Sheer Melody

A mole's eye-view of the Cosmos

Critical appreciation and its pitfalls

In my last blog post, Bio commented that I should write something about stuff that impacts us and affects us - like the upcoming elections. I wish I could oblige him - but asking me to comment on politics - be it internal or world - is like asking Britney Spears to comment on emerging trends in music. I sometimes wish I wasn't so apathetic about the general condition of humanity - be it in the motherland or otherwise - but I guess that's the way I am.

I wonder why Rediff spends possibly a humongous amount of dough in maintaining its message boards. Other than holding a mirror to the Darwinian philosophy of evolution (in this case - stunted), I don't really see how they serve any real purpose on the world wide web. Most amusing are the comments on anything written by Raja Sen. Pet-flogging-boy for many, his reviews get panned by lovers and haters of the movie alike. I am not sure why; I do concede that the man does get a tad wordy every now and then; but then again - I admire his perceptiveness about cinema even if I may not agree with what he says all the time.

Another thing which comes through in these message boards is the inability of people to understand what criticism is supposed to be. Criticism, be it literary or film, is just as much an art is the art of movie-making and writing - it's not meant to be gospel truth. Fine arts is typically always a highly subjective matter and expecting one's taste to match another's consistently is treading a fine line. One of the most dim-witted retorts seen to movie criticism is - "So you didn't like it: let me see you come up with something better". It's a little disconcerting to realize that for the majority of people who pan a movie or love it - the realization that critical appreciation or the reverse of a work of art necessarily require excellence in that field.

Staying on the subject of rediff message boards, another comment which is seen ad nauseum is "It's only a movie. It should be entertaining, it shouldn't be taken too seriously.". Most frequently, such messages are seen on boards of unadulterated crap like 'Rab ne bana di jodi' or 'Billu'. Something which never makes sense to me is why we have this demarcation between art-house entertainment (which is supposed to translate to 'good cinema'), and commercial ventures (which is supposed to refer to masala fare - the paisa vasool (returns proportionate to investment) kind - the kind that makes you come out either with tears streaming down your cheeks, or your face in a happy grin). A losing debate is quickly rescued with an argument which conveniently places the movie in the second 'masala' category - automatically absolving it all of its pitfalls and failures. What's disturbing is this attitude is not an isolated phenomenon, and rarely does this show any correlation to literacy. Take the example of 'Delhi 6' - I have talked about this film before, and one of my issues with this film was the compartmentalization it performs on the viewer's intelligence. People who liked this film will invariably defend the preachiness of the movie with the argument that a film needs to cater to the least common denominator to be successful at the box-office. For me the film failed at that precise moment - the moment Junior Bachhan opened his mouth to explain to the viewers how there's a kala bandar inside all of us (which probably explains why such films get made in the first place).

Music - for me - is tougher to review. Being a musician, something which irks me to no end is belittling one composer to support the cause of another. I personally am a big fan of both A R Rahman and Salil Chowdhury - both geniuses in their own era, and it was amusing and a little painful to see meaningless arguments on the 'Salil Chowdhury' forum comparing the two doyens. Such comparisons (perhaps inevitable) have become common ever since Rahman's double victory at the Oscars. While I do believe that Slumdog Millionaire is not Rahman's best work, using it as a leveller to dismiss the rest of Rahman's fabulous output over the years is nothing less than stupidity. Sample this argument - "Rahman's songs are based on rhythm rather than melody. He seems confused and a mixture of everything. Hence his are khichadi** songs". Note the general condescending tone which runs through the entire comment of this user. He is plainly ignorant about music, since he clearly believes that rhythm and melody are separate entities, and while making a fetching display of his ignorance, reaches a triumphant conclusion that Rahman's music is khichadi**. This phenomenon can also be found on display on various Illayaraja message boards where die hard Raja fans dismiss Rahman's work as monotonous peppered with frequent mention of the fact that Raja is the only Indian to have written a symphony. Frankly, I appreciate Illayaraja's music as much as I appreciate Rahman's, and for that matter - I love Salil-da's music to bits - as I have mentioned previously in this blog - but for the life of me - I cannot understand why one should belittle one composer to raise another's stature. For every group of people that loves Rahman's music, there will be another (possibly smaller one) which will be actively denigrating it. I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that Indians (and this is not meant to be an offensive generalization) haven't been exposed to world music the way the rest of the world has. While you have musicians in the US mixing jazz with African music in a fascinating cocktail, Indian musicians haven't paid much attention to the fine art of fusion. Rock, while it's popular in college circuits - is most frequently appreciated just for the sake of fitting and jazz is discarded as being too pseudo-intellectual to appeal to the common man. Indian music (and here I am referring to the output from the most-widely listened-to film music) is most often an ill-conceived mish mash of ideas borrowed from various corners of the world, frequently with no acknowledgment of the original source (yes, plagiarism has existed in a big way right from the 50s); and the audience has been fed on this diet of pulp. Rahman's greatness lies in the effortless way in which he fuses every possible genre into an Indian form - be it grunge, hip-hop, jazz or good-old Western Classical. And he does it mind-bendingly well! Comparing his output to that of other stalwarts isn't doing the man justice!

And Bio - I must apologize that I haven't managed to make a definite comment on politics - this week has not been particularly conducive to putting my thoughts together.

Till the next time...

** khichadi: gruel of rice and lentils

6 Responses to “Critical appreciation and its pitfalls”

  1. # Anonymous Anonymous

    Sandy, after reading your post all I could decipher was two names: Rehman and Salil Choudhury. I'm a fan of the later, only because of his contribution to Bangla music. My apologies for being a complete duffer when it comes to *hindi* movies. But often times I'm forced to watch parts of those movies (call it marital compromise) and I don't think that I'm missing much.

    Trivia: I never coax people to take interest in politics, here or abroad. But, I couldn't stop myself from providing you with a trend. You'll be surprised at the number of Indian "youngsters" taking interest in Indian politics. As a matter of fact, LKA's website has been ranked within top 10000 websites, worldwide. If you consider traffic from India is a few percent, its a significant milestone for a political website.  

  2. # Anonymous TAM


    About criticism: (I take that as license to rip movies apart, but that's a different matter entirely)

    Oh, and Raja Sen's opinion of anyone - even Rahmaninoff - is not something I would trust, but that is probably because he has to be positive about movies I don't like at all :)  

  3. # Blogger NightWatchmen

    I agree with the problem in categorising movies into the masala category and arthouse category. There was a Vidya Balan interview in which she says she is doing off-beat roles without becoming too art housey!!!!

    Now about Dilli-6, I personally feel that it was like the Indy Joe Lunch buffet a little bit of everything thrown in, so you have the "supposedly" mad guy throwing up a mirror to people when they become fanatical, a ram lila play that mirrors situations-of-conflict that the characters in the movies are undergoing, a bird whose wings are cut since someone loves it far too much and a song that can be called as a "montage" experiment. But unlike the buffet where one can skip stuff one does not like, Cinema does not afford that luxury and finally the lack of content showed despite all the cute things tried by the director.

    Purely in terms of movie reviewing/critiquing we can do better in this country. Most reviews are just plot outlines without any kind of deeper analysis and coming up with a star rating and inane comments like "It is a paisa vasool movie".

    By the way the bit about "Come up with a better one" is so true, have you seen the way some of our cricketers react to the criticism levelled at them which sometimes is actually justified !!!!!!  

  4. # Blogger NightWatchmen

    And yes one of the greatest sources of entertainment will be removed if the Rediff message boards no longer exist !!!!  

  5. # Blogger TinTin

    Nice post. criticism of criticism i guess rare, thought provoking, skillfully intertwined with your good ideas and examples. you should write more.  

  6. # Blogger Byomkesh

    Too good post...
    Just found your blog through ur FB link..
    And ,most of these thoughts have always been there in the back of my mind...Just can never put it so succinctly,beautifully on paper..

    I especially liked your comments about Raja Sen

    "Most amusing are the comments on anything written by Raja Sen. Pet-flogging-boy for many, his reviews get panned by lovers and haters of the movie alike. I am not sure why; I do concede that the man does get a tad wordy every now and then; but then again - I admire his perceptiveness about cinema even if I may not agree with what he says all the time."  

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