Sunday, January 09, 2011

The all-encompassing review, and related thoughts on film writing

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.


  1. Sadly, a significant proportion of movie goers base their choice of a weekend movie on the review they read in the papers.

    Given this mindset, reviewers have a strong incentive to "rate" movies as opposed to just articulate their personal response to it.

    I don't think this can be helped given the constraints on both the reviewer and the movie-goer. Reviewers are constrained by the word-limit whereas movie buffs are constrained by limited leisure which incentivises them to make sure they get "value for time and money".

    Economy of journalistic expression afflicts not just movie-reviewing, but also sport reviews. Neville Cardus could afford to write very graphic descriptions of test cricket as he had a whole newspaper (Manchester Guardian) at his disposal. One can't possibly expect sport journalists today to write in that vein.

  2. What does one do in a film watching culture where a reviewer like Raja Sen of Rediff is constantly heckled for writing 'thesaurus type English' and 'hi-fi things'? Is appreciation of finer film writing going to dawn on Indian readers anytime? And don't reviewers who stick to the basic overview style of reviewing have a reason to do so -- that this is the only style that is accessible to a majority of their readers and that people might even be put off if they make their reviews too, err, hi-fi?

    Just some questions that popped into my head as I read this -- I know you or Baradwaj (or Raja, whose reviews I also enjoy) wouldn't dilute your style even if you had all of one reader left.

  3. Also, the other disturbing trend one observes is that movie goers no longer regard a visit to the movie house as a couple of hours of recreation, but as an investment of sorts that will provide them with enough talking points to impress fellow colleagues on Monday morning.

    Such a mindset increases the craving for the "all-encompassing" review which focuses conveniently more on concrete details than on broader themes and ideas embedded in the narrative.

    This "talking point" mindset also encourages movie buffs to prefer films of a certain type that lend themselves to Monday morning discussions. Eg : Films like Inception and Matrix hog more attention at the box office than say Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream though the latter is just as entertaining.

  4. Interesting set of thoughts.

    In my own reviews - which I have the luxury of writing for my own pleasure, not for an editor or a paycheck - I aim to construct a narrative arc that ties the review together, rather than just listing off observations. And that means, invariably, that some comments or observations I may have in my head about the film will not make it into the review.

    What I try hard not to do is tick off a checklist of points - the leads' performances, check; the songs, check; the major themes, check. Different aspects dominate each movie, and so dominate each review.

    But again, my reviews serve a very different purpose - mostly reviews of older films, often that my readership (such as it is) knows better than I do. I don't have to help sell papers and I don't inform viewer decisionmaking about current cinema. So I have the luxury of being as analytic or focused as I please.

  5. Shrabonti: no real argument with any of that; it's understood that what BR is saying represents the Idealistic/Utopian perspective. By the way, I've written some connected thoughts in my introduction for the Westland film anthology - will share that when I can.

  6. I think its bigger than a reviewer issue-its a movie appreciation issue. Though everybody who watches a movie, unconsciously subjectively analyzes and evaluates it according to themselves, but consciously they still feel responsible towards some objective standards.
    If the average movie goer can be set free of the need to conform they will enjoy movies or for that matter any other work of art without feeling guilty,and they would appreciate the subjective reviews too. I think this has to come from education.

  7. From Biological Conclusion: "How can you claim that a film that you saw in mid-March, the one that made you laugh and cry and reach for stellar superlatives, hasn’t collapsed into a crashing bore by December, and how can you say that the film that you fidgeted through, the one whose essence eluded you at a first viewing, hasn’t grown in stature?"

    Of course he says it much better, but this was kind of what I meant when I said I can't be really sure if I love a movie from one viewing.

    Sorry I went off on a tangent. :)

  8. Baradwaj Rangan is quite annoying. That article you have quoted is so self-congratulatory. He references Cary Grant in his reviews of recent hindi films. I find his punctuations deeply disturbing. These are one man's opinion.

    However, why does he review foreign films based on sub-titles? He even extensively quotes the DVD sub-titles.

  9. A little off-topic but a recent example of film writing that's worth taking a look at is Delhi-based filmmaker Aparna Sanyal's essay on how she made her first film, 'Tedhi Lakeer'. It's a very visual piece... truly written from a filmmaker's perspective. Interesting to see someone make that transition from behind the camera to in front of the word processor.