Film criticism or PR machinery? The fight between Indian movie studios and critics rages on - Firstpost

Film criticism or PR machinery? The fight between Indian movie studios and critics rages on

The Easter weekend this year saw an explosion. With months of prior marketing and buzz, the whole world was waiting for the release of Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice. A usually reclusive Ben Affleck was on every talk show, and every online publication, speaking about Batman. It was quite the marketing blitzkrieg.

This would explain the massive opening that the film saw, with a record-breaking box office collection of close to 170 million on the first weekend. However, as the cliched click bait headline goes, what happens next will blow your mind.

After a majority of negative reviews for the film, the second weekend saw a collection of only around 52 million, with a 68 percent drop in collections, reports Variety. Why did that happen, you ask? Word of mouth. And yet, back home in Bollywood, every Koffee with Karan episode you see, film stars and directors are quick to quip, "critics/reviews don't matter."

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A man watches DDLJ at Maratha Mandir. Representational image. Reuters.

There has always been a clash between film stars and studios, and film critics; sort of a you-can't-live-with-them-you-can't-live-without-them situation. Many will argue that critics sit on their comfortable asses and pass off judgmental remarks on films that people have worked hard on. Reviewers, however, defend their right to a healthy discussion around cinema.

However, off late within the Hindi film industry, the fight is getting a bit more heated.

It all started in November last year when FoxStar Studios released its Salman Khan blockbuster, Prem Ratan Dhan Payo. The usual practice, followed by most studios in India, was to have press previews of the film well in advance (this could be as early as a week or two before the release, or on a Wednesday or Thursday before the Friday release). However, over the course of 2016, a bunch of critics noticed that films studios have stopped arranging previews for their films, leaving critics to write reviews in a rush on Fridays, after watching the first show in the morning.

Most notable of these films were Kapoor & Sons and Neerja, both highly successful movies under Fox Star Studios. Fed up with writing their reviews in a rush, and not being given enough time and respect as film critics, around 11 reviewers from Delhi and Mumbai wrote to Fox, asking to explain their decision (which many reviewers claim started an alarming trend within several other studios).

Fox responded to them by stating that they have taken a “policy decision” not to hold press previews of "Bollywood films releasing across India and other international markets" and that this began with the release of Prem Ratan Dhan Payo in November last year.

Suparna Sharma, film critic with The Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle, sheds more light on this issue. "What's interesting is that this ban on previews is specific to their Bollywood films. FoxStar India recently did a press preview of Kung Fu Panda III and though the film released in India on April 1, March 31 onwards, they was promoting positive reviews of the film by Indian film critics on Twitter. They claim that they are applying this decision uniformly, but that is often not the case," she reveals in an email interview with Firstpost.

And this is where the frustration begins.

Sharma claims that even though there were strictly no press previews for Kapoor & Sons, "some positive reviews were mysteriously out before the film’s release and FoxStar India was busy promoting them." She also reveals that this inconsistency is usually directed towards "certain websites, publications, trade people who either have a deal with the producers or are on friendly terms with them."

While Sharma doesn't give out any names, we are all aware of this practice, which is essentially a smart corporate ploy to garner positive buzz around the film before its release. "These favoured publications and portals are shown films in advance and their so-called reviews, which come out before objective, independent reviews, are disseminated without a disclaimer. The star-ratings of these flattering reviews are put out on Facebook and Twitter with congratulatory, catchy lines, and posted in newspaper and online adverts as 'advance praise' ".

This is appalling on many levels.

First and foremost, it puts an unrealistic expectation on the remaining film critics to deliver a "well-written review" within hours. This is not mentioning the sheer unfair practice of favouritism. "Imagine if I hand you a book of 200 pages and ask you to read it fast and upon reading immediately send me 600 or a 900 word review of the book -- an intelligently written, engaging, informed review. That’s the sort of pressure of deadlines we have without press previews," says Sharma.

Tanul Thakur, who writes reviews for The Wire, agrees with Sharma, while speaking to Firspost. "Ideally critics need a night to think and write about films. You often don't remember important points immediately after watching a film, and a night's sleep makes all the difference. That's why previews are important. And it's a well-respected practice abroad, so why are Indian studios being so guarded?" he asks.

He further states, "Film criticism is not just about 'yay or nay'. Films like Kapoor & Sons, and Neerja need time to write reviews as they are good, layered films. Writing a fast review would not be doing any justice to the hard work put into the films. Film writing has now been replaced with congratulatory tweets. It's all a big PR machinery at work."

For the sake of a well-argued discussion, we reached out to FoxStar India to learn their point of view. However, their representative refused to say anything on the matter, and claimed that there was no issue. "We have merely shifted the press previews to Friday," we were swiftly told. There was no time to respond with, "but that's not a preview!".

Sharma claims that in order to reach a consensus, several critics wrote to FoxStar agreeing to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement with the studio as well, responding to their concerns of critics "tweeting between shows" and therefore ruining the film for audiences in advance. FoxStar, however, declined that as well.

Upon speaking with several executives in Eros Now and Viacom 18 Motion Pictures, all of whom did not want to be named (nobody is surprised), we were told that while a Yash Raj Films has consistently never had press previews, other film studios look at convenience, now, to decide whether a preview makes sense or not.

So, while a film like Mastizaade would not have a press preview, because the reviews of the film wouldn't really determine anything or reach out to their preferred audience, a film like Zubaan, that would need to rely on word of mouth and social media for popularity, has its preview on a Monday on the week of its release.

"It's a flaky, cumbersome process to find out whether there are press show or not because when we are told there won't be any, very often we've seen people on Twitter write tweets in favour of the film much before its release," says Thakur, and he sounds upset. He then goes on to say that he's glad someone is speaking about this.

Saibal Chatterjee, who writes reviews for NDTV movies, tries to find a balance between the two views. "Technically we can't demand previews of film. It's the studio's prerogative on whether they want to show a film prior to its release or not. As critics, our job is to provide justice to the film, the profession or film criticism with our work," he says.

There is a point to be made about this. If you were to invest crores of rupees in a film, then not arranging a preview of it to preserve the curiousity seems valid. It is however, the selective favourtism that bothers the critics.

"There's a very positive reviewing culture around the world, and critics are usually responsible people. If studios have a problem with the word getting out, there are other ways to tackle it than stop previews altogether. Why should opinions be manufactured? It's only a film not a national secret," says Chatterjee.

We couldn't help but laugh at that statement, but it also came with an uneasy feeling. Allow me to explain why. 10 years later, if a student wants to write a dissertation on the portrayal of homosexuality in Hindi films, my biggest fear is that the only reading material present on Kapoor & Sons will be "superb film! Cinematic excellence sub par! Amazing, amazing, amazing" [note: this writer loved Kapoor & Sons, but sometimes it's important to be objective].

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