Thursday, December 02, 2004

The plagiarism debate (contd)

Posted this on DesiMediaBitchFest...

Further to Black Muddy River’s blog on plagiarism on DesiMediaBitch...we had a long talk about the subject last evening and one of the things we discussed was: why is everyone so surprised by the Nikhat Kazmi incident? Over the last few years we’ve been looking at the foreign-movie reviews that appear weekly in our major (and minor) papers and we’ve never been under the impression that it’s anything but "inspired" writing. The big surprise in the latest incident isn’t that the plagiarism occurred -- it’s been happening for years, and in all the newspapers, though, as Shamya says, often in neatly disguised form. The real surprise is that a high-profile critic in the country’s leading newspaper was silly enough to lift whole passages without changing anything, thus making it easy for herself to get caught.

Those of us who pride ourselves on watching movies with passion and forming our own very strong, individual opinions about them, are annoyed by the seeming laziness of many established critics. I have a small theory about this: film critics in India who started out on this beat in the 1980s (or before) rarely had to contend with doing reviews of non-Indian films. Ten, even eight, years ago, Delhiites went to the Priya or Chanakya halls eyes agog at the prospect of getting to watch a Hollywood film (usually a very mediocre Hollywood film) a mere eight months after it had been released in the US. Back then, that was considered luxury! Then came the multiplex culture followed by the era of nearly simultaneous release, and it became necessary for newspapers to carry foreign film reviews. Naturally, writing these became the responsibility of the already-entrenched reviewers, who, until then, hadn’t been watching non-Indian movies with a professional eye (notwithstanding the odd film festival), and had little experience in writing about them.

All this started happening in the mid-to-late 1990s, and that was also when the Internet came into its own out here. How’s that for a combination! On the one hand there was a group of film journalists who hadn’t had much exposure to international cinema and (quite understandably) didn’t get all the cultural references in the Hollywood films they were regularly being bombarded with now; and on the other hand, there was this vast, eminently minable database that would supply all the information they wanted. Go on, put the two ends together and see what you get.

I’m not saying everyone was naturally lazy or dishonest to begin with; I think how it probably worked was that in the early days our reviewers checked online reviews for basic information (cast, crew, character names, places mentioned in the story, the other little details one doesn’t always pick up when the people onscreen are talking in unfamiliar accents), and then gradually moved on to "borrowing" ideas and so forth. And soon, realising that no one really took movie reviews too seriously anyway, they developed the apathy that allowed last Sunday’s Shark Tale review to be "written" the way it was.

Much of the above is speculation of course, and I’d appreciate inputs, especially from anyone who was working as a journo 10-15 years ago and has a better sense of how this culture of indolence might have developed.


  1. I can't claim to be any sort of authority on film criticism but, as a reader of film reviews and occasional writer of book reviews, I have a couple of things to say.

    First, Indian film reviewers/writers on cinema -- Nikhat Kazmi herelf and the chap at the Hindu particularly -- are often guilty of overinterpretation and converting what should be a straightforward appraisal of a film into an editorial comment.

    It's almost predictable. Every Sunny Deol film is a "pseudo-nationalist", "hyper-patriotic", "jingoistic", "saffron political" exposition. Every Rituparno Ghosh film is "sensitively-told". Every second Hollywood film is an allegorical tale about contemporary American politics. Anyone remember the reviews of "Troy"?

    Now, Sunny Deol does frequently make overdone films (like his great father once did). Rituparno Ghosh does occasionally make a sensitive movie. The odd Hollywood film does have political overtones. Yet is it necessary to unearth innuendoes even where none exists? What does every second Nikhat Kazmi review (of a Hindi film, and so presumably not plagiarised from an American paper) read the same? Is there a bit of intellectual laziness here?

    Second, in contrast to sometimes over-opinionated film reviewers, book reviewers often play so safe, they end up saying nothing at all. Admittedly it is unfair to categorise everybody thus, but I've noticed that even some well-known or frequently published reviewers are wary of outright criticism or outright praise. They hedge their bets, criticising a book only if a previously published review has slammed it; or praising it simply because that's the prevailing wisdom.

    As a tribe, are book reviewers more diffident (if that is a strong enough word) than they should be?

    Cy Nic

  2. Hi,
    thanks for the inputs, though I really can’t agree with your point about movie reviews being over-opinionated. I think any good review MUST be opinionated - that’s what it is after all, one person’s opinion. I’m not sure what you mean by “straightforward appraisal” - do you mean a mere summary of the film with minimum or no judgement: just a plot description? That’s totally legitimate, but then it can’t be called a review - and I don’t see why it would merit a byline.
    In fact, I personally would have a lot more respect for Nikhat K and others of her ilk if they wrote opinionated reviews (assuming of course the ‘opinions’ are their own, not lifted from elsewhere). But I don’t think they do, I think they’re all chickens who can’t afford to ruffle other chickens’ feathers, and play it safe most of the time.

  3. Of course reviews are about opinion, about the reviewer's opinion of the film, book, whatever -- not his or her view on politics, Iraq, George Bush, the drought in Sudan, stray thoughts on life, the universe and everything.

    There is relevant opinion and there is extraneous opinion. One makes for a coherent narrative and the other doesn't. Again, I'd urge you to read Nikhat Kazmi's review of "Troy".

  4. The trouble is most of our reviewers take their job too seriously, when taking it just seriously enough should be enough.
    If one tries to look for an agenda in Murder, s/he can find all kinds of them. Senior reviewers find it below their dignity to let a film review be a film review. And in trying to look beyond the film, they find all kinds of ghosts.
    The fact is making money is the motive behind 90 per cent of the movies that Hollywood/Bollywood produces. With their film appreciation course glasses, they see all kinds of motives.
    And our great reviewers got to realise that cinema may not necessarily have a message. It can be pure style, and even substance for that matter.

  5. Nikhat Kazmi sucks!!!
    people give me some good movie review sites or blogs.