After I finished writing the review of Villain, a little more than a week ago, I felt a twinge of conscience. It was time for me to give the star rating, the most pointless part of the review and yet the most important part, if you consider how most people view reviews. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve counted to ten, resisting the urge to punch someone in the face when they say something like “So you didn’t like the movie much? You gave it only two stars…” I’ll want to say, “Read the whole review before you decide what I thought of the film. A star rating is just a random approximation…” But no, after all these years, I know this is how it works. The 800-word review matters less than the two stars.

Anyway, back to Villain and the reason for the twinge. I gave it two stars, based on my philosophy. No movie is perfect (and what is “perfection” in art, anyway?), so no five-star ratings. If the film has nothing that redeems it, absolutely nothing, then it’s one star. So it made sense to go with two stars for Villain — there’s something that redeems it, and that’s Mohanlal’s performance (and a brief appearance by Manju Warrier). They brought the movie to an at least it’s watchable level, and that’s what the two-star rating is, to me. (I find it useful to articulate these ratings in words. Three stars, for me, is pretty decent or not bad at all. Four stars is this is really good!)

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The minute I settled on this rating, I felt bad about giving Adam Joan one star. Let me first tell you why that rating came about: because the film irritated the hell out of me. For a thriller with supernatural overtones, it did not thrill at all — and the director’s pretensions really got to me. The endless use of slow motion. The careful posing of actors. The hushed, cathedral-like staging, which came off as really affected. Plus, the sluggish story, which went on and on. I found it all unbearable, and the rating was a reflection of what I felt. But looking back, I feel there was some polish in the making. It was not amateur hour. Going by another way I articulate the two-star rating (at least it’s not total crap), I feel I should have given Adam Joan two stars.

This is a problem a reviewer faces with Indian cinema: Does one need to acknowledge a certain kind of empty technical competency? By this, I mean, let’s say there’s a certain quality to the cinematography — the tone, the palette is consistent, and so forth. Let’s say the staging is perfunctory, though not especially imaginative. Let’s say there’s a dull, plodding logic to the narrative — that is, it’s not total nonsense. In other words, let’s say it’s a film like Adam Joan, which is more a fault of execution than conception, more a casualty of misguided ambition than being clueless about what to do in the first place. How does one tackle this kind of film?

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In the strictest sense, I know the answer. An essay doesn’t become good just because it doesn’t have basic spelling and grammar mistakes. But here’s the thing. So many of our films don’t even measure up to this basic standard, and so at least it’s watchable becomes a way of separating an Adam Joan from films that are no better than student films, films that should never have found their way to theatres, films that one cannot even see making it to a private YouTube channel. Trust me, we still make these films. (And unlike you, I still end up watching them.)

So there’s now an absolute scale and a relative scale. The former is about the film in question. (Does this film do what it sets out to do?) The latter is about the film in relation to other films. (How does this fare along the continuum)? So this is my question. Do you have a take on this? (Other than, of course, abolish star ratings, which I would only be too happy to do, but I can’t see it happening anytime soon.) Also, remember that this isn’t about Adam Joan. So don’t come at me with things like “But it’s actually a great movie, and you didn’t get it,” and so on. This isn’t about the subjectivity of the movie-watching experience. This is about the subjectivity of ratings.

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