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Critics are not publicity drones


In this age of misinformation and cleverly crafted half-truths, the widespread misunderstanding of the role of the critic is not surprising

Over the last couple of weeks, streaming platforms in India and America have issued some curious ‘instructions’ alongside preview screeners routinely sent to entertainment journalists and critics. Writing for the website Gizmodo, Charles Pullam-Moore revealed that Netflix had asked reviewers of their new animated miniseries Resident Evil: Infinite Darkness (adapted from the Resident Evil series of video games) to not refer to real-world politics or events. This zombie apocalypse story involves global health crises, refugees and their relationship with global humanitarian organisations. And yet, a Netflix executive somewhere thought a blanket ban on real-world references is a fair ask.

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Over in India, Disney Hotstar pulled off a similar gambit with Grahan, their new miniseries, which is based on a Hindi novel by Satya Vyas called Chaurasi (‘84’ in Hindi). As the name suggests, the story is set against the backdrop of the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom. And yet, Hotstar, in the lengthy embargo letter that accompanied its preview screeners for Grahan, wrote inexplicable stuff like this: “Grahan is a work of fiction and is inspired by Satya Vyas’s novel Chaurasi; please do not compare any scenes, plots or characters to any real-world events.” Another bullet-point instruction screeched, with capital letters and bureaucratic word salad: “Kindly do NOT connect the show to any current or past situations/ activities around the political happenings.”

To issue “review guidelines” alongside a copy of your new movie requires a special kind of contempt for journalists. But let’s ignore that for now and focus on what these two incidents are really about: controlling the narrative. In India, the increasingly draconian regulations for streaming platforms have meant that their executives are paranoid. They’re perennially scared of shows being banned, FIRs being filed, effigies being burned and so on. No streaming platform wants another Tandav on its hands, basically. One can discuss the intersection of art and politics till kingdom come, but meanwhile let’s not forget that Mohammad Zeeshan Ayub was dragged to court for something his character said in the middle of a scene.

Big bullies

The fear, then, is understandable to an extent, but the answer is surely not these laughable “instructions” and “guidelines” being sent to critics and entertainment journalists. It means that the likes of Netflix and Disney Hotstar are also behaving like bullies here. Older and more established critics may laugh these emails off and perhaps skip writing about these shows and films altogether (as many chose to do with Grahan, including myself), but to early career journalists, these emails might come across as intimidation; the power imbalance between billion-dollar corporations and perennially broke 20-something journalists needs no elaboration. Whatever the intention behind these “review guidelines” might be, Netflix and Disney Hotstar should at the very least have realised this.

But then again, it has proven to be open season on film critics lately. In her review of Netflix India’s new film Haseen Dillruba, critic Shubhra Gupta wrote that she felt Taapsee Pannu’s acting was becoming repetitive. Whether or not one agrees with this assessment, it is undeniably a comment on Pannu’s work, and does not say anything about her character or personality in real life. Pannu, however, who has 4.5 million followers on Twitter, called Gupta a “troll critic”, complaining that the review amounted to a “personal dig” (which it isn’t, not even close). RIP Gupta’s mentions, as they say on Twitter.

Good faith criticism

In this age of misinformation and cleverly crafted half-truths, it’s not surprising that there is widespread derision of — and confusion around — the role of the professional critic. Millionaire actors and billion-dollar corporations are united in their contempt for good faith criticism. Their appetites will not be met by anything short of universal adoration it seems.

Critics are not publicity drones that can be cranked up on command and voice-programmed to steer clear of lamp-posts marked ‘politics’. Critics are similarly disinterested in taking “personal digs” at actors or directors. Not because we can’t or won’t, but mostly because these ‘personal lives’ tend to be deathly boring (with a few notable exceptions). We generally have much more interesting things to write about.

We would, however, appreciate a modicum of common sense every now and then, especially from the leaders of the very industries (the problems around criticism are hardly limited to the film world) we’re writing about.

The writer and journalist is working on his first book of non-fiction.

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