Southern Lights: A Film Critic’s Open Letter To Director Ram

In which I try to explain why “film appreciation” for Tamil cinema isn’t easy in today’s climate
Southern Lights: A Film Critic’s Open Letter To Director Ram

In an interview with Cinema Express, director Ram expressed this opinion about critics. While admitting that no art form can grow without criticism/reviews, he said, "The biggest problem with Tamil cinema is that there are no good critics. Writers double as critics. There are observers who comment on a film after watching it, saying whether they liked it or not. There is a lot of 'popular' criticism, which acts as a recommendation and says things like 'the cinematography was beautiful' or 'the editing was pacy'. These come with marks or stars. Everyone has their own agenda or political understanding about art. So through the review, the reviewer also reveals who he/she is. Then there are bloggers. There are film buffs. I know when someone is looking at a film as just a story, or writing a review just to create a controversy."

"But film appreciation is beyond all this. It's about approaching film as art, as aesthetics. This kind of film appreciation is very rare in Tamil cinema. And it's practically non-existent in English." He spoke about what people told him at the Rotterdam film festival, that "the people writing about Tamil cinema in English are very narrow minded. Are there no neutral, democratic critics who can introduce Tamil cinema to the world?' So if Tamil cinema is like this, it's because the reviewing culture here is so bad." I have paraphrased what Ram said, but this is the gist.

I mostly agree with him. Most people here exist somewhere between "reviewer" and "critic." The kind of art appreciation that Ram (who I think is a very important filmmaker, even if I have my reservations about his films) talks about can happen in two ways – before the film's release, or after. I want to tell Ram why neither way is feasible in the current scenario.

Let's address the "before" first. Most publications are online now, and it's become a race to publish the review. The reviewer has no choice but to play the game. (If you want to keep your job, you do what the boss asks you to do.) And this means there's very little time to absorb the film, think over it, wrestle with the troublesome parts… At most, one comes away with a sense of the story, some character dimensions, a few observations about technique – and none of this can be very specific. Watching the film once, no one can say how the music director's themes precisely underlined this emotion or that one. The most one can say is something relatively specific, maybe that "the flute theme perfectly brings out the melancholy of the protagonist."

It takes one viewing just to get a grip on the overall journey of the film, its narrative trajectory. So things like the use of colour schemes, or something about editing patterns – these will have to wait until one watches the film again. Because once you know the narrative trajectory, you can begin to concentrate on the sub-layers. (Of course, bits and pieces of this can, and will, happen at the first viewing too, but I'm talking about a really detailed analysis that can count as "film appreciation.") A second viewing can help in other ways too. The first time I watched Kattradhu Thamizh, I was put off by what I thought was unrelenting self-pity and macho posturing, but subsequent viewings have helped me make my peace with certain (not all) aspects of the film.

So if you want the kind of criticism you talk about "before" the release of a film, then do what the Americans do. Have a series of previews, well in advance, with the condition that no word about the film can go out until the date determined by you. Time magazine's critic, Stephanie Zacharek (we conducted the Young Critics Lab together, last year, at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival), did not care for Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread. She called it a "belabored corset of a movie." And yet, as she wrote in her review: "I felt discomfitingly indifferent toward it the first time, so I decided to see it again, just to make sure what I was feeling wasn't actually a twisted kind of love. It wasn't." I would have liked that opportunity with Kattradhu Thamizh.

Critics, here, count themselves lucky if they get one advance screening. And even that notification comes a day before the screening, sometimes even the day of the screening – and not everyone can reschedule plans to attend the preview. (Stephanie Zacharek told me she usually knows by Friday about the previews that are scheduled for the following week.) Or maybe you want to consider sending online links to critics? Again, this is a practice abroad – though I can understand your reluctance to adopt this practice, given the rampant piracy in the industry.

So the "before" conditions aren't exactly conducive to "film appreciation." What about "after"? But where are the opportunities? Where are the magazines like Sight & Sound and Film Comment that give critics (a) a lot of time, and (b) quite a decent amount of money to write long, analytical essays about older (i.e. already released) cinema? Where are the publishers who give critics (a) a lot of time, and (b) quite a decent amount of money to write long, analytical books about older cinema? One of the books that inspired me to become a film critic was Donald Spoto's The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, where this observation about Vertigo blew my mind: The direction of movements in the film's second half reverses the directions of the first half, as the motive force behind the film's events reverses direction. Namely, the  movement of the camera in the first half is from right to left, and left to right in the second half. Do you know how many times Spoto watched Vertigo? 27.

A critical culture doesn't bloom in isolation. If there is to be supply, there has to be – first – a demand. You seem to want it. But who's going to step forward to sustain it? Who's going to give the time and the money – and the mind space, leaving us free to just write (and not, say, run the entertainment section of a newspaper as well) – to critics who actually want to engage with a film, and make this sort of writing a viable career option? Where are the editors who care more about the quality of writing than the quantity of hits and clicks? In the absence of this, the only people who will be able to write the kind of "film appreciation" are hobbyists and the lucky few freelance writers who have the luxury of committing to one project at a time. I have, for long, harboured this dream of revisiting important films every five years, and reviewing them again from where I am at that point in life – to see how our opinion of a film changes as we change. I really don't see this happening, until I retire.

If we need to take cinema more seriously, then cinema (and its surrounding infrastructure) needs to take us more seriously. Like they say, give respect and take respect. Let's continue this conversation. Let's raise the quality of discussion on Tamil cinema. Please do not take this as a criticism of your interview. I am glad you said this, because it allowed me this rebuttal, and I think this needed to be said. Filmmakers often tell critics: "Come, make a film, and then you'll know…" And I'm saying: "Try being a reviewer in today's climate, and then you'll know."

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