If there’s a parallel universe in which we’re living the choices that we set aside, then in it, Rahul Desai is doing whatever MBAs do, Vishal Menon is a lawyer, Prathyush Parasuraman is an economist, and Suchin Mehrotra is working in banking. These critics left their sensible careers and devoted themselves instead to watching movies. (In case you were wondering, for Anupama Chopra and Gayle Sequeira, who studied print journalism, and Deepanjana Pal, who voluntarily opted to study postcolonial literature, there were no ‘sensible’ choices.) Others, like Sagar Tetali, wandered into the world of film criticism and despite the questionable films that came their way, they stayed on. For all of them, the only reason to be a critic is because they love analysing cinema and its close cousin, streaming/ television shows.
In a time when we’re ambushed by both content and opinion, the critical gaze becomes all the more important, so we sat down with some of FC’s critics to ask them about their movie-watching practices. Here beginneth the FC critics’ guide to watching movies.
How would you define a good movie?
Anupama: A good film fulfils the promise that a director makes to the viewer. It is something that engages you, it has to evoke a response. For me, a film that fails is a film that is going on and not adding anything to your view of the world.
Deepanjana: A good film should be able to make you forget where you are.
Gayle: Something speaks to you, whether your head or your heart. Something that’s really immersive, something that I should be thinking about for a while. It should have memorability.
Prathyush: There are no set criteria for a good film. If there were, we’d make many more of it. I just don’t want to be talked down to by a film. I also don’t want to be looked up to. I want to have a conversation with the film.
Rahul: It's just something you personally engage with. The challenge is to investigate your own head or heart as to why you are engaging with a particular film.
Sagar: It's about how intelligently it uses its medium, and how intentional it is with the medium. How effective it is in transporting the viewer to its realm. A good film is like an artfully crafted dream. The dream can be pleasant, or it can be a nightmare.
Suchin: A good movie makes me feel. I need to feel for, or with, the people on screen.
Vishal: My definition of a good film must have been very different five or six years ago. A good film was any film that promised something and gave you a little more than that. But now, it has changed, especially after COVID-19. … During Covid, [there was] so much comfort I was seeking in movies, rather than earlier when I was able to approach it academically, very clinically. My entire mindset has changed so much to the kind of escapism it provides. You’re just surrendering a lot more when a movie is working for you. The reactions have become a little extreme.
Watch it in one go or take intervals?
Anupama: No, I can’t take intervals. Even if it’s a streaming film, I don't want to take breaks because I think that colours your experience. … If I’m distracted, I’m not allowing the film to seduce me in the way that the filmmaker meant it. And that’s unfair. Somebody has put in 2 years at the very least so I have to see it with complete attention.
Deepanjana: I usually watch it in one go. But that said, I’ve become fond of the freedom to pause, soak in a moment, take notes, make a GIF.
Gayle: I need to take breaks, which is why I prefer watching movies in the theatre because there’s discipline. You accumulate your thoughts, and you’ve seen the larger picture as opposed to watching something on streaming, pausing, taking notes, and going back to it.
Prathyush: If the film’s in the theatre, it forces you to forget all your internal constraints and work with the constraints of the film.
Rahul: Now I tend to take intervals. I used to watch things at once. The last couple of years have made me worse at this. I do take breaks when I'm watching films at home. Especially when the film is too good or intense, I purposely take a break saying, “I need the high to come down.”
Sagar: I prefer watching it all at once, but sometimes there's this weird experience I have where the film is really good and I'm really emotionally satisfied by it, so I stop it and take a break because it's getting too much.
Suchin: Compared to other FC critics, shows are my beat and that is a different experience because it's episodes and you have to take breaks.
Vishal: What I try to do is start watching it after 10 o’clock at night or before 9 am. Around those times, when people are messaging or calling, at least they have the courtesy to say, “Sorry for disturbing you.”
Do you need anything (chips, for example) to complement your movie-watching experience?
Anupama: You have to give yourself to a film and you should create an environment that allows you to do that. A place that allows you to lose yourself.
Deepanjana: A notebook and an extra serving of patience.
Gayle: Just a notebook to write in. I’ve never been an eating popcorn in theatre kind of person, and especially when you’re reviewing, you want your hands to be free.
Prathyush: If I’m in the theatre, I need my vat of black coffee because I tend to fall asleep sometimes.
Rahul: I'm very unfussy as far as watching a film is concerned. I just need a better attention span.
Sagar: Generally, if I'm watching a film I really want to engage with, I like watching it alone. I like watching it with good sound, even if it's a good laptop and earphones. I like to minimize the things that come between you and the experience of the film, to kind of see it the way that the director is projecting it into your brain, you know? … Of course, masala films, I love watching them in the theatre with the whole crowd. I like the whistles.
Suchin: Silence, something that allows me to take notes and caffeine to keep me going.
Vishal: I’ve got a pouch that I carry to movie theatres with something to eat, like a small packet of biscuits or a cookie.
How much time do you give to a film before concluding that it isn’t for you?
Anupama: I give it till the last frame. That’s why I can never walk out of a film. I am the eternal optimist so I think maybe the last frame will be magic!
Deepanjana: I’ll know within the first few frames but that doesn't mean I won’t watch the film, especially as a reviewer.
Gayle: I always try to finish a film. It’s really hard sometimes. The idea of leaving something unfinished bothers me. Even if it’s awful, I have to see it through till the end.
Prathyush: For some films, from the first scene. It depends on where you are with your patience. Sometimes you’re like…even if it is a bad film, let me finish it.
Rahul: As a viewer, normally it takes around the first half hour. I have also learned in the last couple of years to be patient and you might be rewarded in the last 40 minutes. … My life is short and it's gotten shorter in the last couple of years. When I'm watching for leisure and I know it's not working, I'll switch it off in 30 minutes. But I don't do that when it's work.
Sagar: I'm a big believer in watching the opening scene for its intentionality. I think the opening scene immediately tells you whether what you're watching is a great film or not. But for some films, it takes 30 minutes and sometimes, it takes longer than that.
Vishal: Around the 30-minute mark, you can feel the magic of expectations fade away. You’re able to see the movie with a lot more clarity because it’s naked in front of you. It’s not anybody’s movie after that, it’s just a movie.
Which film(s) changed your perspective on cinema?
Anupama: Films of the Seventies and the Eighties…the Bachchan films and the Yash Chopra films. It’s Kabhi Kabhie (1976), Zanjeer (1973), Deewaar (1975), and Amar Akbar Anthony (1977). Then coming into the Eighties, it would be Masoom (1982), Mr India (1987), and Umrao Jaan (1981). Then of course, by the time we got to the Nineties, I was already working so that shaped my sensibilities because I truly fell in love with the genre of Rahul, Raj, Karan, Adi, and Shah.
Deepanjana: Watching clips of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin’s films was an eye-opener about what you can do just with the body because we’re all part of the talkies generations, and Bollywood makes rather talky films as well. Then, classic European filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman and Agnes Varda, and the directors of what used to be called art films, like Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen. Every few years, the technology changes and becomes more sophisticated. Each time that happens, I feel like, “Oh my god, you can do this with the movies?”
Gayle: Cliche answer, but Inception (2010) was one of them. It was one of those movies that make you go, “Oh my god, this is what movies could be like.” Intricate, expansive, insane. I know people talk about the mechanics of Nolan’s plots and how technical they are but I find them very emotional. Aren't they all about people struggling to control things that are wildly beyond their control, like time itself? That feeling of utter hopelessness stuck with me. I wound up writing my dissertation on Nolan’s movies.
Prathyush: Bhansali was that. And every time Devdas (2002) was on television, I would know from my room. I would run and the television would be mine till the film got over. But Saawariya (2007) was when I started realising that you could defend a film, which I’d never done before. You love something, but you don't know why. You see people hate it but suddenly know you’re trying to find the words to defend the film. It’s the germane moment of criticism.
Rahul: Amelie (2001), the French film. When I was in film school for a year, they showed it as part of the appreciation class. Back then, it didn't appeal to me the way it did much later. I started changing as a person and being more uncomfortable with the world around me, the more I started relating to that film. Till then, I didn't know visuals, storytelling and music could combine to create a feeling.
Sagar: I really started exploring Indian films after watching Mani Ratnam. I was one of those people who only used to watch Western films. I was a little embarrassed at liking the mass kind of Telugu cinema. But then I watched Thalapathi (1991) and Iruvar (1997), and that was a gateway into engaging with, and celebrating the uniqueness of Indian cinema, regional cinema. Before that, I'd watched Bergman and other "arty" filmmakers. In terms of Indian cinema and connecting that to world cinema, I think Mani Ratnam is the big one.
Suchin: Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), just because it is what it is. One of the all-time great love stories, DDLJ (Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge) (1995). I must have been 10, I went with some friends and saw 50 First Dates (2004). It has always struck me as one of the movies that made me fall in love with movies. I remember watching Lagaan (2001) three days in a row when it came out. You just have never seen anything like it and you're like “Woah!” To watch a three-hour movie, three days in a row… can't be nothing.
Vishal: I’m one of those Nineties kids, both my parents were working. I had zero television supervision. The TV was always the only conversation that I was having. I grew up watching at least a movie every day. I went to boarding school after that, and we had a teacher – a film buff – who used to conduct the film club. The first movie he showed was The Searchers (1956), and then Lawrence of Arabia (1962), a lot of Hitchcock. That way, my base is reasonably strong because he showed us proper classics.
Is there a genre that you don’t think you’ll ever be interested in?
Anupama: I can’t handle gore. I’m just not able to see that.
Deepanjana: Horror. Can’t do it, just freaks the crap out of me.
Gayle: No, I don’t think so. I’m pretty open to everything.
Prathyush: Action and perhaps horror, but that’s more because I’m just afraid of things generally.
Rahul: I'm not a fan of sprawling, mythological sagas.
Sagar: I'm usually not a fan of period dramas. […] And some types of comedy, I don't find myself motivated to watch them.
Suchin: Horror is not my zone. I particularly try to stay away from psychological thrillers - which are essentially horror movies that are too realistic to be horror movies, designed to play with your mind. My mind is a mess already… I don't need to pay money to let anyone else mess with it.
Vishal: I overcame it last year but I had lots of reservations against war movies.
What is the importance of film criticism?
Anupama: Given the ecosystem in the Hindi film industry, I think critics are the only thing that stands between you and the marketing because media can be bought. Everything is for sale. It’s very hard for any consumer to actually know what this film is like. Film criticism that has integrity, and credibility and comes from a place of knowledge is extremely valuable because so much of the landscape is so superficial or transactional. Film critics also play a role in leading you to cinema you wouldn't otherwise have seen, you can be tastemakers and curators. You can help lead eyeballs to content that deserves it.
Deepanjana: It allows you to point others to something that’s thought-provoking. That’s it, that’s why you need us. Especially at a time like ours when there’s this glut of content.
Gayle: To contextualise a film. There are ways to situate a movie in the current climate, against other examinations of the same theme, in the same director’s filmography itself, just to look at ideas that he comes back to and how he refines those ideas over time. Good film criticism is a good accompaniment to the film itself.
Prathyush: For me, the beauty of criticism is my joy in writing, in being read and that’s it. I don’t think there’s more to it. I just like being with words.
Rahul: It's needed because you need to have a conversation with the work of art beyond only the dimension you see. When I watch a film, and I understand it a certain way, that's just my experience that amounts to that understanding. I want to see how other people are looking at it. Film criticism gets you closer to that, to know what kind of gazes are out there.
Sagar: The way that I look at it, the articulation of the film experience is important. As a film critic, you're giving your reader the vocabulary to explain why they're feeling what they're feeling. But also to point out that that might not always be a good thing, or to say, “Yes, this is why you feel this, but what is the logical extension of this?”
Suchin: Film criticism really is having conversations that the movies deserve.
Vishal: Somebody has created something with a lot of love and beauty and another person is able to look at that and explain why he finds it beautiful. You have a strong reaction to something, and you’re trying to use your words to explain that feeling. … It’s [Criticism] a new way of feeling the things that you’re seeing, why wouldn't you want that?