Thursday, January 21, 2010

Tidbit post 2: a mini-rant about film books

(Continued from here)

One thing I’d really like to see in 2010 is a big improvement in our film-related literature. What’s badly needed in this field is writing that’s accessible yet intelligent, personal yet written with some rigour and background knowledge.

Most of our movie writing tends to fall into either of two extremes. On the one hand there are heavily academic, almost willfully abstruse books, guaranteed to chase off even the most engaged reader; on the other hand, booklets that are hurriedly written and published to capitalise on something that’s in the news. The result: shoddy writing, indifferent editing and abysmal fact-checking – all by-products of the need to quickly throw books together for a mass readership.

The lack of basic discipline can be embarrassing. Take a biography of Shyam Benegal, one of the key figures in the “New Wave” of Indian cinema in the 1970s. It looks well-produced enough from the outside, but open it and you discover an episodic work that doesn’t even pretend at narrative coherence. Inserted randomly into a section about Benegal’s early life is an autonomous mini-chapter comprising laudatory quotes (presented in ugly, visually jarring italics) from various people about the director. A recent book about Om Puri – an actor who deserves to be the subject of more than one well-written biography – similarly throws information haphazardly at the reader. Typos proliferate: the contents page even manages to spell Ardh Satya, a seminal Indian film and one of the most important in the actor’s career, as Ardh Staya. (More about this sort of thing in an old post about Mihir Bose’s Bollywood: A History.)

I suppose one shouldn’t really be surprised, given the attitude to movie reviewing in the country – starting with the minuscule space available for film reviews in our mainstream media. Given just 300 words to work with, even the most skilled writer can’t do more than make a cursory evaluation and give “marks” to each of the major elements of the film: acting, direction, music, script. At any rate, it’s assumed that the star rating is what the “casual reader” is really interested in; who has the time or attention span to read even a 300-word piece?

Which brings me to a troubling question: is this a case of a society getting the film literature it deserves? I’m tempted to answer yes when I overhear people (including people in my own house) animatedly discussing movie reviews in the most superficial terms. (If their assessment of a film conflicts with the reviewer’s, the only possible explanation is that he was “paid off” – either by the producer of the film or by the “rival camp”. And why do these writers deal in such big words and long sentences and complicated thoughts, they ask, if they chance to encounter a reviewer who really knows how to use the language and articulate complex ideas. Why can't they simply tell us if the film is Good or Bad?)

But I like to think the general situation can improve, if publishers provide the right support. (That’s a big, big “if”.) A start of sorts has been made. HarperCollins is currently doing a series of monographs on iconic Indian films, and the involvement of such writers as Anuvab Pal (he’s doing the book on Disco Dancer, which I’m really looking forward to), Meghnad Desai (Pakeezah) and Vinay Lal (Deewaar) is good news. (Full disclosure: I’ve recently finished my own contribution to the series, though I have no idea when it will see the light of day.)


  1. I have nothing to add to this except "yes, yes, a thousand times YES". Really looking forward to the Harper series.

  2. I think movie-reviewing by its very nature is sound-bitey and very cursory in analysis. Was reading some of Bosley Crowther's reviews of 40s-50s films when they came out. They aren't very different from the Bollywood reviews we get to read in ToI today. Movie reviewers are apt to pay more attention to the social immediacy of a film's themes (its trendiness so to speak) as opposed to its formal excellence.

    For instance, an iffy movie like 3 idiots is currently hogging a lot of attention (even from the good critics) thanks to its subject matter (which would appeal to anyone who has been to college in India recently). In contrast, a narrative crime film like Johnny Gaddaar (a very special film by any standards) is practically forgotten after a couple of weeks in the box-office.

    The best film writing invariably happens only after the dust has settled down on a film.

  3. Also, the key distinction is that when you review a movie upon its release, you're being read by a very large and diverse audience which prompts you to simplify the critique.
    However, when you review the same movie say 10 years later, you're pretty sure you'll be read by a much smaller and a more discerning audience. So, you can afford to be more indulgent and not tone down your writing.

  4. I think there is a void, and in this we need not look at any other tradition of film writing. The way Bollywood has a relationship with the Indian cultural consciousness, how it has influenced and been defined by the cultural trends; it needs to be written about more in that context.

  5. I hear there is a National Film Award for Best Book on Cinema (thanks to the Pachuari headlines). Though the Awards per se have been kind of all over the place are there some good books in there, perhaps in Indian languages (in fact wonder what the state of cinema criticism is say in Hindi, Bengali or Malayalam)?

    Someone on these threads suggested starting an Indian Cahiers du Cinema. There are plenty of immensely pleasurable blogs/websites on film but I can't recall any in India (i.e. like an e-zine, not personal musings). I am not sure if it has to do with the culture per se (as you also suggest) - part of the reason indie films, music bands etc and consequently their analysis, get up so fast, say in the US, is because there is a small but consistent audience I think-for lack of a better description there still remains a definite urban culture interested in offerings outside the mainstream. Without there being a critical mass perhaps it’s just hagiography (unfortunately laudatory insertions are the norm in India in any field) or books intended to fast-track academic careers?

    IMO it is no good to wait around for publishers but carpe diem etc. I think passionforcinema was a good idea to start with but as someone here observed it's all over the place and was in danger of becoming a Anurag Kashyap shrine when I last read it.