Reverse Swing: Criminalising criticism
The drift is clear. Criticism is an underworld impulse and undermines the nation’s spirit.
Some delightful news has been filtering in of late from the film world. The Tamil Film Producers Council has suggested that “in the guise of film criticism”, any person who attacks films, actors, directors and producers and “crosses all limits,” will attract legal action. A senior PRO for the industry, ‘Diamond’ Babu, has lamented that “these days”, every Tom Dick and Hariharan is “doing reviews and wounding people with their comments”. A grave charge, indeed. But he was reticent to comment on how, in the guise of film making, every Thanthoni, Dimwit and Howler was causing grievous hurt and injury to viewers.
Elsewhere, in Mumbai, the director of the box-office hit ‘Kabir Singh’, which has also been critically shredded for its deeply misogynistic content, has labelled all critics as “parasites”. Sandeep Reddy Vanga asserted in an interview to an online film portal that anyone critiquing his film was a “pseudo”. Of course, he remained discreetly silent about how filmmakers like him were imposing a pseudo understanding of cinema and other social issues on an unsuspecting public.
More recently, at a press conference in Mumbai, actor Kangana Ranaut went after PTI film critic Justin Rao for having dared critique her film ‘Manikarnika’ and accused him of running a “smear campaign” against her. This snow-balled into Ms. Ranaut’s feisty sister jumping into the fray and elaborating that since ‘Manikarnika’ was about ‘Jhansi ki Rani’ (played by Ms. Ranaut), and since the Jhansi Rani led the first war of Indian Independence, any critique of Ms. Ranaut was tantamount to being a critique of the Rani and, thus, “anti-national”.
All-in-all, a heady smorgasbord of delectable morsels.
Till recently, the threat seemed to be from human rights activists, lawyers, intellectuals, ‘urban Naxals’, seditionists, JNU types, ‘Khan Market gang’ and such assorted enemies. Now, tantalisingly, the film critic too has made a backdoor entry into this august assembly.
We have moved headlong into a ‘new India’ which is rooting for criminalising criticism.
Historically, I suppose, the original critic was that brat who exclaimed, ‘but, the emperor is wearing no clothes’. And such brats certainly need to be whacked for speaking imperfect truths out of turn. The Duchess, in ‘Alice’, had it right when she spluttered:
Speak roughly to your little boy
And beat him when he sneezes;
He only does it to annoy,
Because he knows it teases.
The comments from the film industry do raise a few questions. Who is a critic who “crosses all limits”? I can close my eyes and imagine how this must have been said in Tamil – romba over-a poraanga. That’s pretty stiff criticism of the critic, itself. I live along a beach-front in Chennai and have, often, seen cops zooming in on unsuspecting couples romancing on the seashore. The wretched couple is dragged to the road and, sometimes, to the nearby police station. The effort is to squeeze a few demonetized notes out of them. Once in a way, I stick my neck out and accost the police to ask them why they,‘to the marriage of such true minds, admit impediments’? The answer, invariably, has been, ‘Sir, romba over-a poraanga’ (Sir, they’re going too much ‘over’!).
Now this is the conundrum that we are left to grapple with. How does one deconstruct ‘crossing limits’ or going ‘over’ that seems to incense producers, directors, actors and cops? There are, of course, legal limits crossing which can attract punishment. It is like crossing or going over a speed limit. There are known consequences which everyone is aware of. But to call a film more ragged than the plastic pouch that the cat dug up in the garden or to say that you could make good furniture out of a particular actor because he’s so wooden can only be a polite expression of one’s utter disgust at being made to waste time and money over something so unworthy. It is the critics and viewers who should be saying the film has crossed all tolerable limits.
What gives the makers privilege over users? Don’t consumers have rights? Can’t a buyer critique a car for a faulty steering or a provision store owner for stones in the dal or a garment maker for colours that run or buttons that break at first wash? Obviously, henceforth, all such criticism will be tantamount to attacking the nation and attract penal provisions. All aspects of life around us should be imagined as sunshine and roses.
I can now imagine seeing ‘Kabir Singh’ and writing a very favourable review. First of all, I’ll describe the greatness of the 15th century mystic poet who strove to bring the Hindu and Muslim communities together and how, therefore, the Shahid Kapoor film makes a great contribution to communal harmony in our times by merely invoking such a saintly name. One could then praise the film for being so action oriented that, within half an hour, one sees viewers leaping out of their seats and dashing out, in search of some misogynistic good deed. This gives a chance to our police force to prove their efficiency and shine in society. For all the above reasons the government should exempt it from entertainment tax, setting an example for younger filmmakers to make such meaningful films. And, of course, the last sentence of each review should mandatorily be that the film’s producer be recommended for a Padma Shri and director be nominated for an Oscar.
And, to satisfy the Tamil film producers, there should be nothing in ‘the guise’ of film criticism; it should only be in the guise of film appreciation. All critics must start out with the premise that just like it is impossible for a Hindu to be violent (as violently stated by Sadhvi Pragya), it is also impossible for a Tamil film to be anything but superlative. As the film gets over, the critics job is to deeply bow before the screen and go write an appropriate piece of adoration. Tamil cinema, like Tamizh Thaay (mother), is to be worshipped and venerated.
The drift is clear. Criticism is an underworld impulse and undermines the nation’s spirit. Recalcitrant critics should be dispatched to the concentration camps of Assam, reserved for non-citizens. Or, at least, tormented with a CBI raid in the manner done to lawyer-activists Indira Jaising and Anand Grover. All aspiring critics should be given special training in shakhas in Nagpur or Madurai in which their minds are re-wired for perennial worshipfulness. This would pave the path for a proximate future when all Indian cinema, literature, sports, economy, politics will be a rosy-tinted bubble, leading to a huge upward spurt in gross domestic happiness.
And, then, the Constitutional provisions of 19 and 19A can be conveniently rewritten, guaranteeing ‘freedom of speech’, but abolishing that freedom ‘after speech’.
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