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What’s a hit got to do with it

How well a film does at the box office has nothing to do with its intrinsic worth.

Written by Shubhra Gupta | Published:August 30, 2014 2:53 am
A reader wrote in saying he was ‘very disappointed’ because of the ‘mismatch’ between my review and the ‘collective opinion of the masses’. A reader wrote in saying he was ‘very disappointed’ because of the ‘mismatch’ between my review and the ‘collective opinion of the masses’.

But it’s made 100 crore! And you gave it just one star!

Sure enough, Singham Returns, which your humble critic didn’t care for, has rapidly climbed to the Rs 100 crore-plus mark, according to its publicists. Before that, it was the execrable Humshakals that breached the barrier. And many such similar ones before these worthies.

In the last couple of years, this little litany has been getting louder. Not in a polite, discursive way. But in an aggressive tone. What do film critics know about what the audience wants? If it is so bad, how does it make so much money? Why are you so sniffy about blockbusters? The moment you give a film one star, we know it is going to bust the box office.

Right, what do I know? I’m just the long-time film critic who sits through everything — the excruciatingly awful ones, the middling ones, the good-but-could-have-been-better ones, and the ones that blow me away, the better to sift grain from chaff. More importantly, I am that person to whom putative crores mean nothing. What has meaning is the film in front of me, and what sense I make of it.

Dear viewers, once and for all, I am here to tell you that the amount of money that a movie makes has nothing to do with its intrinsic worth. The money that it makes only tells me, and should tell you too, if you stop to think about it, just how hard-sold the movie was. And how you, dear viewer, fell for it.

Television spots. Reality show judges and special appearances. Posters. Full-page newspaper ads. An online blitz of “First Looks!” and “Official Trailers!”. Interviews. Magazine Q&As. The machine is out in full force, making sure that whenever you turn, on every bit of media that you own and consume, you see a glimpse of the film that you absolutely must see this Friday. What will happen if you don’t? You won’t have bragging rights. What if your friends see it before you do and talk about it at the Friday night bash? You’ll go “uh-huh, uh-huh”, curse yourself for not having anything to say. What if, horror, it makes a hundred crores, and you haven’t been part of that party? It’s called being left out. In the hyper-linked, hyper-connected times we live in, in which you read someone’s live tweets about a film even as you watch it — what!, to actually have to watch the damn thing, without someone else telling you what they are thinking about the scene? — you cannot not be a part of that global feeling.

It’s not your fault. You are inundated by so much verbiage that there is no time for GIGO, which meant, in a more innocent time, garbage in, garbage out. Everyone online, and who isn’t these days, is busy thumbing up and thumbing down, saying how much they loved or hated a film. Instant judgement, which takes less time than instant noodles. No time to breathe, no time to think, no time to let the film rest. No time to really get in touch with the sides of your brain and heart that tell you, yes, boss, that was really good. Or, yuck, that sucked. That’s a luxury you don’t have. There’s only so much noise you can take in, the rest you regurgitate.

One hundred crore! 200 crore! The numbers don’t really tell us anything about the film. All they do is give us an insight on how certain filmmakers are using “audience” and “market” interchangeably, and unforgivably. I cringe when a film is called a product, and I am not, and never will be, a market.

The moment we hear about how much money the film “will” make, we are primed. Why is that the sole reason to watch a film? Then, we are sheep being herded into the ’plexes, just adding to their bottomline, not nourishing our inner movie enthusiast. That’s when you reach out to a film critic, who will tell you if the film worked — on its own parameters, on what it sets out to do — and if not, why not. Not, never, based on the money it is about to make. A reader who’s been in touch with me over a period of time wrote in saying he was “very disappointed” with my Humshakals review because of the “mismatch” between my review and the “collective opinion of the masses”. That’s just the thing. It is not my job to assess collective opinion. My job is to watch the film on its own terms and see where I go with it. You like my opinion, come along for the ride. If not, hey, step off. The world is still going to be round.

Once and for all, dear viewers, I do not review the “market”. I review the film.


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