Indian Film Critics: The Real Story

Many outsiders consider reviewing films to be a cushy, fun job – an instrument that enables movie buffs to watch films for free and even be paid for it. From the looks of it, many Indian film critics consider it to be just this, too; a gossipy three hours at the cinemas, armed with the knowledge that they’re part of an exclusive secret group of folks privileged to watch a movie a few days before the rest of the country. Then they act all mysterious and boastful about it on Twitter by dropping hints, shadowy terms and by teasing followers. 

But really, it isn’t the most glamorous or exclusive job. It requires hours and hours of watching utterly mediocre movies in cold halls, and then grappling with one’s conscience about whether to butter the makers or entertain readers. 

Perhaps this culture and lack of professionalism will never change here, which is why film criticism really isn’t considered to be a very serious and well-informed profession. There are always a few good apples – young folks who want to make a career out of writing about films (and not filmmakers) – but not enough to allow readers to trust our integrity. 

But one should get a better idea of the lives we lead, the routine and the little habits and hang-ups that allow us to feel relevant. 

So, here are a few things you should know about reviewers, routines, PR agencies and our hallowed press shows:

1. A critic’s greatest fear is being bombarded by the director, producer and actors directly after the screening at the door. The second greatest fear is being bombarded with early, overzealous news channel cameras asking for an opinion. 

2. Critics prefer press shows being held at the more intimate screening venues like Sunny Super Sound (Juhu) or Lightbox (Santacruz). The food spread is far better; it’s the closest to the glory days of Famous studio screenings and other old venues in Bandra. A multiplex press show means watered Pepsi, soggy popcorn and two-day old samosas. But we’ll still eat it all. 

3. Suburban movie critics will whine about the Hollywood previews at NFDC (Worli), and concentrate only on desi screenings – mostly held in and around Juhu and Andheri. 

4. The critics that travel from far and wide (Nerul, Thane, Chembur) just to review films are the ones who will review just about anything (including titles you’ve never heard of, and press shows held at C-grade shady venues in Laxmi Industrial estate) – simply because it doesn’t make sense to commute all the way just to watch one movie and go back. 

5. Critics have learned to associate particular smells with each screening venue. Blindfold them and take them to any hall or screening venue in Mumbai, and they will tell you immediately where they are. 

6. The digital (website) critics are mostly veterans, and know every PR agency, intern and their families’ families. They know of mysterious press screenings a week before they’re actually held or even planned. 

7. Younger critics think that the PR circle is a mafia group – who refuse to recognize them or invite them to early screenings. This isn’t entirely false. PR agencies will mostly invite the group of older critics who they can trust, and perhaps some who are likely to spread a positive word beforehand. 

8. Once they enter a hall, most critics have go-to gangs and seats/portions. The senior ‘celebrity’ critics tend to sit with each other. The ‘entertainment-oriented’ critics (mostly women) sit ahead of them, speak loudly and seek attention. The senior women sit with one another and are usually the no-nonsense ones who want shows to start on time; PR organizers fear them the most. The older men sit right behind them and make a nuisance of themselves by having heated political discussions and loud phone conversations during a show. The younger ones are left to find their comfort zone quietly in obscure corners of the hall. 

9. If you’re an honest critic, don’t expect any early invites – or sometimes, any invites at all!

10.  The best place to find most English-language critics after (or before) a particularly long show is at the nearest pub. 

11.  Some brave critics survive on samosas and popcorn for three consecutive Thursday screenings – from town to the suburbs – and live to actually write about these movies after going home. None of them are mainstream critics – who tend to choose the bigger movies and not more than two shows a week. 

12.  For many, this is the most exciting social as well as professional event of the week. One can simply not go home straight after – unless it’s a late screening on Thursday, which is usually the case lately. 

13.  Sometimes, silly producers have a list of critics they don’t want at early screenings. This list is communicated to the PR agency, which in turn panics if it sees the ‘forbidden’ faces at a show. These are invariably the more brutal no-agenda critics whose reviews – producers believe – must appear as late as possible. 

14.  Don’t ever ask a film critic what he/she really does for a living. This could be followed by extended bouts of ranting, weeping, finger-wagging or all together. 

15.  Most critics at press shows write for obscure publications many have never heard of. These are the ones who appear over-confident, arrogant, and have the most ‘swag’ in screenings. 

16.  Trade analysts walk into screenings with the air of a King newly crowned. 

17.  High on a critic’s wish list for screenings is not the junk food, but just a simple cup of coffee or tea – which multiplexes never offer in the ‘free coupon’

18.  Critics and journalists form only 70% of the actual viewers in a press show. The rest are random freeloaders, struggling actors, family members, girlfriends/boyfriends and ushers. 

19.  Critics behave worse than Virar fast commuters and single-screen audiences at ‘Khan’ screenings. 

20.  Often, community and crew members are planted at various corners of a show to clap, whistle and spout loud compliments. When this is the case, a critic can guess at how terrible the movie is.