This morning, I noticed 4 distressed tweets from Chennai’s RJ Balaji.
I recall RJ Balaji having a spat with UTV when he had reviewed their Tamil version of Delhi Belly, Settai (I found it horribly boring, by remvoing all the sidey humor of the original in order to make it appeal to Tamil audiences, perhaps). Moviecrow did a long’ish story on that stand-off and Balaji eventually continued his reviews. Till this morning’s tweets.
I have no direct knowledge of what actually led to these tweets, but from what I could gather from multiple sources, it seems like he had a pretty acerbic review of Studio Green production’s new film All In All Aazhaguraja and that did not go well with the producer/star. It is perhaps them who are behind this distress signal from Balaji. But again, I’m only going by what I gleaned from a few others in the industry.
Update: Here’s a more detailed version of what actually happened, from the MoiFightClub blog:
“Turns out that Balaji hadn?t even reviewed the film and Vishal was talking about his interaction with viewers who had seen the Diwali releases and the viewers had blasted the films. The third caller had criticised Balaji and he was gracious enough to take the call on air when he had a choice to not allow it. Balaji?s comment was that if a thousand people made a poison biscuit, will you attack the guy who told you it is a poison biscuit or the people who made it? Nothing even remotely personal or below the belt!”
And then, Tamil actor Vishal, who had a new release on Deepavali (his film is called Pandiyanadu) tweeted via his production company’s handle. He had to say this,
So, in a way, Vishal confirms that it was the team behind All In All Aazhaguraja that was possibly instrumental in Balaji’s decision to abandon his radio show. The odd thing is that Vishal has an inherent advantage in that tweet – on one hand he’s amplifying the negative sentiment on a film that competes with his film, and on the other, he’s offering support to the so-called aggrieved party, the rival production house!
Then, a few other Tamil film celebrities started tweeting on the issue, in support of banning non-critics to comment on a movie.
Tamil actor Jiiva joined the fray and seems to have spent quite some time Googling for quotations to tweet and showcase his support.
I read a few tweets that point to why RJ Balaji should not continue reviewing films. These ranged from ‘his reviews are rude to the people in the film’, ‘he reviews selectively and does not review certain stars’ films’ to ‘he is not a reviewer at all’ and ‘he lampoons and ridicules all the people involved in all films’. The most common thread among people associated with the Tamil film industry, while they are opining on this topic seems to be, ‘Film making is an art. And many crores are involved in it. Films are like our baby. How can we let this person make fun of it all? His perspectives are hollow and insulting. He doesn’t understand the pain we go through while making our films’ and so on – this is largely the narrative. The fanboys of stars usually offer a simple, ‘Respect hard work’ as a way of admonishing reviewers and asking them not to review films starring their heroes negatively.
Let me explain why this is a horribly wrong trend.
1. Film reviewing, as a function/task, has changed irrevocably with social media. Everybody with a Twitter or Facebook account is a film critic – like it or not. Why? Because, everybody is a consumer (for a film), is spending money and will express his/her point of view, however bad, good, abrasive, funny, horrid, rude, silly those perspectives may sound, to film makers. As the famous saying goes, ‘The trouble with opinions is that everyone has them’. Deal with it – live with it. If it gets personal and abusive at a personal level, there are legal remedies at hand.
2. There is no point debating whether social media opinions are ‘reviews’ in the conventional sense or not. It doesn’t matter what it is – they are opinions and they are out there. Beyond social media, anybody with a point of view and a way to air them (in Balaji’s case, his talk show on radio) will do so. UTV South head has fought with Twitter reviewers too in the recent past and it headed nowhere.
3. Film makers should decide what films are – art, or a form of business? At a basic level, films are a commercial transaction with customers paying and consuming the so-called art. If it is art, it’d have perspectives, by onlookers. If it is a business, customers will have perspectives to air on what they paid for and consumed. Any way you see it, they have to deal with a LOT of people having a LOT of opinions on films. It’s not as if this is a new trend – people had opinions on films ever since commercial film release started. It’s just that with social media, those opinons become permanently available for perpetuity for the entire world to see and discuss.
4. The way to deal with so-called badly framed, rude, ridiculous, silly, immature, angry, abrasive reviews online or on any platform is to use the same platform to engage and debate it out. To discredit the reviewer fair and square, if possible. The way out is not to call up the employer who owns the platform and seek a ban on it. Or threaten the person into submission. That’s usually the style of politicians who are used to abusing power and influence to shut out critics of any kind. If they don’t like the review or opinion from all those millions on social media, ignore it and move on. Like any consumer brand that gets talked about on social media.
5. The film industry also needs to decide whether online opinions and reviews by critics affect a film’s prospect or not. If they think it does, the way out is to work with reviewers, debate negative reviews like sane adults and do what is possible within a legal and mature framework. Resorting to threats may work with mainstream media outlets like newspapers and radio, but will fall flat with social media. Because… nobody controls social media. On the other hand, If they think all these don’t affect a film’s prospects, then there is no point even bothering about negative reviews.
6. Just like the film industry goes about using and re-using positive reviews and opinions to accentuate the prospects of the film (whether it helps or not), why don’t they understand that the reverse is also possible? You could see almost every movie celebrity retweeting positive views on social media to the point of exhaustion. And they also talk breathlessly about the millions of YouTube views a trailer or song gets and the lakhs of Facebook likes it all gets. So, all that’s perfectly fine, but negative reviews are not? Why can’t they understand that there could be people who do not like something in a film? The usual additional point that is offered to this line of thought is, ‘there is a way to offer opinions. You can’t say anything you want’. Of course, but this is as subjective as saying a movie is good or a movie is bad. Also, the truth with social media is that it is the voice of the people – they will say whatever they want, in whatever form they want.
7. An oft-used line of reasoning for reviews is that ‘they should try making a movie and then review’. That’s the most absurd argument in the history of mankind because it assumes that all reviews are made by film experts and they all know what they are talking about. That kind of reviewing is almost dead and is perhaps not all that relevant now. The truth is that anybody with an opinion will share it with whoever he/she wants. Why? Because they can. And will.
8. I won’t even go into advising the industry to start making ‘good movies’ because that’s a hugely subjective topic. Every film or piece of art will always have two kinds of audiences – those who like it and those who don’t (and those who are indifferent to it – that’s the third group). Just like the film makers have the right to unleash any and every kind of film on unsuspecting audiences, audiences in turn have the right to say anything and everything they want on any movie, in any manner they deem fit. There are legal guidelines relating to libel and defamation – use those options to contest those opinions that you think are irresponsible, immature or damaging. Why? Because free speech is not absolute – if it intrudes in someone else’s personal space, they could use legal recourse. The intent behind Section 66A is precisely this, though it comes with its own set of riders on the extent of its usage. But that doesn’t take anything away from the responsibility that comes with free speech – the only thing that differs is who gets to decide if the free speech has been used responsibly or not. You, as an aggrieved party could feel that someone has used his/her free speech irresponsibly, but as always, you don’t have the right to take your own action on it. You’d need to seek the proper channels to address the concern and fight it like any sane, educated person would.
I do understand that there are a whole lot of trolls and abusers online who use the mask of anonymity to unleash vitriol on celebrities and just about anyone who don’t agree with them. That is an unfortunate side effect of free speech, but there is a big difference between those anonymous trolls and someone who uses his/her identity in full public glare to air his views. And there are examples of people seeking legal recourse against such trolls. It is tough, but not impossible, like anything to do with any kind of legal recourse. Using force and threat tactics to silence critics or anybody with a not-so-appealing opinion is nothing but cowardice and abuse of power, and like Barbra Streisand had found out the hard way, is most likely to be counterproductive.
9. I continue to hold a major grouse on how badly some of the online review sites frame their views and news – in terms of poor language and articulation. But that’s just my individual opinion on the way they write, not on their right to hold an opinion and to air it. As long as they not infringing on anyone’s right, they have every right to express their opinion in any manner they think is appropriate. If I do not like it, I’d simply not read them.
10. I create content of some middling value in this blog and my other music review blog, Milliblog. It is being read and followed by a few people online and I face a lot of criticism from fanboys when I pan the soundtrack of one of their heroes. As much as possible, I try and reason out with ‘these are personal opinions’ line of thought, but some choose to get personal and abusive too. The best thing I can then do to keep myself sane is ignore them. A question I was asked in this connection was that unlike a blog, film makers invest crores of rupees in films and stand to lose a lot, and also impact the employment of thousands of people – so, is it fair that someone not connected with film industry, with no knowledge of film critiquing to criticise and lampoon films in the name of review. The harsh truth is… yes, such a person can do what he/she feels like doing. Because, and I say this again, the trouble with opinions is that everyone has them. There is a civil way to handle opinions and then there is the Tamil film industry way to handle opinions. See, it has already become a horribly bad precedent. This is an insult to decent, self-respecting film makers in Tamil Nadu, that their industry is being seen as a goons-led industry that can go to any extent in shutting up naysayers.
Related reading material from this blog:
1. Why did you not like my soundtrack?
2. ?Where is the audience??, asks leading Indian film maker!
3. Will social media be Raavan?s Raavan?
4. Resetting the reviewer-reader equation using internet