NEW DELHI: Legendary filmmaker David Lean (The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia) once claimed he quit making movies for 14 years as the star critic of the era, Pauline Kael was ‘so mean’ to him at a New York Film Critics Circle luncheon. Creators and critics share a prickly relationship alternating between adulation and disdain. This abrasive rapport came into sharp relief last month when Mubeen Rauf, director of the Malayalam film Aaromalinte Adhyathe Pranayam, approached the Kerala High Court, seeking a gag order on social media and YouTube reviews for at least seven days following the film’s release.
His reasoning was that these reviews posed a threat to the industry’s financial stability. The High Court, which attempted to make a distinction between objective, professional reviews and subjective personal takes on films, broached the subject of review bombing too. It’s the practice of a large number of people engaging in posting negative reviews with an intent to harm the box office prospects of a film. The producers can’t be faulted for wanting to protect their investments. Manipulating or gaming a film’s ratings on IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes is no rocket science today.
The Tamil film industry, which released as many as 202 films so far in 2023, with a handful of them turning profitable, is no stranger to these bombshells. Thanks to the loyalties that top male stars command, big-budget flicks like Vijay’s Vaarisu, was pitted against Ajith’s Thunivu, and fan clubs ended up trashing each other’s ventures. The recent Leo was subject to intense trolling, with memes of the ‘shoddy’ CGI-hyena flooding the net. Even Mani Ratnam wasn’t spared as Ponniyin Selvan, was targeted for digressing from the source material. Perhaps, the biggest casualty of review bombing in recent memory is Aamir Khan’s ill-fated Forrest Gump remake, Laal Singh Chaddha, released against the backdrop of targeted boycotts.
The latest episode in Kerala is transpiring when a significant chunk of movies has tanked at the box office, which has brought forth the criticism that filmmakers are just looking for a scapegoat. Of the 177 films made in Kerala last year, few turned profits. Even this year, amidst 190 releases, just four films have boasted of breaking even and making some. The bleak scenario raises questions on the long-term sustainability of the industry, considering how OTT platforms are vying for the digital exhibition rights of films even before their theatrical run gets over.
These developments have inspired talks on the freedom of expression, while in some quarters, the notion of film criticism is being seen as an attack on the film industry as a whole. So much for claims of content being king. The Tamil Film Producers Council is mulling a way to defer reviews by a few days. Makes sense as Kodambakkam is bracing for its Deepavali Virundhu releases — Jigarthanda DoubleX and Japan.
These movies are being released when many Chennaiites will head to hometowns to celebrate the fest of lights. Not to mention, the releases coincide with the run-up to the nail-biting finish of the World Cup matches, when cinema is not really the centre of attention. Guess what might help build some excitement around the labour of love called films? Some good, ol’ fashioned word of mouth — also known as reviews.