Shutting up RJ Balaji – a shameful precedent from Tamil film industry

This morning, I noticed 4 distressed tweets from Chennai’s RJ Balaji.

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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,

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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.

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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

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  • HK

    I have noticed too, that the industry seems to be filled with people who survive on sycophancy…. “Fan” clubs, “close friends” and others of that ilk!
    I have even heard say.. I have no direct knowledge of this… of threats being made if a “bad” review was expressed…
    This attitude overflows into other areas as well, as in the posters we see on our daily drives or walks around our beloved city… sigh!!!

  • Sampathkumar Ponnuswami

    All of my friends comment about the movies right away after watching it in Facebook and Twitter.. I do that too..And we will carry on..

  • Sundar

    Comments and reviews are usual. i think rj balaji should continue reviewing as he does always… he is not criticizing, he is telling the fact.

    atleast from here then , tamil film industry should not waste money for worthless stories.. am happy if fearing for the review, heros and makers start making the story and theme sincerely

  • AK

    Every body has a right of opinion, but it is legal and ethical if he keeps it to his own social media (fb, twitter or blog). But if the opinion is placed on a commercial platform (website, radio show, tv show), which makes money, then u are in trouble. It is no longer a right of opinion, coz that opinion is on a commercial platform and is directly impacting the film business. I believe all the film reviews on commercial platforms shud be taken out.
    Just because you are a film enthusiast, doesnt make u a film expert or critic. Take the example of critics in a sport. The reputed sports media and channels only get opinions from ex-sportsmen like Gavasker or Kapil Dev. And we value them, because they played the game and know the intricacies involved in it. Similarly with reviewers abt vehicles. They are mostly Mechanical Engineers or worked in the Auto Industry. Now these so-called ‘film-experts’ have ever been part of atleast one of the crafts involved in film making? or atleast have a degree in Jouranlism or Mass Communications? If they are not, how are you authorized to make or sell your film review on a commercial platform? Then this also becomes Yellow Journalism.

    • Sorry, I disagree on quite a few points.

      1. An RJ is not a film critic. He uses his opinions on films as one of the many things he can talk about in his show. It does not make him a film reviewer and it is the film industry which is calling him one and equating him with critics. He perhaps is looking at it just as his opinions.

      2. That it is a commercial platform does not change anything. If at all, it gives better powers to aggrieved parties to claim that parent company of the radio station is acting against the interest of producers. But they need to price all that – they can’t simply make random charges because they don’t like what he’s taking. As long as there are listeners, he can continue his show. And add long as people listen, the channel would want him to make his opinions public on the show. We don’t have entry criteria even in politics, so it is funny that you seek that in reviews 🙂

      3. Someone who is impacted by his opinions need to price that his opinions have affected the collections. They can’t just claim it because they assume it to be true. There needs to be some basis for that claim, else it is hollow and is just someone ranting.

      4. My first point in post above is about how social media has completely changed the review ecosystem. That is the truth. We have a lot of people who share their opinion on cars, not just automobile engineers. We have even more people sharing opinion on sports, not just ex players. As I had mentioned, you can call them whatever you want, but these opinions are indeed shared and are out there. Some of them have gained enough credentials by consistently sharing opinions on a topic and have moved beyond their personal media channel on Facebook or twitter and into mainstream media channels. This is democratization of opinions. You can’t stop it – at best you can only cry your heart out about not looking this trend. You are entitled to that opinion but it is not going to change anything.

      5. What you are taking about it about who people may trust – it is of course possible that people will trust the reviews (of anything) from a person who has some relevant qualification or history to offer that review. But social media makes this into a level playing game. You can, by nature of reviewing films consistently and regularly, and building your own audience online can win over mainstream media folks and get your own show there. There are tons of examples for that across the world. So trust can be earned by doing things too even if you lack qualifications that you hold so dear.

      6. Yellow journalism? 🙂 Sharing review online or as an RJ does not make anyone a journalist. You need to get out of this archaic mindset of all these roles belonging ONLY to a journalist. Those days are over.

      Bottomline? You are looking at all this as if you are in 1990. Welcome to 2013!

      • Kumar

        I enjoy Balaji’s reviews a lot. But i feel he should do that for all movies.. He doesnt do that. He never reviewed Billa 2 or Thalaiva or Vijay/ajit bad fils. He rarely does that because he knows about the mass appeal.. I bet if Baba had released in last 2 years , he would not have reviewed it. And as it always go, he can still use youtube and sound cloud but he juts cant use Big fm as medium

        • milliblog

          Kumar: ‘I feel he should do all movies’ is not in your control. But you listening to his show or not listening to it IS in your control – and you can and should exercise that. As against wanting him to do things that you think is appropriate.

          As an RJ, he has every right to be selective on the kind of movies he talks about, for whatever reason. And he can perfectly use Big FM as the medium. All we can do as listeners (like voters do in politics) is show our support or vote against it by not listening, for any reason that you think is apt.

        • Kumar: ‘I feel he should do all movies’ is not in your control. But you listening to his show or not listening to it IS in your control – and you can and should exercise that. As against wanting him to do things that you think is appropriate.

          As an RJ, he has every right to be selective on the kind of movies he talks about, for whatever reason. And he can perfectly use Big FM as the medium. All we can do as listeners (like voters do in politics) is show our support or vote against it by not listening, for any reason that you think is apt.

    • SK

      Going by your examples, Harsha Bhogle, a famous cricket commentator, hasn’t played first class cricket He isn’t a cricketer. But does that prevent you from not listening to him? Also, RJ Balaji is just airing his opinions on the film..He isn’t selling it..even if he does, the choice of buying it lies with YOU! So please base your arguments with reason.

      • sathish

        You mentioned Harsha Bhogle here. If you are good listener of Harsha Bhogle, you could have clearly noticed him commentating with utmost respect to players and criticizing them without being disrespectful .. When RJ Balaji does is trash talks n mocks everyone in the name of reviewing movies …

        • Sorry – Harsha doing what he does, in the way he does, is just *one* way of doing it. Satire is a legitimate form of offering an opinion. The question always is who gets to decide if satire crossed a line or not and who owns that line.

          ‘Trash talks and mocks’? Is that your individual opinion? Or Chennai’s collective opinion? If it is the former, are you allowed to call him up and threaten him to stop the show? If it is the latter, Big FM would see the sign on the wall clearly and can the segment on their own.

          For heaven’s sake, please understand what the discussion is about. It is not about the quality of Balaji’s show – it is about who gets to decide what quality is appropriate and for whom.

          • sathish

            I ain’t supporting people who threatened him to stop the show ….My arugment is that freedom to review movies is getting abused here …Just because I have a famous radio station, I can’t keep mocking and trashing movies and actors in the name of freedom to speech and reviews. Coming back to your heaven sakes arugument, you mean to say that in a country like India, anybody can speak anything about anyone?? ….Please explain what you are trying to put forward …

          • Yes, you can speak anything about anyone and anything in India. That’s the point of this post – it is called Freedom of Speech/Freedom of Expression. For more, read this,
            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_of_expression_in_India

            But, even for freedom of speech, there are restrictions. If some producer is upset over the content of Balaji’s reviews, he can possbly seek legal remedy based on ‘obscenity’ or ‘defamation’ clauses mentioned in the law (see above link). But he can’t just tell a court that he’s upset with what Balaji spoke – he has to prove that, over a period of time, Balaji has damaged his reputation – the onus is on him to prove damage of reputation. Generally, opinions on things like films can’t claim reputation damage, but you never know what a good lawyer can cook up.

          • sathish

            On similar lines, let vishal and Jiva share their own opinions on RJ Balaji with all the prejudices or whatever …If RJ Balaji is too concerned about it, he can drag them to court on legal grounds… In addition to that, why would he stop the show based on some random threatening calls?? …Famous celebrities do get random threatening calls and I guess he shouldn’t be carping about it …. If he is too concerned about safety n stuffs, let him go to the police commissioner and make a formal complaint ..

          • Sharing online opinions is completely alright. I doubt if Balaji would be bothered about them.

            But threatening calls? That’s taking law into their own hands, knowing fully well that any normal man won’t want to spend time and effort fighting it in the court given how time-consuming and expensive they are. So, it is known that if a few calls can silence a critic or someone with a differing view, why bother suing him for defamation or slander? So, it is already working.

            This is the bane of Tamil Nadu, in general, anyway, inspired generously by how so-called politics is conducted.

  • Sundakka

    Listen to Balaji’s Response in his show today. https://soundcloud.com/sundakka/sets/balaji-response

  • Chandra Sekaran.V

    @Artists: if your film is like your baby, why sell it?

  • Sai Karthik

    Did you hear the film he reviewed in which he acted himself as a comedian? Theeya Vela Seyyanum Kumaru !! Please people grow up !

    • Why is that important? You are referring to possibility of bias in his reviews. Is a man not allowed to be biased at all – we are all biased on something, at some point. Just because he has a successful show he can’t be biased?

      If he is biased – possible; not ignoring that possibility at all – the answer is to not listen to his show. The answer is not force him, in one way or other, to stop the show. Please see the context of this discussion and respond appropriately, before asking others to grow up. Please.

  • sathish

    Ofcourse everybody has the right to review the movie …We can’t compare a common man’s review of a particular movie to Balaji’s review…He has millions of followers and he gotta get it right and unbaised when he reviews movies… If he keeps on mocking and talking trash about a movie, obviously he’s not gonna get many friends at Kollywood ….

    • I just cannot understand how anybody can ‘get it right’ and ‘unbiased’. The entire point of this post is to clearly communicate that there is NO ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ or ‘unbiased’ when it comes to opinions (on movies/anything). It is always one person’s perspective. We can either agree with that person or disagree with that person, but cannot intrude in his right to offer that perspective.

      That is the crux of this problem and post above.

      • sathish

        U don’t seem to understand my point ….There is an old saying “with power, comes the responsibility” …He has millions of followers and he can’t simply keep trashing about a movie in the name of reviewing it …..When someone invested crores in a movie, they would expect honest reviews from reviewers …not just grotesque mocking …

        • I completely understand your point and have also written about that ‘responsibility’ point in my post.

          The question is, who will judge/decide if he has acted responsibly or irresponsibly? If it is the film’s producer, isn’t that bias? If it is the court, then you can at least say that they are a neutral party.

          ‘Honest review’? Who gets to decide what is honest and what is not? The film’s producer? You? Obama? Me? Spiderman? Think about it.

          If the public stops listening to it, it means they have decided collectively that the program is dishonest. But how can individuals with biases and vested interest decide single-handedly?

          • sathish

            Ofcourse the public will listen to his shows as long as he mocks and makes fun of everyone in the movie …. The film producers have all the rights on their movies and it’s their prerogative to expect honest reviews from someone as popular as RJ Balaji ..Just coz he spends 120 bucks for movie doesn’t mean that he can trash about it …Not acceptable …

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  • Narayanasamy Mns

    he should continue it is just for fun .

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  • Guest

    Evryone has right to comment on movies. If the movie is really good there is no need to bother about criticism.

  • yoga

    very bad attitude,dont ever be a cause for a loss to producer,director,and all assistants who work in the film you comment.who you people are to decide the future of the people who work for films.will you accept if any one grades your work and puts in the social media.dont play with the lives of others.its looking to be a dream industry but lot and lot of people are still depending on the film sucess.just shut up and get out if you dont like it.

  • Shyam Kumar

    We need 120 show back the balaji. Dot.