Thursday, October 29, 2009


Mayank Shekhar is a well known Film Critic and Journalist who has been writing for leading Mumbai dailies. He has been recently appointed by the Hindustan Times as National Cultural Editor. Prior to joining Hindustan Times, Mr. Shekhar was freelancing as a Film Critic and Columnist with Mumbai Mirror, and hosting special review and interview shows on NDTV Good Times, NDTV 24x7 and other national channels for almost two years. He is a member of the Central Board of Film Certification and was the winner of the Ramnath Goenka Award for Journalism in 2007. He has headed the features team at Mumbai Mirror for two years and was also part of the Mid-Day features team for four years.

Mr. Shekhar has also authored a book called ‘Bombay Talkies’, which is a critique on contemporary Bollywood cinema and is in the process of finishing two more books on pop culture.

Starting off with what Film Criticism is all about, he said, “The only difference between me and perhaps all of you is that, you can go watch a movie…like it or dislike it and the matter ends there but I have to explain why I liked or disliked the movie…and the explanation cannot be that the cinematography was excellent or that Amitabh Bachchan rocks!” He felt that the Film Critic should respond emotionally to a film as a whole. The response can combine the Critic’s associations of literature, his life, other films, the industry etc. However, film criticism is ultimately a person’s opinion and cannot be classified as right or wrong because one thing is viewed differently by different people because of the varied circumstances, ages, backgrounds and cultures to which they belong.

It is a known fact that one of the highest read things in a newspaper is the film review. Writing movie reviews then becomes a way of taking a standpoint about anything on the planet, even if subtly with the knowledge that the article is being read. There are two kinds of reviews generally in existence; one where the story itself is so senseless that just narrating it makes for humor writing and the other where there is more to the film than the film itself, for example if the film is doing something different that is testing the waters. Every work of Art, even if unwittingly comes with a point of view, so even a film that is touted as brainless is somehow expressing the point of view of its Filmmaker, so Mr. Shekhar said (tongue-in-cheek) that there are no brainless films only brainless Filmmakers. However he firmly stated that to be a Film Critic, one does not need to have an extensive background in Cinema. It is after all his job at some level to represent the public and the lay viewer does not watch a movie in scenes & shots but as a whole, since they are not masters of cinematic grammar.

Describing the process of writing a film review he said, “Say if you go to a beautiful city like Tehran… or you go for a theatrical performance or even if you go parasailing… whatever it might be you come back with an experience and it is up to you as a writer to pen that experience and express it in any way you want… the mediums can be cinema, painting or writing but essentially film criticism is, coming back from the experience of a film and just expressing what you feel creatively…”

The topic of Film Appreciation is completely different from Film Criticism. Film Appreciation means watching and studying the films of the masters that truly changed the landscape of filmmaking. Emphasizing this he said, “It is important to have watched the films of the masters…you might say that Citizen Kane doesn’t entertain you anymore but it is important for you to know the evolution of various elements… if you are going to be part of the process that takes things forward, then I presume you need to know where things are coming from…”

Being an intense Film buff, he excitedly recounted the history of new waves in Cinema, citing the progression from Italian Neo-realism to French New Wave to today’s Mexican Frontier Cinema. He felt that it is necessary for one to keep abreast of the goings on in World Cinema, explaining the reason he said, “You don’t want to go overboard with admiration over something that has been copied from somebody else’s work… you might argue that it will be new to the audiences because they’ve never seen it before… but it is chiefly because credit must be given where it is due… people who take movies a little seriously should feel incensed at movies that are copied, because plagiarism cannot have an excuse…” As human beings the brain organizes stimuli into data patterns, it becomes more complex as the associations to stimuli increase. Ideas and thoughts are referenced from these data patterns, so at some level everything is the result of copying. However, direct stealing is unethical; it is necessary for one to build the idea in an individual manner, which is what makes it original.

On being asked about the Critic’s effect on the commercial gains of a film he replied saying, “I don’t think it is the critic’s job to say whether a film works or not…In India film reviews can even be bought! That is why the quality suffers… Essentially, nobody knows what works, what you do know is what works for you and that is what I as a Film Critic should do, tell you what ‘I’ think…” According to him, the idea of a Film Critique is not about agreement or disagreement with the reader/filmmaker, but rather to develop a conversation. It is a medium of dialogue that must also stand alone as an independent piece- with a beginning, middle and end, which can amuse, inform, irritate and do all the things that any writing does.

It is a common misconception however that reviews and ratings are the same thing. A review is a text that encapsulates the writer’s emotional response, his worldview, his opinion and his tastes, thus provoking the reader into a discussion. Speaking of ratings he said, “I don’t believe in ratings, unfortunately the public only seems interested in the marks… the problem is that when I rate a movie poorly, it might be for the very reasons that make you like the film, but when the conclusion is drawn based only on the number of stars…you miss the point of a film review! I am someone who would like to read someone’s opinion about why they liked or disliked a film… ” The film ‘Om Shanti Om’ by Farah Khan succeeded in garnering audiences in the Multiplexes as well as in the small towns. The film is about‘re-incarnation’, which was a popular theme in the Indian Cinema of the 80’s that was produced largely for the masses. The small town audiences perceived the film with renewed interest since it was a new film, which was about an old forgotten theme whereas the educated, Hollywood exposed, urban gentry at the multiplexes perceived the film as a spoof on Bollywood, which it was. A review sounds the perceptions of the critic’s background thus proving that reactions to a critique are just as unpredictable as they are for a film.

Although he cited the examples of Film Critic turned Directors like Jean Luc Godard, Fran├žois Truffaut & Robert Bresson who made brilliant films, Mr. Shekhar felt that Filmmaker’s don’t necessarily make good Film Critics as the two processes are diametrically opposite: the Film Critics job is about deconstruction, viewing the film as a whole and responding to the film itself whereas the Filmmaker’s job is about construction, viewing the film in scenes, shots & building up the entire film.

Talking about Film Criticism as a profession he said that he fancied a job that was solely about writing Film Reviews, except that it is still not a full time job in India, as the public doesn’t follow specific reviewers for their opinion unlike the west where one finds the likes of Roger Ebert, the famous American Film Critic. Describing the constraints of the print media he said, “That’s the hazard of working in newspaper journalism, we’d all like to work a little bit more on our stories, except that they have to be turned in the next morning…” Urging the students to become active about the lamentable condition of newspaper’s attitudes towards Film Criticism he said, “If you believe in the Newspaper, if you read the Newspaper, then write to the paper, inform it if you find a complacent or appeasing review… make it a strong letter… they cannot ignore the letters of a thousand people… opinions will be printed and voiced…that itself is enough, after all Film Criticism is about an opinion voiced!”

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