What many film reviewers I know dislike about their job? Ratings

One of the things chat-show host Karan Johar and his filmmaker buddies have often done, meeting up over coffee on national television, is bitch the hell out of movie critics (I’ve been on Johar’s show twice, in this context).

The last time (2017) that Johar, along with other directors, similarly met up, Zoya Akhtar made a point about how she should give out movie reviews/reviewers star-ratings, in the same way that they have been collectively, numerically condescending towards other people’s works, week after week.

It’s another matter that a movie review (or commentary of any sort) isn’t quite a letter to filmmakers telling them how they are, or what they should be like. It is, at best, a personal, experiential account of what they have done—with their movie, and to the reviewer, as an audience. This is obviously no different from a travelogue—which isn’t a letter of praise/complaint to the city’s municipal council either.

And besides, regardless of anyone’s opinion, there is hardly a scope to re-edit a film (or book, or a sporting match), once it’s done. What good is a supposedly constructive review to a self-contained creation—unlike in the case of hotels, restaurants, apps, and other services, that are perennially works in progress? 

What Akhtar’s remark actually reminded me of is a frighteningly realistic episode—‘Nosedive’ (Season 3, Episode 1)—of the Netflix masterpiece, Black Mirror, that observes a world falling apart as humans simply start rating each other, through an app, on a whim.

How close are we to that dystopia, already? If it helps, for instance, I once accidentally looked back at my Ola cab driver’s dashboard, having got off the car. He’d rated me two, on his customer-rating app. We’d had a minor tu-tu mein-mein over smoking in his car. I immediately fished out my phone, rated him, one! What does it take to extend this phenomenon across every human interaction? Nothing.

Ever since a July, 1928, issue of New York Daily News, where film critic Irene Thirer began rating movies on a scale of three (and the legendary Cashier Du Cinema popoularised this idea, for crowd-sourced audience-polls, in the ‘50s), star-ratings have in fact globally dominated discourse on movies, far more than anything we know.

Readers have both demanded, and resorted to it. Writers/broadcasters have had to comply. It’s unlikely that a sports fan will ever step out of a cricket match and say, “I give Kohli two stars for his performance.” It’s almost imperative that the same person will step out of a film and declare, “You gave it two stars? I give it zero!” 

What kind of a hare-brained statement is that? Did the Internet, social-media in particular, amplify this voice to a point of collective cacophony? Hell, yeah. Knocking nuance out of a conversation about a film (which is no different from a person) you love or hate, and knowing that all it takes to rubbish/laud anything, is to rate it like a school-teacher grading students, and pretty much get away with it sounding superior, can be seriously empowering.

Actual movie reviewing has perennially suffered as a result. Has the movie industry benefitted from this? Hugely. Practically every film gets a “four-star” rating (from someone or the other). Observe the linear constellations on pretty much every new Bollywood poster, post-release.

At a panel-discussion on film reviewing at the Jagran Film Festival (one of my many attempts to understand how fellow reviewers approach their job), Amul Mohan, who runs the film-trade magazine Super Cinema, and having recently produced a film, tells me about getting flooded with ‘four star ratings’, personally texted to him, to be used against the professional reviewer’s name, on the film’s poster, the following morning!

By professional, I guess I mean those who get paid to express opinion. Except, alas, sometimes, for whatever it’s worth, that opinion, if not a bunch of generic adjectives, is a frickin’ number!

I asked fellow reviewers if they’d ever done a rethink about a film that they had watched and instantly reviewed, only to realise later that it wasn’t as good or as terrible as it had seemed then. Some of them said yes; most others, no. But can you not feel differently about a movie (as you might about a person, in hind-sight)? Perhaps.

I asked myself the same question (in my head), only to realise that I’ve got it wrong so many times—not the review; well, there’s nothing right or wrong about opinion anyway, it is how you genuinely felt, and therefore expressed, at that moment.

But I’m talking about ratings, by which movies (and so much else) are bunched together—like apples and oranges that can surely be compared, because they’re both fruits. Can you seriously weigh each on a scale, or a meter (3, 3.5, 4, 2.5, 1.5 etc.), and expect to generate the exact value each time? I feel Akhtar’s pain. Yeah, maybe she should really rate reviewers the same way so many of us simply rate movies!

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