We look to them for the final word, or at least that first word, before we set out to the cinemas every Friday. But it is never that simple. Some of these people, who go by the epithet ‘reviewer’ or ‘critic’, work through multiple views, onerous notes, personal politics, and a subjective understanding of the workings of the cinematic craft, all the while walking the tightrope to meet strict deadlines. Here, we present snapshots from the minds of three well-known critics of Malayalam cinema (since RK writes for fullpicture, we are not at liberty to mention him), who have created a niche among the English language readership, for their work in online media.
One of the pioneers in the field of online movie reviewing (2007), he was the face of the movie portal, nowrunning, till he quit and started his own blog, Veeyen.com. Honest, crisp and astute observations are what makes his reviews quite popular.
My process: Some movies I do force myself to watch multiple times. Then there are films you really want to watch again. For some, you might have already written the review but then you watch again and find lots to add later. If it’s a review for a bad film, I barely take 30 minutes to write, while a good film takes hours. I don’t take notes, I just send a message to my wife as reminders. I like to call my reviews as interpretations. Having said that, I still wouldn't go for a movie even if my favourite critic recommended it. I don’t understand why somebody would look forward to a review to catch a film. There have been instances when I have given a good rating for a not-so-popular film and people have come and asked me how? As they felt it was not a pro-Veeyen film. Somehow it makes more sense when they read my review after watching the film.
What I look for in a film: It should move me at a very personal level. I should be able to relate to it in some way. I wouldn't be too keen on watching dramatic and unrealistic films or films that are supposedly realistic with lot of drama in them.
Biggest challenge: You have a reader base and sometimes people start developing some sort of expectations from you. When readers bet their money on my reviews, it’s a huge burden on my shoulders. The fear of letting people down can be unsettling.
I follow: Raja Sen and Baradwaj Rangan
Definition of a good review: Genuine and honest and doesn’t cater to star power or feted filmmakers.
Brickbats and bouquets: I don’t know if it’s a compliment but I have had readers telling me the review was infinitely more enjoyable than the movie. For Run Baby Run, my negative review had fans showering me with enough profanities to last a lifetime. Another issue with English reviews is that the readership is in minority.
Feedback from within cinema: A few actors have shared my reviews but otherwise, I don’t have interactions on a personal level with any filmmakers or actors.
She is one of the few notable women film critics in Malayalam cinema. A recent entry into the field, she brings in the much-needed female sensibility and sensitivity to the reviews. Astute and perceptive with an underlying sense of humour, her film readings are always on target. An alumna of Asian College of Journalism, she worked in mainstream newspapers before stepping into the online movie portal, silverscreen.in
My process: I usually write a review after watching it once. As a reviewer, I think what you get out of a movie in the first viewing is very important, and since I come from a journalism background, it’s something I am accustomed to doing. Writing a review is always a difficult process. I think when I started off, it was relatively easier, and as I am learning more about the medium, it's becoming harder. And I am happy it is. I am very much a novice film student. When it's for a movie that hardly touched me, I can write a review much faster and easier than when it is a movie like Maheshinte Prathikaram or Thithi that affect me deeply. I don’t write notes, I can remember the parts that I know will go into the review - including plot points, acting, shots. Of course, I do take care to ensure that the names of the characters and places are spelled properly.
What I look for in a film: The first 15-20 minutes is important, especially, the opening shot/scene/sequence. It sets the tone for me. And a film review, like any other form of literature, also reflects the writer's personality. I am very sensitive and I don't hold back my emotions when I watch a film. If a film works for me, great; if it doesn't, I look for the reasons as to what didn’t work. And when we become familiar with the tropes and tricks of commercial cinema, it’s easier to figure out when they manipulate us. I love films that surprise me positively. I am not very sure how a good film is defined. There are things that continue to confuse me. A film like Iraivi for instance—nice framing, shot selection, fine editing and a director who knows his medium. But then, he has a very twisted idea of feminism. So, I am not sure I can call it good cinema. The closest example I can suggest is the Chinese film Hero, which has beautifully choreographed martial arts sequences, stunning camera work, and a great cast. But it's an outright propaganda movie that has a very vicious, cunning idea at its heart. So, it’s not just the making, but the politics and the ideas as well that need to agree with me. More so as it is a popular medium.
Reviewers I look up to: Peter Bradshaw, Nandini Ramnath, Jay Weisberg, Anthony Lane, Andrea Picard.
Definition of a good review/bad review: I am not sure of the definition, but what I look for is honesty and clarity of thought. That can see through the veil of 'style' and 'great making', because politics that a film puts forth needs to be noted. And a bad review is something that gets carried away by one element of the narrative, may be. If you are not able to see through what they have underneath, I guess it's a review that defeats the purpose.
Brickbats and bouquets: Usually, it's my cineaste friends who give me feedback. Rarely do I get responses from people within the industry.
He believes in telling it as it is. His reviews are extremely insightful, comprehensive and gives the impression of having watched a film multiple times to figure it out. Unapologetically frank, Sreehari’s opinions are hard to ignore. He freelances for Rediff and is based in Mumbai.
My process: I believe in jotting down my first, non-intellectual, almost sensual response to a movie. Words are the least important part of a movie review. There’s nothing blander than the adjective-noun, adjective-noun style of reviewing. Nothing gives away your lack of ideas than an overuse of alliterations. If for a certain response a movie elicits a grunting sound, or a gibberish, self-created word works better than a dictionary-defined word, I go for that gibberish word. It's not my place to tell people what to watch, and what not to. Ideally, everyone should watch every single movie and we should all get together at a coffee-shop and talk about it. My review is just my two bits in that conversation. I pace my review so that it mirrors the pacing of the picture I am writing about. Pictures with impressionistic quick edits must have sentences that give off that rhythm. One of the things I tried to do in a review I had written for Angamaly Diaries was to stretch my description of the unbroken shot so that the sentence itself became breathless in its construction. I keep word count totally out of my system. I had written a 2700-word review of Thondimuthalum… from pointers that ran into almost 5500 words. I believe that if I am having fun when writing a piece, somebody somewhere would share my enthusiasm when reading it (lucky to have a brave editor who lets me go through with my plan). I try to be kind to a movie everyone's panning, and check if a movie that's being lauded universally actually deserves its place in the pantheon. I never write by committee or to conform to a Club.
What I look for in a film: Like all good works of art, movies when they are good, get at something new: something in the air, something around us, something not phrased in TV ads yet or screamed out through newspaper headlines. I keep myself open to be excited and surprised by such movies. I believe the technical aspects of a movie can point us to the genuineness of a director's feeling for the material. In a Maheshinte Prathikaram or an Angamaly Diaries, the technique conveyed Pothan’s and Pellisery’s understanding of and excitement for a certain way of life. In a shallow movie like Godha, the techniques exposed the director's total lack of feeling for the material.
Definition of a good review: A good review will illuminate aspects of a movie that a viewer might miss out on; aspects that make some movies special, and expose the hollowness of certain other movies.
Bad Review: A sitting-on-the-fence review. A review written by committee, a review written to conform to a Club, a review that doesn't have any juice, is too neat, is written by the numbers. Even internationally revered critics like Richard Roeper write those kind of reviews: you know like how a stock-market expert evaluates a scrip. There's nothing more uninteresting than that. Also, I can't get through a review that follows that noun-adjective, noun-adjective format, or a review that uses too many alliterations. You can tell that the critic was just trying to fill up the page there.
Biggest challenge: Keeping to a word count, and the deadline problem. Especially when a movie is really good, you want to write about it in detail. You want to almost seize that moment in history and make your review a timeless document.
Critics I like: Pauline Kael, because you can argue with her while you are reading her reviews. She can surprise you with her softness in certain reviews where you expect her to be hard on a movie, and she's hard at points in a review where you go in expecting her to be soft. You just can't predict her, which is terrific.
Among the Indian critics today, I love reading Trisha Gupta and Uday Bhatia—you can sense in their reviews, a passionate engagement with a movie that never gets overruled by a tendency to please OR to come off sounding smart and witty. Rahul Desai and Tanul Thakur are great too, but I just don't get it when they praise someone like Zoya Akhtar. Among the Malayalam movie critics I of course love reading Veeyen. He's our founding father in many ways.
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Fullpicture is an exclusive, comprehensive, online English magazine on Malayalam cinema, put together by a team of experienced journalists who share a passion for everything about Malayalam cinema. The idea is to put out well-written and well-researched features, exclusive interviews,...