(As told to Vyoma Dhar Sharma)
Raja Sen joined Rediff.com as a film critic in September 2004 .These days he writes for various other magazines such as Tehelka, Man’s World, and Rolling Stone and is currently working on screenplays . Although he quit Rediff in early 2008, he frequently writes for them on a freelance basis. After graduating from Don Bosco, New Delhi he pursued a Bachelors in English Literature at Delhi College of Arts and Commerce. Then followed a year’s worth of copywriting at J Walter Thompson in Delhi, after which he went off to do an MA in Creative and Media Enterprises at the University of Warwick He tells DU Beat about his experiences in film reviewing, the pressures of the job, the good and bad in Bollywood, benchmarks for box office success and the on-going Oscar fixation that Slumdog Millionaire is generating
DU Beat :Were the initial years on the job extremely demanding and difficult or did you find it very flexible?
RS: The thing is, Rediff has a really great bunch of people. The editorial staff is brilliant, I’m still in touch with a lot of them. So it’s a great place to learn and to find your niche, primarily because it gives you the opportunity to go out on a limb.
DU Beat: The business of film reviews can’t possibly be as uncomplicated and straightforward as most people think. What are some of the intricacies that your readers remain unaware of?
RS: A review can never be wrong its after all its just an opinion. Even two diametrically opposite reviews are as valid as each other. The only difference with my review is that its an ‘informed opinion’, Hence, for me it’s not sufficient to talk about what you liked or didn’t, but important to delve further into the reasons behind it. To appreciate or analyze a film you have to place it in context, provide a benchmark or frames of reference, and essentially try to look closer up at the film than the viewer usually might. And I always think a good review has to have enough flair and panache to be an amusing read by itself, even if someone hasn’t seen the movie concerned.
DU Beat: Which critics do you enjoy reading?
R.S : Well, there’s Stephanie Zacharek of Salon. And then there are David Denby and Anthony Lane, both of the New Yorker. Roger Ebert is in a particularly fine form of late. Sites like metacritic.com [http://metacritic.com] are a fantastic resource.
DU Beat: There is no denying the fact that a film review inevitably has an impact on how it fares at the box office. Does that put pressure on you to be more kind or do you feel empowered to be brutally honest?
RS Initially I was amazed to see the importance people give to a review As far as I see it, several movies which get completely panned by critics go on to make loads of money. And that’s completely fair, I don’t think one factor leads to another at all. So I feel we must go out there and say exactly what we think about a movie,. Similarly, filmmakers need to go out there and, give us movies to feel better about.
As for honesty, I think you have to be consistent to yourself as a critic. Its natural to be biased but one needs to be objective as well. Honesty is just part of the package because if you aren’t honest, you aren’t going to be taken seriously. A good review only matters when it counts, right?
DU Beat: While critiquing a movie, you obviously have to consider many aspects but is there any one, clear cut factor which distinguishes good cinema from bad?
RS : Simple answer: No. Films are such a fantastic medium, it’s impossible to pinpoint what to love or loathe them – even though producers around the world would love to hear an answer. But seriously, anything about a film -from the cinematography to a supporting actress to a particular theme tune -can either get on your nerves or elevate you to a cinematic ecstasy. Not knowing which one it is, is what makes watching movies such a fascinating thing.
DU Beat: So, in 2008 we saw a mixed bag of hits and flops, directors experimenting with period films, horror, comedy, drama, teenage romances and many new actors making their debuts. What has been your favourite and not so favourite offering from Bollywood from last year?
RS Last year was pretty bleak, and there really wasn’t much to applaud except for one flat-out dark drama, Oye Lucky Lucky Oye. The film is sensational, and Dibakar Banerjee, the director of the smashing Khosla Ka Ghosla, captures the pulse of Delhi so well. It’s also one of the most minutely detailed films I’ve seen in a while, and the script’s duality is incredible. The characters, the music… Wow.
As for bad ones, where do I start? There was Love Story 2050, which had a wannabe Hrithik Roshan do everything to ape the superstar short of sticking on a prosthetic thumb; there was Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, which was plain unnecessary; and then we had cinema’s ‘quality-man,’ so to speak, giving us a very, very average pot-boiler and selling it with biceps and haircuts to make it the year’s biggest hit.
Ghajini is very watchable primarily because of Aamir Khan’s fantastic acting. But it’s a poorly structured, watered-down remake, and the girl is just atrocious.
DU Beat: Have you ever received threats for your frank criticism or generous gifts for sincere praises in your reviews? Can you recount any interesting incident where your words landed you into trouble?
RS Yes, and I’m not going to tell you. On a more serious note, there have been times when directors have called up in the middle of the night and yelled at me, actors have made snide comments in post-release interviews, and production houses have threatened rather illogically to sue me. A couple of people have even blogged pettily about me. I feel you just have to shrug it off and use it as a reminder of how crazy the film industry can be. After all you are just an observer.
DU Beat: Aravind Adiga got the Man Booker prize for revealing the dirty underside of the country and Slumdog Millionaire is raking in awards and unbelievable 10 Oscar nominations. Is putting poverty and deprivation on display the only way for India to gain recognition on the international platform? How important is this international platform?
R.S: I haven’t read Adiga’s book, but I know writers like Arundhati Roy, who almost caricaturise Indian poverty are quite quickly accepted by the West,. Having said that, I think we’re all being too reductive.
Slumdog Millionaire, for example, is quite an exceptional movie. My advice to all those creating a hue and cry over it is that they should appreciate the movie for it realy is rather than politicize its message.
International recognition is important, because it shows we’re doing something as good as the rest of the world is. I’m not saying the Oscars are the be-all and end-all of cinematic achievement, but AR Rahman winning one would be fantastic. He’s someone we should all be proud of, as should we be of all the Indian cast and crew in Slumdog. The world deserves to see the best of Indian talent, and if the Oscars reach more people – and they do – then I’m all for it.