Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Jhoom Barabar Jhoom: The Conversation Continued

When I wrote my review of JBJ, I did so in the hopes that LA Weekly's Bollywood critic David Chute would read the piece. David has been on the cutting edge of film viewing trends since his days advocating Hong Kong cinema before it was cool to do so. He's perceptive and I wanted to know what he and his fellows over at the Hungry Ghost Blog thought about my little piece.

The blog highlighted my review and I was immediately attacked (not personally) in the comments section for beginning my piece with a discussion of a disconnect between the opinions of the native viewing audience in India and the opinions of those American critics who deigned to review the piece. Tulkinghorn, writing from his "capacious writing-table... on which is a pretty large accumulation of papers," was the one who took me to task by stating (slightly edited):


Seems to me that trying to figure out what people in Glendale think about American blockbusters is hard enough if you... live in Glendale.

Trying to figure out from Southern California what people in Bombay think about Indian blockbusters is almost certainly pointless.

It violates either one or both of David's rules in the immediately preceding post.

On the other hand, figuring out why YOU like the movie is very useful...

I take it as a complement that the sinister attorney is interested in my own reasons for liking/disliking a particular film.

Mr. Chute, who for some reason goes by the name Generic on the blog (I will have to talk with him about this), came to my defense in an interesting comment. What was most interesting about the comment was a quote that had little to do with my JBJ review per se. His comment included a kernel of an underlying philosophy of what it is to be a reviewer, a question that I find very interesting -- and will write more about tomorrow when I look at an essay Poe wrote about Poetry criticism. Mr. Chute writes:

As I understood the code of the profession when I was coming up the ideal was not care whether a given film had been validated by the box office or other critics. If you liked something, you said so. To do other wise was dishonest and/or cowardly. Each critic creates his/her own Pantheon. Endorsing something the cool group despised was a badge of honor; in a twisted way this made you even cooler.

This is followed by comments in defense of my original review. Kind and insightful words, but nowhere near as interesting as the paragraph above. There is so much to unpack in this paragraph that one could devote a career, let alone a series of blog entries, to examining the assumptions discussed in it. I should point out that nothing in the above states that Mr. Chute currently agrees with the content of the paragraph, merely that it represents the code of the critical profession as he understood it when he was "coming up." Never the less, it is an exciting paragraph.

I wrote a quick response, which sadly ended up as the last word on the topic. I am going to reproduce my comment in full here, in the hopes of soliciting more discussion.

I believe a critic should always examine his/her own views in relation to the views of others, both other critics and "the masses." One should always be reflective when reviewing. The box office may not be a perfect measurement of the zeitgeist, but I have taken to many economics courses to dismiss Price, and the willingness to pay, as at minimum a proxy for what people enjoy.

I firmly agree that the views of others, the "public" if you will, should not shape what a critic says. Otherwise, their opinion is a mere populist voicing that adds nothing to the medium. And adding something to the medium is one of the legitimate roles of the critic.

Equally, reviling something the cool group likes, merely because they like it (I know this isn't what you are advocating) is as pointless as liking something because other like it. Certainly, another legitimate role of the critic is to champion that which might otherwise be overlooked, or even reviled, were it not for an astute critical mind.

I believe that by examining the disconnect between critical reception and audience reception, one can find both why one enjoyed a film, but also what one might otherwise overlook.

I would never have overlooked the slow first act of JHOOM BARABAR JHOOM, it was readily apparent but as readily overwhelmed by the overall enjoyment of the film. A large rock takes a lot of effort to move, but once it is moving it really moves. JBJ was the same.

I might have overlooked the soft gloved, almost trivial, way the movie dealt with Pakistani and Indian relations if I wasn't focused on thinking about the disconnect. A part of the film takes place in England, and I've read enough John King to understand that setting the film in England involves certain assumptions -- which are barely touched on in the film. Partly because we are dealing with Romantic Comedy and you don't want to go too dark. But that is what separates "Loves Labours Lost" from "Much Ado About Nothing," the stakes are different.

While I would never presume to speak for why the Indian public responded to JBJ less enthusiastic than I did, knowing that they did helps me examine beyond first impressions. One must find tools to break through their visceral and vicarious eyes to get to the voyeuristic one.
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