In a recent interview Filmmaker Anjali Menon spoke about it the need to educate film critics about the different techniques of filmmaking. Her comments sparked a flurry of heated reactions on social media, and she later clarified in a social media post that professional film criticism would benefit from a better understanding of filmmaking. She added that since audiences today write detailed and interesting reviews themselves, professional film critics should aim higher. But Menon is not the first to make this argument. Several other filmmakers, including Vetrimaaran and Mysskin, have spoken of the need to have “qualified critics”.
These arguments seem rather strange. First, there is no clarity and consensus as to what might truly make a critic “qualified.” And if the argument is really valid, then you should be able to use the same argument against filmmakers and demand that only qualified filmmakers are allowed to make films. This could then lead to our cinemas hardly seeing a release.
Like filmmaking, film criticism is a work of art. Just as a filmmaker reacts to an emotion or thought in life and communicates it through his cinema, a critic also reacts through his emotions and thoughts in his articulation. This requires filmmakers and film critics to deal honestly with their art. As long as film critics are completely honest about what they see on screen, they’re doing a good job.
However, that doesn’t mean the quality of today’s film reviews is top-notch. The first serious deficiency lies in the homogeneity of the opinions. Because most film critics come from similar socio-economic backgrounds, they all react similarly to a particular film. It’s amusing that even their choice of words is often the same. “Deliciously evil,” “charmingly delightful,” or “hilarious and heartwarming” are some of the terms critics from different media houses use for the same film.
While cinema is consumed by the masses, film criticism, particularly in English, has remained a domain of the elite. This extreme lack of diversity among film critics has actually forced readers to look to social media for fresher voices.
The second problem lies in the race for the fastest rating. Trying to compete with social media writers and other media houses, critics rush to post their review first. Film criticism today is written, published and forgotten at a literal breakneck speed. Unfortunately, this has forced critics to rely on simple and reliable review templates that allow very little time or space to think about a film and write thoughtful insights. The reviews are superficial because they remain a reaction and not a reflection.
The third question relates to how a film’s sophistry of political correctness is presented as a valid form of film criticism today. While this form of outrage initially found some readers, it has now reached a saturation point. What readers are looking for in criticism is political understanding and not a barometer of political correctness. A film critic should be able to turn his anger into thoughtful criticism. Simply outraging films and dismissing them as “toxic” or “problematic” isn’t criticism—just laziness disguised as loudness.
Another problem lies in the complicated relationship between film critics and filmmakers. They find themselves in a bind in their quest not only to review or criticize films, but also to interview filmmakers, actors, and other technicians. Interviews require critics to be cordial with filmmakers. And that often influences what they can or cannot say about the films.
The work of film critics does not depend on certification by filmmakers. It depends on the trust that the readers place in them. We live in the streaming era, where a movie’s shelf life extends far beyond its theatrical release. In order for film criticism to have life beyond the weekend, critics should offer honest, unique, and thoughtful writing, not just focus on putting their face on written or video reviews.
The author is a Chennai-based writer and filmmaker