How Social Media Killed The Film Critic
In a world where everybody has an opinion — and believes that theirs is the right one — we have stopped regarding anybody else’s perspective as possibly more educated than ours. When influencers can be easily paid to drum up buzz for a film or show, no reviewer can make or break a film’s future anymore. And because of that, film reviewing is a dying form of journalism, slowly dragging itself towards irrelevance — if it isn’t there already
When newspapers were the only source of news, it was a common thing to wait for your favourite film reviewer’s opinion on the films that released every Friday. The newspaper you chose to purchase — or, more appropriately, swore allegiance to — indicated the film reviewer you read, and listened to. “Oh, you enjoyed that film? But XYZ gave it just two stars. I wasn’t intending to go watch it.” This is back when watching a film was a minor investment. You had to go to the cinema hall hours before the show if it was a popular film to pick up the tickets, travel to the hall, watch the film, and travel back. Before multiplexes happened, cinema halls weren’t found at every nook and corner. Also, not all cinema halls were adequately equipped. I remember watching the first Harry Potter film twice, because the first time, the sound at the hall sucked. So, watching films meant investing time, effort, and money. So, a trusted guide just helped you prioritise. Also, back then, not everybody in the writing staff of a publication could review a film. Reviews weren’t written for views, or to align with popular opinion. Film reviewers wrote an educated critique, after having spent enough time in their lives studying cinema, and watching films voraciously. They didn’t write reviews to befriend actors and film-makers. So, the film reviewer was a valued, and often feared, journalist.
The film reviewer was a critic. The word “critic” comes from the Greek “krites” and “kritikos”, or “someone who is able to discern and offer reasoned judgement or analysis”. Hence, the responsibility of a film critic was immense. A lot of education is required to be able to deliver on such heavy words.
Then, multiplexes happened. People also had more money to spend, and slowly, watching films went from being entertainment to an event. “Catching a movie” became synonymous with “going out”. So, the peripherals of the movie-watching experience had to be amped up. The popcorn got fancier, and seats turned into beds. It didn’t matter what you were watching as long as you were “going out”. So, if movie-watching isn’t only about the film anymore, why would an educated opinion about the quality of the film matter anymore either?
Then, social media happened.
Having been in digital journalism from before Instagram was born, I have realised that, increasingly, everybody wants to share their opinion and connect only with people who agree with them. People are dying to tell you what they think — and the big daddies of the internet constantly create more opportunities for people to do so. From comments sections to DMs to tags to hashtags to review sections for every single thing on every single website and every single app, the internet has made scope for everybody to tell you exactly what they feel about you — education, experience, and empathy, be damned. What people don’t realise is that they are feeding into an algorithm that is constantly inviting them to engage with a certain webpage or an app, so that they stay on that page longer, and make the people behind the site more money. Every single Instagram post that encourages you to share your opinion is provoking you to engage with the post and pile up views and reach and, eventually, make the handle owners more money. We are constantly triggering people for views and engagement. But, more importantly, there is no room for dissent. The “us and them” mindset is so deeply ingrained now, that if you don’t agree with me, I immediately assume you are a part of “them”, and I believe that I have a complete understanding of your ideology and value system. In such an atmosphere, how will a film critic survive? How will criticism survive?
Do this exercise, if you already haven’t: Type the name of a film and “review” in the Google search bar. Before links to reviews by Mayank Shekhar, Tanul Thakur, or Rahul Desai, you will find Google “audience reviews”. Google provides you with a set of words most audience members have used to describe the film, up top, like buzzwords, so that you don’t even have to bother reading their reviews. Why exactly should I be reading a detailed criticism by Somebody Singh or Anybody Banerjee, I don’t know. Why should their opinion matter? I don’t know. Scroll down, and after the video links (and video reviews and influencer collabs and reaction videos), you will reach the reviews by “critics” — but hold on. These are the reviews from the most popular websites, and not necessarily the most well-read critics. So, that’s another hurdle. If you are someone who follows specific critics, then you will scroll down to look for their review. Otherwise, you are reading extremely uninformed reviews, sometimes even by junior staff writers. Why so? Because “review” is a time-tested popular keyword, and once a film releases, everybody knows that “name of film” and “review” will be actively searched for on Google, and so, everybody wants to be the first link people click on. While some trustworthy critics do post their reviews on Thursday night itself, they do not necessarily write for the most popular outlets. And when the links to the reviews are posted on social media, the comment sections are often filled with people shitting on the critic just because their opinion of the film is different.
Which leads me to another question: should everybody’s opinion not matter? To be honest, when reviewing any form of art, or a creative product, only educated opinion should matter. I cannot expect someone who has spent all his life consuming Rohit Shetty films to appreciate Kiarostami. That person, evidently a Shetty aficionado, should stick to reviewing Shetty’s seminal works. For that person to shit on Kiarostami would be an uneducated opinion. I had come across a certain critic spend quite some time telling me that Ghatak has a more impressive filmography than Ray, only to confess, when asked, that he has only watched two films by Ray. An uneducated opinion. If somebody watches Pather Panchali and calls it irrelevant, there is lack of education. On the other hand, criticism is also having the courage to say that Ganashatru isn’t a good film. Just because it is a Ray film doesn’t mean it has to be revered. Disagreement also requires education. Disagreement cannot be coloured by politics or personal vendetta. My dislike for Kangana Ranaut should not colour how I evaluate her films. Criticism demands objectivity. Just because I love Ayushmann Khurrana, will I love every film of his? The space for such a complex, nuanced, and layered discourse does not exist anymore.
In the messy jungle of irresponsible film reviewing, a few educated voices are trying to survive even today. It is a tough space when film companies set aside a budget to get influencers to drum up mania for a film, “collab” with actors, and create fun sketches. Today some productions are only considering actors with considerable social media following to ensure views. And since last year, we are sitting at home watching something new every day, with zero regard for quality. I hear “kuch naya aaya hai kya?” almost every three days at home. It doesn’t matter if something is good or not, as long as it has us occupied. Once in a while, a show or a film will catch on like wildfire, and die out within a month. Platforms are churning out “products”, to satiate an unending demand. In such a scenario, how can a critic make a difference?
When I read a review, I am not always looking forward to agreeing with it. I am absolutely fine with a contrarian opinion, as long as it is well-justified. Often, it isn’t. Many reviews deliberately choose a clickbait-y negative headline, but cannot substantiate the argument in the body copy. Others choose to write long-winding, academic-sounding pieces that are more about peacocking their intellect than reviewing the film. Every commercial film is not banal. Every indie project is not arthouse. I have spent enough time at the NFDC basement preview theatre with the “who’s who” of film critics to know that many of them are more excited about the free samosas that are served before the film than the film itself. I have seen quite a few doze off afterwards. Some even ask a fellow critic to tell them “how it was” and bounce off mid-way. I have seen a young fellow watch 10 minutes of a film and then head out. The review was up on the site even before the preview had ended. I don’t think I will ever forget my conversation with a film critic for a news website after attending Konkona Sensharma’s directorial debut, A Death In The Gunj’s premiere:
He: I absolutely loved Konkona!
Me: I know. Who’d say this is her first film?
He: What acting! Wah.
He: I have seen all her films, even the Bengali ones, but this was her best performance!
Me: Which Bengali films have you watched?
He: (Fumbling) Ah…the one with her mother?
Me: Paahaarer Daak?
He: Yes! That one! Fantastic she was in it!
He had thought Tillotama Shome was Konkona Sensharma. Konkona doesn’t star in A Death In The Gunj. Konkona, also, hasn’t starred in any film called Paahaarer Daak.
The internet, social media, and chasing page views, has killed the educated film critic. We only read what we want to hear, and we don’t hear anything — or anyone — else anymore.