"Paid Critics" is not an uncommon phrase these days. If we dare to disagree with public perception and popular opinion, we're paid. If we criticize a Khan, we've sold our souls to the enemy camp. If we love a universally hated film – even before it releases – we have been handsomely rewarded (a car, Malabar Hill flat or vintage typewriter) by the producers. Either way, we are hypothetically rich.
But this oft-abused term is not a mythical one. It exists because, at some point of time every month, there possibly are a few film critics or trade analysts that agree to be "treated well" in return for some favourable quotes. I know this because in my stint as the film reviewer of a print daily – the bigger the brand, the murkier the equation – I was "prepositioned" a couple of times. Primarily because there had already existed a culture of certain influencers accepting bribes as a noble gesture of hospitality.
These were unquestionably shady experiences, especially for a young writer completely oblivious to the world of high-profile entertainment journalism. Then there were some moments that went beyond money and power; they were priceless merely for the characters and setting in place.
Here are five such vivid scenes. All of them are alarmingly true, even though they might sound like something straight out of a Madhur Bhandarkar movie called Page 5.
The occasion: A big-budget action flick. The venue: A post-production studio in the heart of Mumbai's cramped suburbs.
One of the producers insisted that I attend a special screening of the film a day before the official press show. The problem was that he didn't call me directly; he informed the office of this grand occasion. Now, most print publications are very greedy and competitive when it comes to publishing film pieces; an exclusive early screening is an opportunity to outpace other publications, because it would mean a Friday review instead of the usual Saturday review. Everyone wants to be the first mover.
What doesn't dawn on most frazzled editors is that such screenings also automatically mean that the makers expect a positive review – an early shot in the PR machinery. This is an unsettling fact I would learn in great detail that night. Because nobody explicitly mentions this; they merely do things that just suggest it. Flimsy metaphors and smirks are thrown around.
When I reached, I was ushered into large "lounge area" by bodyguards, after a valet offered to take good care of my vulnerable 15-year-old car. There was no other critic, just friends and family of the producers. I was introduced to most of them (read: paraded around as the "man who can make or break our film"), before being told that dinner would be served before the film. However, nobody else moved to the buffet counters that appeared magically out of nowhere. A producer, who was under the impression that my name was "Dear," forced me to try their special paani-puris. Everyone else watched me intently. The room fell silent. The pressure was intense.
I ate a few; they seemed fairly standard. The man then winked to the handler, who then dipped the puri into a separate brass bowl. Within seconds, I could feel neat vodka assaulting my unprepared nostrils and destroying any prior sensation of chutney. "We have rum bhelpuri also," the producer proudly declared. I quickly retreated and insisted on sitting inside the violently purple hall. As I waited for the film to begin, I had to shoo away at least three waiters with various concoctions of potent cocktails.
They wanted me to get drunk to appreciate what would be an awful movie. Just as the lights were about to dim, a nice middle-aged lady was about to settle in the seat next to me. Finally some civilized respite, I thought. In a second though, she disappeared to an invisible area behind my seat. "Sir said you needed a head massage," her cheery voice prompted from the dark…
It was one of the worst films I'd ever seen – at least that week. Nobody had heard of it. Not even the director's family must have been aware of this sinfully surgical strike on mankind. I was perhaps the only newspaper critic at the preview. The hall itself was part of an obscure industrial estate. The PR chap insisted on sitting next to me during the film to explain to me the "intent" of some incoherent dialogues because the dubbing was off (!).
As soon as it finished, I bolted towards the exit, which was then followed by a clueless bolt towards one of the estate's many complex entry and exit points. I heard footsteps after a minute. They sounded familiar. Pointed boots. Aforementioned PR man had sprinted to catch up with me. He asked me if I liked the film. I was speechless. He asked me if I would review it. Hell yes, I said, because I'm in the middle of nowhere for this. And then he shook my hand, trying to slide to me a wet envelope.
It took me a full second to realize that I'm being bribed. He left it half-open so that some notes would show. My first instinct, oddly, was not just to back off but also to look around at the dense bushes and see if I was being methodically framed – a strategically positioned photographer could have well snapped me shaking the hand of a shady man and his envelope of cash. The crippling insecurities of a writer…
First, a man insisted he was one of the executive producers of the film. Minutes before the screening, he popped open his (very Dubai-looking) briefcase and casually handed me a brown box. After seeing me recoil as if I had seen the world's most lethal atomic bomb (or the worst film, over the next two hours), he addressed me as "darling". Assuring me that this box – with a gold-plated Rolex – was one of the many "surplus" items he bought in Dubai (I knew it!), he said I should gift it perhaps to my "old" parents.
The generous man told me about how writers must always "know the time" in life, at which point I felt like he was a metaphor-spewing Tinu Anand and I was a wary and doomed Naseeruddin Shah in Chamatkar. Later, of course, my parents wondered what they had done wrong to bring up a son who didn't appreciate pure gold. If only they had known they were referred to as "old" by a man visibly older than them…
The industrial estate, again. This was probably the closest I got to being abducted – I think. As I walked to my car across the dark street, I noticed the front tire punctured. It had started to rain heavily, too. I could sense Vikram Bhatt directing me in one of his (non-erotic) horror films. A torch light flashed on my face; it was a polite PR person. He had been absolutely gentlemanly during the screening.
He tut-tutted a bit, mourned the death of decency, and then told me he had arranged for a taxi to take me home. How did he know I had a flat tire? The taxi – a Mercedes Benz – arrived. Was this Germany? How does one react to such a situation? He then assured me, in a frightfully calm voice, that I didn't need to go home because of the rough weather. He could "book a hotel room" instead.
The clincher was when he mentioned that there had been a mysterious animal attack on a cyclist at this spot two nights ago. In two minutes, I was drenched, on a cramped bus, headed in an opposite direction. It wasn't close to home, but more importantly, it was an escape from that darned estate. The next morning, my car was still there. But the tire, oddly, wasn't flat anymore…
I visited the restroom thrice before the screening, because it was delayed by two hours at a suburban multiplex. The chief guests ranged from Rakhi Sawant and Kamaal R. Khan to rejected Roadies contestants. Needless to mention, alcohol was being served. Much was needed. I downed three glasses of wine because it was midnight and we were no closer to a resolution.
But each time I was in the loo, I would see the same vocal bunch of buffed-up boys speaking glowingly about the masterpiece in store for us. They seemed to be looking at me, but "talking" to each other. It was uncanny. One of them even mentioned the "difficult shooting process" and the great determination and vision of the skilled director.
They spoke loudly, almost reviewing it for anyone who cared to nurse a weak bladder; not even noisy flushes could drown out their enthusiasm. None of them actually washed their hands. Later on, when I hailed a rickshaw in the middle of the night after the (nonsensical) film, I saw those boys entering a car with the head of the film's PR campaign.