Thought Post: Ishtar and Indian Film, Critical Prejudice, Toxic Work Environments

I saw Ishtar! My Dad’s pick on Saturday night. And it is really really funny. If you don’t follow Hollywood films that closely, Ishtar is a punchline shorthand for “terrible over-budget disastrous film”. And more recently, it has been considered as shorthand for “misogyny in how the American film industry works”. The whole thing is just an interesting situation and an interesting case study for what is happening right now with Hindi film.

Elaine May was a very very smart young woman who always went her own way. She came from a performing family, left home at 16, ended up auditing classes at the University of Chicago where a fellow student Mike Nichols noticed her quick wit, they became comedy partners and within a few years were the biggest comic act in America (she was also married, divorced, and had a daughter during this time). Then split up and started going their own way. Mike Nichols become a top successful Hollywood director, made classic after classic. Elaine May kept performing but mostly became a writer. She landed in Hollywood too and started being a script doctor along with making a couple of movies herself as a director. A wide circle of friends would come to her when their projects were in trouble and she would work her brilliant magic and make their scripts genius. Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman both brought projects to her, Reds and Tootsie, and she fixed them. And then Beatty promised her that he would produce and star in a movie she could write and direct, finally complete creative control to do just what she wanted.

Happy Birthday Elaine May: Watch this Classic Nichols & May Sketch ...

Elaine May wrote her script, planned the shoot, brought in Hoffman as the other star, and the first part on location in New York went fine, and then the cast and crew moved to Morocco for the second part of the shoot because the studio had money trapped in Morocco they needed to spend there, and it all started to go wrong. The cinematographer disagreed with how May wanted to shoot, he started complaining to Beatty. The set designer didn’t like May either, he also started complaining to Beatty. The lead actress Isabelle Adjani also complained to Beatty about not liking to work with May and he started working with her individually and avoiding May. At the same time, everyone was talking to everyone about this shoot. It was in Morocco, and yet somehow everyone back in America knew it was a disaster, knew little details of what had happened, and were taking sides against May. Morocco was a disaster in general, there were no experienced film workers available, it was hard to get a crew or even extras, there were rumors of rebels wanting to attack the shot, everything was hard. Plus any additional supplies they needed were ruinously expensive, had to be hand delivered from New York since the Moroccan shipments weren’t trustworthy. They returned to New York for a final schedule, where the crew already hired for the Moroccan shoot had to be doubled by a New York crew because of union rules, doubling the cost. At this point, Beatty was telling people that May “couldn’t direct” but he couldn’t fire her because she was a woman and it would look bad. He also insisted on directing scenes himself, meaning they all had to be shot twice, once May’s way and once Beatty’s. Finally the film was finished, and it was time for editing. The power struggle continued, Hoffman, Beatty, and May each had their own team of editors and each made their own version. Beatty finally okayed May’s version because he said the film was already a disaster and he wanted to be sure people knew it was her fault. Hoffman, on the other hand, called it a good movie he would be happy to make again. He had also acted as the go-between for Beatty and May on set.

Okay, first thing I find fascinating is the way movies can be these unique professional pressure-cookers that turn relationships toxic and reveal the little micro-aggressions around them. Beatty and May were close friends, so long as his needs came first (she wrote scripts for him). He saw this movie as a “gift”, as a great generosity on his part, not actually respecting her as an artist and wanting to work with her. Once the shoot started, he immediately disrespected her and allowed the disrespect to grow as the powerful men on the set (cinematographer, set designer) began talking behind her back, agreeing she was incompetent, and then turning around and spreading the gossip in America. He put himself as “protector” of the only other woman on set, young and pretty and far less powerful than him, and set May as her “enemy”. This isn’t unique to film exactly, I don’t think it only happens in movies, but you are talking about an industry in which all projects are short term, meaning project by project the power dynamic shifts between friends. And you are also talking about an industry in which it is extremely hard to predict the end product while you are working on it. In this case, Beatty (and the other men on set) reacted badly to working for a woman, and therefore lost faith in the end product before May even had a chance to prove herself.

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Making nice at the premiere, after Beatty had already badmouthed her to everyone he could find.

And this brings me (finally!) to Hindi film. The first thing that occurs to me is that, for whatever reason, I have not heard this exact story about female directors in India. We don’t hear about them being “emotional”, about the men on set needing to step in and save them, anything like that. The idea of a woman in charge is not a problem once it is actually happening and folks are on set doing it. Maybe because it is even more rare? Like, if a woman director is given a project, that means everyone involved must really really believe in her?

Second thing that occurs to me is that I have heard that issue of two friends and power adjustment more in Indian film than in Hollywood. Maybe because it is such a “friendly” industry? Shahrukh and Farah balanced friendship and business beautifully with Main Hoon Na and Om Shanti Om. It was Farah’s vision and Farah’s film, but Shahrukh was the star and producer so he could show up late to work, and ask for the little action sequence he wanted. Farah was enormously grateful to him for the opportunities, Shahrukh was excited by her vision. And then Om Shanti Om became a massive hit and things shifted, Farah wanted Shahrukh for her next movie, he made her wait, she started a different project without him, he was hurt, and on and on. It’s hard working with friends, especially when you reach a point where instead of both feeling like you owe the other person, you start to feel like the other person owes you.

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After Tubelight failed, Salman went from being friends with Kabir Khan and requesting him for projects, to cutting him out. It felt extra harsh because of the combination of friendship between the two and creative collaboration, suddenly the professional and personal relationship were both gone. In a different kind of industry structure Kabir would have been simply a professional contractor whose last project with him failed, and so Salman chose not to work with him again. Is it better to be like Shahrukh and Farah where the friendship stretches and stretches and then snaps because of the reluctance to take a firm professional stand? Or like Salman and Kabir where the professional and personal were both ended at once?

That’s just some things to think about, women directors and how they are undercut differently in America versus India, friends and colleagues and how that works and the power can shift, I am sure there is more!

Now, second half to consider with this case study! Pre-release press coverage and its effect on reviews. The studio allowed a lot of stories to get out, and Beatty and his gang of men did plenty of gossiping as well. By the time the film released, every review began by describing the filming disaster and expense, and then went on to trounce the film. There wasn’t even an attempt to deal with it as it’s own thing, or to consider that May might have had a clear vision. One thing that leaps out at me is that one of the few even handed reviews was written by a woman, while the men jumped to the simple easy answer that fit with their subconscious prejudices.

This was in a transition time in American film coverage and reviewing. The total control of the studio era was gone, now the new norm was on set access and interesting conversations with free thinking artists about their Vision. But this meant both that the press was overly trusting of everything they were told (it must be “true” because it was coming straight from sources on set, not PR machines), and hadn’t figured out how to separate that “truth” from their reactions to the film. The smart film savvy folks were all reading insider coverage of filming, were forming their expectations before the film released, and then turning around and pushing those expectations onto the less savvy folks who trusted them.

Hell's Video Store - Imgur
Gary Larsson is such a stand up guy, he actually apologized for this cartoon after he got around to watching Ishtar. He assumed it was bad, then saw it for himself and liked it. He blindly trusted the people who “knew” and he shouldn’t have.

That isn’t the case with American film now. Both because stories from sets are far more tightly controlled, and because there is now an expectation that reviews will start with the end result and work backwards, instead of starting with the process and moving forward. But it sure sounds a lot like Hindi film coverage and criticism now, doesn’t it???

With Ishtar, pre-release there were all those stories of over-spending and incompetence on set. The critics rushed to buy into the narrative of the woman over her head, the crazy Hollywood spending creating a terrible movie (versus the low budget high quality films they preferred). They spoke almost with one voice against the movie, and even the star/producer of the film agreed with them. It wasn’t critical distance, it was groupthink. Not just “this is a bad movie”, but a whole unarguably series of facts that lead to that conclusion. Elaine May didn’t know what she was doing, the movie filming process was a disaster, therefore this HAS to be a bad movie.

And now I am looking at the disaster that is Hindi film criticism, and I am seeing a similar pattern. There is a series a whole series of events that are considered as part of reviewing the film, beyond the actual film. Is it the same or different from the last film of the people in it? Is it a new genre or an old one? And so on and so forth. That’s not just part of the review, it’s the headline, the starting point.

Let’s talk about this! The way critics are susceptible to certain narratives, the way they are influenced by all kinds of “facts” leading up to a film’s release, the way those “facts” are trusted despite coming from sources with their own agendas, it’s all interesting!

What are the narratives Hindi film critics like and are susceptible too? What are the kind of “facts” that reviewers might accept without question and allow to influence their reviews (for example, that Karan Johar only casts no talent star kids)? Will there be an adjustment eventually, reviewers realizing that they are messing up and changing their standards?

3 thoughts on “Thought Post: Ishtar and Indian Film, Critical Prejudice, Toxic Work Environments

  1. I’ll have to think about your questions a bit, but had to pop in to say Ishtar is legit one of my favorites; I can’t get anyone else to watch it ever; and the behind the scenes story here is fascinating. I watched it because the video store in my town didn’t have much stuff, and then I watched it three more times. The songs are so hilarious and the scene where Dustin Hoffman is pretending to be a translator is hysterical.

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    • Yes! It’s legitimately good! I feel so much like Jab Harry Met Sejal about it, both movies it is easy to make fun of if you decide you are going to make fun of them, and everyone has decided that is what you should do. But they are actually good movies! there’s truly nothing wrong with them, we’ve just been convinced there is.

      On Tue, May 19, 2020 at 1:06 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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