‘Into each life some rain must fall’ wrote the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Similarly, in every film critic’s life, some contrarian passions must arise – that is when the critic finds him or herself as among the very few who love a film. Every once in a while, you discover that you, the filmmaker and his/her friends and relatives are perhaps the only people to enjoy a movie, get its layers and be dazzled by what has been created. The rest of the world thinks it’s an epic bore.
For example, Kalank – I thought the film was overwrought and bloated but watchable. I’ve always been a sucker for pretty people in pretty clothes grappling with matters of the heart. But others – my fellow critics and audiences – felt otherwise. My biggest detour from popular opinion was, of course, Befikre – Aditya Chopra’s 2016 Parisian romance. The film has a 33 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I really enjoyed it. I thought Aditya tried to reinvent himself and Ranveer Singh was dynamite. Three years later, I’m still getting trolled for that review. My favorite comment was – ‘Befikre review is your kryptonite’. The last time I met Aditya, he smiled and said, ‘you got more flack for Befikre than I did.’
The opposite also happens – sometimes a critic is the lone voice raging against a film that is universally loved. Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan hated Titanic, which became the first film to gross more than one billion dollars globally. Turan wrote that ‘it was so bad that it almost makes you weep in frustration.’ He said that the film’s screenplay was the “worst script ever written.’ Director James Cameron responded with an open letter in the same paper, saying that these words were ‘the vitriolic ravings of a bitter man,’ and that Turan ‘has forgotten, if he ever knew, the role of a senior critic for a large urban newspaper.’ Cameron’s piece ended with the line – ‘Forget about Clinton. How do we impeach Kenneth Turan?’
New York Times critic A. O Scott was similarly singed in 2012 when he was less than enamoured by The Avengers. He wrote that the film’s failures ‘were significant and dispiriting.’ In response, Samuel L. Jackson AKA Nick Fury, posted on Twitter: ‘#Avengers fans, NY Times critic AO Scott needs a new job! Let’s help him find one! One that he can ACTUALLY do!’
Being contrarian is of course much harder in the age of social media. When it’s a highly anticipated, big budget film, a critic gets hate no matter the position. Whether you like or dislike a film, someone will accuse you of being paid, compromised, biased or just plain stupid. The fan armies move into motion and the trolling goes into overdrive – especially if you are pontificating a Khan film. It is no longer possible to discuss Aamir, Salman or Shah Rukh without some devotee virtually lunging at your throat.
Twitter also feeds, what Mahesh Bhatt, calls ‘the tyranny of taste.’ Within a few hours, you get a sense of which way the wind is blowing and every negative or positive comment fans another. But here’s the thing – a response to a film is deeply personal. It emerges from your deepest core, your sensibility and your circumstances. Like in the wonderful Pixar film Ratatouille, when the food critic Anton Ego tastes the rat chef Remy’s ratatouille, it transports him to his childhood and his mother’s cooking. Who could have anticipated that?
I think it’s important for a critic to speak his or her mind, without flinching in the face of virtual mobs or majority consensus. We are discussing films, not facts. There is no right or wrong here. What matters is how persuasive your argument for or against the film is. Over the years, I’ve had several Befikre moments. I was, I suspect, the only one in the country to enjoy Ram Gopal Varma’s Daud (1997). I was also among the handful who liked Once Upon a Time in Mumbai Dobaara! (2013). After which, a stranger in a hotel lobby walked up to me and mournfully said – ‘bas, ab aap pe bharosa nahin raha.’
But as poet Emily Dickinson wrote and later, Woody Allen and Selena Gomez co-opted: the heart wants what it wants. My first response to a film is my truth and I can’t change that, whether it fits or fails with the opinion at large. The rest is noise.