the small film,” Vetticad says sanguinely, even as she acknowledges that there is little to celebrate about the existence of such movies as the rape-joke-laden Be-Careful. Indeed The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic is most engaging when it throws up eye-popping – and sometimes poignant – tidbits about poseurs and no-hopers as well as people who deserve wider recognition (such as the hearing-impaired Sohail Lakhani, who trained Ranbir Kapoor for Barfi! and also played a deaf-mute youngster in a film called Bubble Gum). It is less engaging when it includes generic interviews with high-profile stars like Vidya Balan and Priyanka Chopra, even if the aim here is to uncover things about how the industry functions. But if you feel that some of these pages might have been better utilised, or that the ending is a little abrupt, it’s a good idea to supplement this book with Vetticad’s blog, where you’ll find even more entertaining nuggets about films with such titles as Cycle Kick, and Happy Husbands. None of which, as far as I know, has even a tiny role for Jackie Shroff.


  1. what a very interesting project....where can you buy the book Jai? Like Jane Austen, Anna seems to be equally fond of 'good and bad works of art'.In India,where sometimes the margin produces some truly bizarre films,they're probably more compulsively interesting than drearier ones of more solid merit.However,the niches and crevices between mainstream releases yields some good work too,and this kind of book gives it space.

  2. Her blog claims that she's been a journo for 18 years, but I have never heard of her before.(very little online presence) What newspaper/magazines does she write for?

  3. Sai: the book should be available on Flipkart and on the publisher's link I have provided.

    Anon: she was with the India Today group for several years and with Indian Express too - moved to TV a few years ago, which could be why you haven't seen her writings.

  4. Lol at Jackie Shroff. Saw him hanging around the bar for hours at a random party where the hosts didn't seem to know him personally and every one was confused by his presence. Looks like that is what he's doing in this films too.

  5. oh dear.of course,there it is in the article itself.anyhow,thank you Jai.
    (whenever you review something,you're unfailingly patient and courteous enough to give out any information that we sometimes thoughtlessly demand.this is by no means a common habit!thank you.)

  6. Jackie Shroff played Kay Kay's father in Life ki to Lag Gayi earlier this year.

  7. The book should have been named the Adventures of a Self-Proclaimed Film Critic, the author of which is so naive to think that Sunny Leone doesn't know why she has been signed for a film and that too by Pooja Bhatt, whom I have always admired for her frank attitude to sex, perhaps the first one to pose in body paint for an Indian magazine. There is nothing wrong in being proud of a big bust, of course, the flat chested ones may think otherwise.

  8. This "critic" did an awful interview of Kangana for a TV channel (it's posted on Youtube), and honestly, she was so abrasive and bullying. Throughout the interview, I marvelled at Kanaga's ability to stay calm and focused on the questions, while ignoring the reviewer's prickly, patronizing manner.