I started out writing a different post, but halfway through I discovered something really interesting when I looked at the reviewer aggregate information on Rotten Tomatoes. The state of Indian film reviewing is way more f’ed up than I realized.
Shahrukh gave a speech at the Critic’s Awards that was clear and deeply felt and pretty convincing, and it argued that film critics need to elevate their art and the art they critique, and not reduce either of them to simple star ratings (full speech and transcript here). In response, Anupama made the decision to stop using star ratings on her website Film Companion and, from the way the announcement was worded, it sounds like Bardwaj Rangan who works with her has been pushing for this for a while. He, combined with Shahrukh, convinced her to make the change. And now all the problems of film reviewing in India are fixed! Right?
I started to write this post about the problem with using stars and some concept of abstract grading and I was going to use the website rottentomatoes.com as an example to prove my point, since it takes star ratings and turns them into some kind of percentage score. But then I did a little research and discovered that Rotten Tomatoes is actually GREAT!!!! It’s not based on star ratings, each reviewer gets to decide for themselves and submit a “fresh” or “rotten” score. Plus, the reviewer’s answers get a higher or lower value based on their worth as a reviewer (Roger Ebert has more power than some random reviewer for a local newsletter). Most importantly, they provide short excerpts of the reviews for you to look at so you, the consumer, can determine whether you agree with the bad or good reviews. I started by looking at American films on Rotten Tomatoes and discovered that their ratings were useful and generally correct. There were a few problems, mostly with older lessor known films which were released before the site was founded so there weren’t enough reviews for a strong consensus. But classic films had classic ratings, new films had good or bad ratings, it was all useful. And then just for fun I looked up a few recent Indian releases and discovered that any problem we thought Indian film reviewers had was just the tip of the iceberg.
I looked up the ratings for some of the more reviewed films for the past year. Stree received a 77% rating while Badhai Ho received a 90%. Andhadhun received a 100% rating. Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga received a 67% rating. Raazi received a 100% rating. Veere Di Wedding is at 55%. Jab Harry Met Sejal is at 10%. Baaghi 2 is at 30%. Total Dhamaal is at 33%. Tiger Zinda Hai is at 70%. Kalank received a 37%.
Look at that list, and think about it. Is that a list that reflects accurately the quality of those individual movies, or is it a list that reflects the prejudices and blindness of the Indian film reviewers? If you make a movie with few, or no, song sequences, a movie set among the educated middle-class, a movie filmed in a “realistic” manner, and a movie with no big stars, you will get a good review. If you make a fantasy style film with songs, you will get a bad review. Doesn’t matter if it is Baaghi 2 or Veere Di Wedding or Kalank, if it is something that the educated English film watching class of India can’t relate to, the reviews will be bad.
Now think about if you are using reviews to decide if it is “worth it” to watch a movie, if you will enjoy the film. The Indian public loved Baaghi 2 and Total Dhamaal, reviewers hated them. I’ll go back in time a bit, Badlapur received a 91% rating among Indian reviewers, the Indian public hated it. If you are looking to Indian film reviews to help you decide if you will like a movie…You shouldn’t. Reviewers in India are failures at helping the audience find the films they might enjoy. They are completely disconnected from the common audience.
That’s from the side of bad reviews, let’s consider those “100%” reviews too. In general, a 100% rating is a rare bird. People write their opinions, their personal reaction to a film. If it is a very very good movie, for instance Avengers: Endgame, it might reach as high as a 98% review. But there is always a minority opinion, that 2% keeping it from perfect. In India, apparently, a 100% rating is common. How is that possible? That each person on their own reaches the exact same conclusion? Multiple times? It’s literally unbelievable. For comparison, currently Sholay has a 90% rating on rotten tomatoes. Casablanca is at 97%. And yet Raazi and Andhadhun are better than both those movies?
More likely, what we are seeing is critical peer pressure. Everyone waits to see what everyone else thinks and then goes along with it. There is a “right” answer for a film review, and you had better make sure your review is “right”. 100% tells me people are cheating, they are looking at each other’s answers, just as surely as if I were a teacher and everyone in the class got 100% on an exam. And Jab Harry Met Sejal receiving 10% tells me the same thing. There is no way every reviewer in India agreed to the point of giving a 10% rating to Jab Harry Met Sejal when even Munna Michael incited some difference of opinion, enough to get it up to 50%.
The bigger a film is, the more it is talked about, the less likely that the reviews are fair or accurate. Munna Michael got 50%, which seems about right to me. It’s not a great movie, I would give it a C grade or lower, but it is fun for some people. Thugs of Hindostan, with the groundbreaking action sequence, amazing cast, decent songs, and everything else, got only 23%. Because “everyone” knew about it, and therefore “everyone” decided together it was a bad movie. There was no time or space to make up your own mind.
Let me back up. I am saying the end result tells me these reviewers are worthless. But let’s look at exactly how they are worthless. A decent film review should have three levels to it:
- There are some objective ways to consider any film from any genre. Camerawork, editing, script, acting, and (in Indian films) dancing and music. There will still be differences of opinion between reviewers on those particular elements, but before anything else those should be considered by the reviewer. Kalank, for instance, had so-so acting and two good song sequences and two kind of boring ones. That is besides the genre of the film or who is starring in it or anything else, that is simply the film itself and how it should be judged
- The next thing to consider is whether the film succeeded in achieving whatever its particular goal is. Jab Harry Met Sejal was trying to make a dreamy internal character piece, and it succeeded in that goal. Thugs of Hindostan was trying to make a fun exciting adventure movie, and it failed.
- And then you should put on your own personal spin on how you feel about the film. You can acknowledge that Thugs of Hindostan was flawed in the script and songs, but that you really love adventure movies and think Indian films should go “bigger” and therefore you like this film. That is what sets you apart, makes you a writer and a reviewer instead of a plagiarist and a weather vane for general opinions.
Indian reviewers tend to fail on all three levels, but most especially the final one. The best Indian reviewers pass that first basic level okay. They discuss acting, script, etc. The basic building blocks of a film. But the middle step, considering and understanding the goal of the film, is very rarely achieved. We can see that in the percent ratings. Baaghi 2 and Badhaai Ho had very different purposes as art, and they achieved their purposes equally well. And yet Baaghi 2 was punished for the genre to which it belonged while Badhaai Ho was celebrated. And then there is the final level, which is where Indian reviewers do not even seem to understand what they are supposed to be doing. There is no “right” answer at this point. There is a right answer possible in the previous two levels, if you say that Andhadhun had bad camerawork, you are just wrong. If you say Toilet Ek Prem Katha is not politically motivated, you are also wrong. But there is no one “right” answer once you reach the point of personal opinion.
Most Indian reviewers seem to start at the end. Their opinion should be that this film is “good” or this film is “bad”. Okay, start with that, then ignore or criticize all elements of filming, miss-state the goal of the film in order to make it appear to have missed that goal, and finally give a fun punchy summary of your opinion that just happens to match the opinion of every other reviewer in India (that’s how readers know it is “right”).
Calling October only a love story will be injustice to its resilient tone. It’s a battle, both inter-personal and intra-personal. It’s not about logic or wise decisions, it’s about how far can you go for the things you believe in.
Jab Harry Met Sejal is absolutely banal with some hummable tunes. It’s a big disappointment to see Shah Rukh Khan returning to his comfort zone and yet not performing at the top of his powers….Pritam’s songs can do some patchwork, but nothing can rescue this 143-minute of lethargic storytelling.
(The same kind of film, the same elements of the film, but in one it is “resilient” and in the other it is “lethargic”. Because one film “everyone” knows is good and therefore you should only find good things in it, and the other “everyone” knows is bad and therefore you should only find bad things in it)
And now you are going to say “but, what if it is so obvious that everyone will notice the same thing?” If it is obvious, you shouldn’t be spending your review talking about it. Ek Ladki Ko Dekha had a groundbreaking political message. No duh, talk about that for two sentences and move on because everyone else is going to be saying the exact same thing. Or at the very least, try to put a new spin on how you discuss it. With Indian reviews in particular, the thing everyone tends to talk about is the star. Jab Harry Met Sejal is Shahrukh doing the same old romance. Every review said that. Why even bother reading separate reviews if they are just going to say the same thing? And the thing that is most obvious to me just from hearing about the movie?
The bottom line is, if Indian film had a real critical community working today, then there would be some kind of diversity of opinion present. 100% agreement is not telling me there is a rich and fulfilling critical community, it is telling me there are a few intelligent original thinkers and a bunch of people copying off of them. And even those few intelligent original thinkers have painfully predictable opinions.
What’s especially irritating is that Indian film has such an amazing diversity of talent, genre, and style. The critics seem to be driving all of Indian film to become one thing, small character based star-less and song-less films. Why would you want to delete massive sections of Indian film in order to create one small perfect thing just for yourselves? And when an artist tries to open film up again, whether it is Raabta (14% rating) or Mubarakan (33%), he is punished and driven back into his box
At this point, just getting rid of the star rating isn’t going to do it. The best solution I can come up with is for those few decent reviewers to realize the hellscape they are working within and adjust accordingly. First, most importantly, try to adjust your personal views to be more universal. If you personally hate love stories, suck it up and try to pretend you like them when you are reviewing a romance. Because whatever you say isn’t just going be your personal take on things, it is going to be the only acceptable “right” answer. If you are an editor (Anupama, for instance) maybe force two different writers to do one positive and one negative review, just so there is some conflict. Most of all, try to understand that there is no one “right” kind of film, no one “right” style of film, and no one “right” opinion on films. Shahrukh said that films aren’t hotels and can’t be rated. I would add that films aren’t standardized tests and everyone shouldn’t give the same answer.