It took a star to take out the stars. The former is Shah Rukh Khan, who gently railed against the latter, today’s near-ubiquitous system of rating a movie. Films aren’t hotels, he said, at the first annual Film Critics Guild awards night. Some of us squirmed. He’s so right. The review’s headline is itself an instant summation of what the critic thought about a film. Take Kalank. The headline for Anupama Chopra’s review was: “The Artificiality Works Because The Emotions Feel Real”. The headline for Rahul Desai’s review went: “The Film Is Consumed By Its Commitment To Beauty And Boredom”. That’s all the reader requires, really. Anupama kinda-sorta liked the film, so if you use her as your guide to movie-watching, then maybe you want to give Kalank a shot. Or if Rahul is your go-to critic for movie-related decisions, then maybe you want to skip it. How does the additional aspect of a star rating add any value? You know Anupama’s verdict. You know Rahul’s verdict. Why do you actually need to see this verdict in the form of stars?
This is a question that has nagged at me for long, even if I’ve grudgingly given in to star ratings. I’ve had no choice, as the companies I worked for decided to have them. I hate the star-rating system because it is cruel. Because it is reductive. Because it takes out all nuance from the review. Because it forces the reader to conclude that “oh, one star, so the film must be utter crap” – even if there are some redeeming factors in the review. Because it forces the critic to throw out these redeeming factors and focus on an overall summation, which is just not how art works. Because even in the same organisation, one critic thinks 2 stars is average, while another says 3 stars is average. Because it forces a false equivalence between films based on star ratings. Is Zero a problematic film? Sure. But is it the same as a Total Dhamaal. Most certainly not.
A star-rating system fails to distinguish the “noble failures” (the films that tried to do something and then failed) from the films that didn’t even try. And if you are a serious movie-goer, you must make this difference. You must understand that a “noble failure” that gets two stars is different from a doesn’t-even-try film that gets two stars. The stars may be the same (in number), but the films’ goals and achievements and end results are different. And over the years, the tyranny of the star-rating system has tossed these subtleties out of the window. Some organisations have admirably resisted star ratings, but most of us use it. And it’s become poisonous. It was different in the older days, when it was just print, or even when television critics joined in. Fewer films were made then. There were fewer entertainment options, so a bunch of unfavourable star ratings didn’t instantly kill a film. It’s different, today. Many times, a star rating becomes the only takeaway from a review. “How many stars?” is all people want to know, and a lot of the time, they fail to read the review.
A star-rating system fails to distinguish the “noble failures” (the films that tried to do something and then failed) from the films that didn’t even try. And if you are a serious movie-goer, you must make this difference.
At Film Companion, we want you to read our reviews. We want you to engage, agree, disagree, argue with us – but not about “why did you give two stars to that movie but three stars to this one?” We want this interaction to arise from the points in the reviews, not from the stars under it. We have always thought of ourselves as film journalists, people who take cinema seriously and don’t just fill our site with “articles” about Baby Taimur. So after that night at the awards show, after what Shah Rukh said, Anupama and I had a chat. We decided we must take a stand. If we are serious about film journalism, we must tell people that our reviews are not just a recommendation service but a (hopefully) nuanced analysis of the film. And the first step towards this is to get rid of star ratings.
At Film Companion, we want you to read our reviews. We want you to engage, agree, disagree, argue with us – but not about “why did you give two stars to that movie but three stars to this one?”
Given that almost everyone uses some pictorial form of rating, will it make a difference if one company steps back? We hope it does. We hope this starts a conversation about what reviews are for and why criticism is important and why – as fun as it is to see someone take down a movie – movies are never “good” or “bad” in the objective sense, and how even a Saawariya has its ardent defenders. (I raise my hand, and I sincerely hope the towel doesn’t drop.) Is this a cop-out? Will this compromise our integrity? The answer is a vehement no. Our first star-free review is my take on Devarattam, and I think the review leaves little doubt about the film’s badness – even without the star rating. Are we doing the right thing, then? We think so. We’d like to hear from you, too. Good decision? Bad one? Makes no difference? Talk to us. Write to us. Tell us what you think. In detail, though. Don’t just rate this decision on a scale of five stars.