Monday, October 26, 2015

Reviewing the reviewer: a part-response to Khalid Mohamed's piece

There have been some nice, flattering reviews of the Hrishikesh Mukherjee book recently, such as the ones by Jerry Pinto in The Indian Express (this was a special thrill) and by Gautam Chintamani in Mail Today, but the most entertaining one by far is this relentlessly negative one by Khalid Mohamed. Read and enjoy.

I suppose I should be glad that he took the trouble to go through the book closely. I also know full well that when an author responds to a negative review, he is automatically in a disadvantageous position: open to charges of being thin-skinned, petulant and so on. But since I am, first and foremost, a critic myself - and very invested in the basic tenets and disciplines of criticism - I won’t let this pass without making a few observations on strictly factual points:
1) “The thesis advanced by Jai Arjun Singh is that the master filmmaker was amazingly simple and honey-sweet.”
Nope. Not even close. I have repeatedly pointed to the complexities, contradictions and insecurities that one finds in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s interviews and statements, and the glimpses one gets of inner demons - in his attitude to his own work and his much less than “honey-sweet” feelings about the state of the world. And “simple”, “innocent” and “honey-sweet” are words I have always found a bit problematic as descriptors of his cinema as well.

2) "In any case, why pull down Shakti Samanta and Asit Sen?”
Which... I haven’t done. (Though I personally find HM’s work more stimulating than theirs.) All I said was that those directors seemed more comfortable with the tropes of the emotional social film and with melodrama than Hrishi-da was. (And I don’t use "melodrama" as a pejorative.)

3) Now this bit is magnificently reductive:
"For Singh, the airplane ending transporting Mili and the man she loves to a doctor in Switzerland suggests that her 'beemari is nothing more than the fact that she is single, that she hasn’t been completed yet by having a man in her life. No wonder the film ends with the hope that she might be cured.’ In other words, being single means being incomplete. And that’s not all. It’s suggested that the flight to the Alps could well morph into a honeymoon.

I was being ironical in that passage - raising a hypothetical reading in order to refute it - and the very next line after the bit quoted by Mohamed is “Do I REALLY see the film in those terms? No.”

4) Referring to a couple of places where I have quoted from his old reviews of Hrishi-da’s films, Mohamed writes:

"I don’t have any quarrel with being quoted, even if it’s without the basic courtesy of being consulted.”

Basic courtesy? Really? You wrote something, it’s in the public domain now, and it’s fair game for any subsequent writer to quote from it as long as he provides the right attribution and doesn’t misquote or present something misleadingly out of context. (You know, the way Mohamed misrepresented my remarks on Mili above. Now THAT would be a problem.)

More than that, though, I’m amused at how Mohamed seems to think I have designated him a “strident beastie”, whatever that might be. I won’t offer an elaborate defence here, but anyone who’s interested: just go to the book’s Index, locate the two Khalid Mohamed references, take a look at what I have said on those pages, and then judge for yourselves. 

For the record, and I have said this to friends often: I actually have high regard for some of the writing Mohamed did in the 1970s and 80s, at least whatever little I have encountered in magazines and archives. His 1983 review of Jaane bhi do Yaaro, for instance, was so sharp. Those fine old pieces make for a very worrying contrast with his output of the past 15 or so years (just one sample of which is here), and I think his career arc as a writer is a good caution to any talented young writer/critic who may be in danger of getting complacent or lazy or pompous over time.

P.S. the Bawarchi-Texas Chainsaw Massacre reference is from a passage that very specifically sets itself up as a farcical/April Fool-ish joke. Also: if a woman "falls at a man's feet" in a particular scene in a film, no, that does not automatically make the film itself regressive (though many critics, even today, seem to think it does); it could simply be an honest depiction of what a certain person from a certain milieu might do in a certain situation. A filmmaker's responsibility is to be truthful to his story and his characters, not to be "progressive" in a ham-handed way. But I’ll stop here...


  1. Fight ....Fight ....Fight ....Fight ....Fight ....Fight ....

  2. Read the review but sorry to say I haven’t read the book yet. “Relentlessly negative” is an apt description. Does he have an axe to grind?
    I’m sure you don’t need it but you have my sympathies. Luckily the good reviews are more than enough to balance this out.

    1. Does he have an axe to grind?

      Gargi: no idea. I've never met him or otherwise interacted with him. May have said something critical about his recent writings in comments discussions on the blog or on FB. And I did once circulate a "review" of his (that No Smoking one, linked to above) to the participants in a writing workshop I was conducting, as a sample of how not to write. (Doubt he would have known about that though.)

  3. I haven't read your book - Only because i have not really known much or been interested enough in Hrishikesh Mukherjee. I am a great fan of your book on Jaane bhi do Yaaron and i really loved that book.

    Having said that, the one important thing i take out from this post of yours is - Also: if a woman "falls at a man's feet" in a particular scene in a film, no, that does not automatically make the film itself regressive (though many critics, even today, seem to think it does); it could simply be an honest depiction of what a certain person from a certain milieu might do in a certain situation. A filmmaker's responsibility is to be truthful to his story and his characters, not to be "progressive" in a ham-handed way.

    This so called progressive band wagon really like in a way you have mentioned doesn't seem to realise the very essence of films. There are films which show you society as is not necessarily passing any judgement but just showing the reality. And there are films which would want to show the ideal progressive world. Can and should films be curbed to just show the ideal society or is it also a medium of expression and translation of certain realities that exist in the society. If Anurag Kashyap shows the real authentic world in GOW it's expected and appreciated by these same critics. A story and idea is of utmost importance and justice needs to be done to that, and not to a critic who has this flowery idea of how society should be represented.


    1. Tanaya: thanks for the comment - and yes, this is something I have written about before and very often have impassioned conversations about with friends. The idea that art has to be affirmative/progressive in a clearly spelt out way is a problematic one, in my view. At the same time, despite what I have written here, a part of me recognises that the line between simply depicting something and seeming to endorse it can be a very thin one. And also that cinema is such a powerful, influential medium, one can make the case that in a society with serious problems of regressiveness/gender inequality etc, filmmakers and writers need to be careful about how they choose to depict certain things.

      All that said, one of the things that annoyed me about KM's critique of Naram Garam was that he sweepingly labelled it regressive based on a scene where a poor old man, worried about his attractive daughter's future, asks the Amol Palekar character to take her "bojh" off him. Now of course this is the sort of dialogue that should make any right-thinking person cringe. But the first question to be asked is: Is it credible that THIS old man, in THIS situation, would say such a thing? And the answer is a clear yes. (Further, the Swaroop Sampat character in Naram Garam is easily the most sympathetic figure in the film, and we can see throughout that she is surrounded by doltish men. To my mind, the film itself makes its position quite clear.)

  4. Very nice response to a review (if one can can call KM's writings that) that was anything but.

    Taking off from what Tanaya mentioned, off late, there has been a tendency of judging arts (especially movies, as it is the most accessible of the art forms if you discount Times Now's News Hour) on political correctness. Maybe this because, in India, there is a serious lack of educated criticisms and reviewers who actually know their job.

    I would think a movie does not need to be progressive/regressive, educational, message-driven, etc. It is not the duty of a film maker to portray or reflect life or morals. A true film maker can only be true to the story he wants to tell and his only service is to the characters and/or plot that drives the movie. It is the viewers who take what they want from the viewing and in most cases watching the same movie can have varying takeaways depending on where you are coming at it from.

    Having said that, if a film maker wants to change the society..that their prerogative and they can hammer home the message thru their movies. As long as Old Monk is available to salve the hammering our heads take.