By Monojit Lahiri

This is an age-old irritatingly pertinent quandary, forever triggering endless debates with no conclusive results! Films that floor critics leave the masses cold. Films that blow the crowd are usually detested by the critics. Critics feel that the mass audience should rise and shine from the cinematic hell that they reside in (and enjoy), awaken to good taste and embrace a cinema that goes beyond the usual, predictable, clichéd cornball, populist entertainment forever catering to the lowest common denominator. The howling mobs – Public – for their turn feel (like Vidya Balan’s deathless words in Dirty Picture) that movies are first and last about: entertainment, entertainment and entertainment! Anything deep, meaningful, grim, slow, attempting to realistically depict the human condition is rubbish!
Theatre and film director Feroz Abbas Khan finds this debate fascinating enough to take first strike and offers his educated opinion. “There are two aspects to this discourse and they deal with time past and time present. Earlier on – across the sixties to the early eighties – mainstream commercial cinema coming out of B-town were consistently ridiculed by critics of hugely-circulated, English language publications. Middle of the road and art house cinema was praised to the skies. Interestingly, the readers of these critiques may not have necessarily been influenced enough to avoid the films under fire, but they enjoyed the witty sarcasm and patronising put-downers because somewhere, they seem to have felt as privileged peoples co-opted into that arty space, making them (at least momentarily) cultured, intellectual and superior.” All this changed, Khan believes, around the mid-eighties when marketing, selling and moolah took precedence over editorial clout, savagely marginalising, even eliminating, any cultural aspect to the newspaper business. Overnight, equations too changed between publications and showbiz when opportunities for mutual benefits were identified and explored in full measure. That marked the end of the snooty, hoity-toity critic of yesteryears and the beginning of a new era, where – in keeping with consumerist times – strategic alliance was the name of the game. Give n’ take. The Art and Culture space, due to this shift, obviously took a huge hit, because it completely slung to the back-burner (along with the smart Alecs) some genuinely great, evolved critics whose commentary and insights entertained and informed as much as they enriched. Now, Khan adds that space has mostly been trivialised with uninformed hacks, flashing trendy language and weird perspectives, desperately anxious to impress new-age readers seeking instant gratification. Also, promotion, marketing, PR and networking has become critical with serious funds and professional services allocated to it. “At the end of the day, it’s true that each film is destined to find its own audience, but with the system being what it is, the worth of a film can only come from the audience once it reaches them. Right now, it seems that for people like us (small-budget) film-makers, the journey to our audience is a nightmare.” Eminent dancer-actress Mamata Shankar – daughter of the legendary dancer Uday Shankar – is very clear that “It’s the audience that counts, not the critics!” The gifted actress who has worked with most top film-makers of Bengal (Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Gautam Ghosh, Rituparno Ghosh) is categorical about the fact that movies are meant for the audience – not critics, film festivals or awards. They are by-products. “For me, if a film touches my heart, reaches out and makes a difference, it’s a good film. It may not necessarily be deep, complex, nuanced and subtle but simply an engaging narrative that provides great viewing.” While the veteran actress admits that critics indeed do have a role, she laments that there are so few in numbers. “I find it alarming that critics today are either into an arrangement, sold out or too preoccupied in exhibiting their academic and scholastic gyan while reviewing a simple, sweet film. Not required! Isn’t it their job to show us what we haven’t seen – and they have with their greater insightful knowledge of cinema – and thus leave us more educated and fulfilled? How many do that? For me, unfashionable and pleb as it may sound, people’s verdict is almost always what matters most.”
Eminent critic Ayesha Sen begs to differ. She feels it depends on which audience, critics and films one is talking about. “It cannot be a one-size-fits-all situation, because today there are films and films and films, a diverse audience and different kinds of critics. Any zombie knows that films are made for an audience – its not a private secret calling to be shared with your granny and dog! – but an Udaan, Japanese Wife or Raincoat hardly has the same audience as Yeh Jaawani Hai Deewani, Dabangg or Race 2! Nor is it conceived, executed, pitched and promoted the same way, by the film makers, critics or trade. Different strokes for different folks … so are they/should they be ignored, side-tracked or dismissed because they didn’t hit the Rs 100 crore club? Many of the classics – Kaagaz ke phool – for example – didn’t resonate with the public of that era (but later were declared classics). Should they be rubbished? Popular acclaim and Box office response are hardly any indication of a film’s true worth except in commercial terms. Ray’s classics, put together, don’t make a tenth of any Karan Johar potboilers, so should they be forgotten and Kabhi Khushi or Kabhi Alvida celebrated? As for critics, they have truly become an endangered species, but the really (rare) good ones can – and do – provide soul-uplifting experiences that are cathartic eye-openers for the ignorant everyday viewer unfamiliar with sub-text, shadings or nuance. So at the end of the day, might is not right, a show of hands doesn’t prove excellence and masses mostly are a***s, totally tunnel-viewed – due to conditioning – into cheap, populist entertainment!”
I remember having a conversation with actor Rahul Bose a few years ago, where I asked him which he coveted more – critical appreciation from the evolved and knowledgeable or Box office acclaim and he, point blank, admitted he rooted for the first! Sniggered a star, “No wonder he is where he is and his films, where they are: niche films seen by niche audience comprising Festival-walas, critics and audience suffering from delusions of intellectual grandeur! Boss, films are made and meant for audience.” Sure, every film can’t invite mega-footfalls but they can at least attract ‘their’ kind of audience ensuring both appreciation and ROI. To look down on popular acclaim and mass approval and immediately brand them sadak chhaap and lousy is unfair, indicating complex, envy and lack of knowledge about how the system works. Also, critical acclaim, (while a great ego-massager and raising stakes in one’s private intellectual circles, like awards at film festivals) does nothing for popular connect. So one continues splashing around in that small pond, happy with niche shabashis, totally ignored by the world. Is that good? Doesn’t the actor want to move out into a bigger space?
Actor Sonam Kapoor recently went on record stating any actor denying that is ‘lying!’ Brash, sweeping and irresponsible as it may sound – especially coming from a person renowned mostly for grinning and posing as a L’Oreal model on the Cannes Red Carpet – the young lady however seems to have a point. Be it the ultimate Actor’s Actor Naseer Shah or even today’s Irfaan Khan, both have acknowledged that the desire to be known and popular comes with the territory. While critical appreciation is intellectually satisfying and creatively fulfilling, being mobbed is a feeling that is overwhelming and few can deny that … and that comes from the masses! Ultimately to each his own, but the last words must come from a telling piece of dialogue in the Oscar-winner, My week with Marylyn, where one of the performers says to the actor playing Lord Olivier, the problem is that stars forever want to be actors … and actors, stars. There is always that small, sneaking feeling of inadequacy that they haven’t really gone the distance, been truly challenged, explored and exploited to demonstrate their hidden reservoirs of talent. Don’t believe it? Check out Disco-dancer Mithun Chakravarty doing art and off-beat films and getting National Awards, Naseer Shah doing Oye-Oye in the pot-boiler Tridev and getting [startled] shabashis, SRK doing Swadesh and Chak De, Om Puri doing all those corny comic capers in endless masala movies, Bipasha doing films with Rituparno Ghosh and Prakash Jha, a planet away from her jism-shows, Kareena doing Omkara, Priyanka doing Saat Khoon Maaf … the list is endless.
So, it’s really a tough one to crack and best left to where it came from … the critics and the audience. Your take is, as always, welcome!

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