No Stars Here

Shanghai might just be the last straw that broke this camel’s back. It is a sad but well-known fact that we are perfectly ok with mediocrity in this country at every level. An ‘Andhon Mein Kaana Raja’ gets away with being brilliant and repeatedly drives people into raptures simply because everything else is so bad. Shanghai, to me, is a very average film and little else and I feel this even more so because I have watched Z, which, though made by Costa Gavras way back in 1969, is still miles ahead of Shanghai in terms of its cinematic craft and storytelling. Everything Dipakar Banerjee has tried here has been done better in the Costa Gavras film 43 years ago! For those who don’t know, both films are adaptations of the novel Z by Vassilis Vassilikos.

The point here is not how good or bad Shanghai really is. And I’ll say this. Many have loved it and have even justified why so in their take on the film. However, different people can have different opinions. I do not agree with them and there are many issues I have with the film but this piece is not my review of the film. And, let me clarify – I do not consider myself any sort of critic or reviewer. Circumstances and a perennial lack of funds force me to write for Upperstall myself and even now whenever I can, frankly, I get others from the review team to critique the new releases because it is not something that comes to me naturally or easily. I am much happier dealing with the site’s Hall of Fame putting together write-ups on our luminaries who have played an important hand in shaping our film industry as well as those on our classic films down the years.

What is more disturbing for me is the larger picture that emerges when these so-so films are lauded by our so called esteemed critics, many of whom take themselves mighty seriously. Though, I wonder sometimes if they actually realize just how seriously audiences take them. For if one was to go by their reviews, the Bodyguards, Readys and Rowdy Rathores should never have been watched by those audiences at all. And we know what big blockbusters these films became. The danger here is that even people who follow reviews might no longer bother with what the reviewers say especially when they feel more and more differently from the reviewers. Sure, Dibakar is a director to watch out for and is always trying to find new paths and go beyond stereotypical Bollywood, but to blindly support something just because it is outside the obvious mainstream or made by a particular filmmaker and make it an agenda is not correct either. Honestly, to me, there is nothing in Shanghai to keep audiences in their seats and even in the show I saw, they were bored beyond their wits – as was I – and some even walked out. If Shanghai does do well, thanks to the ‘reviews’ and word-of-mouth by the so called ‘different film’ watchers, good for it as it may give filmmakers like Dibakar far more creative freedom and clout to make their subsequent films but in this case – and the film has had a very poor first two days so far – if the film does not pick up and continues to do poor business, then one cannot blame audiences. The film itself is the culprit. No matter what type or genre of film, it must engage its viewers. To me, Shanghai fails here.

Also, what this does – and that is where truly good films could suffer – is that now when the reviewers rave about certain upcoming films, one tends to take them not just with a pinch of salt but a generous sprinkling of pepper as well. And today, I would seriously wonder if I should even bother seeing a Kshay (releasing on 15th June) and dare I say it, a Gangs of Wasseypur (June 22nd) and go through the déjà vu of Shanghai all over again, given that they would be raved about in the same manner by the same set of reviewers. Although, I have to say the trailer of the latter is mighty intriguing and if I do go for it, it would certainly not be due to the reviews.

What’s more, with films like Shanghai taken as the benchmark of excellence and by putting their filmmakers on a pedestal by treating them as gods, even our off-the-beaten-track films are not likely to improve as this is then deemed the standard to reach and is brilliant enough for all concerned. I always re-iterate to my students that treat no one like the Almighty in this line. You automatically then put yourself in a position that you can never ever reach that level. Sure, respect the filmmaker whose work you have liked and analyse why you might have liked or disliked certain films but most importantly, believe in yourself, your ability and work hard towards making yourself go even further.

All of this also finally raises a question about how good our film reviews actually are. Most are little more than story summations with a line or two thrown in about the performances. A few drop in the odd line about technicalities and that too little beyond the cinematography. Many are more about how many stars the reviewer has given the film rather than what he or she has actually written about it. Worse, a pathetic lack of knowledge of our own country’s cinematic history, particularly outside Hindi cinema, tells in many of their writings. When they cheer Shanghai as the first such effort, they seem to forget that films like Aakrosh and New Delhi Times, amongst others, did this sort of thing so much better and that too decades ago. And shockingly, a certain reviewer not only confidently described Z as a black and white film (it is in colour), but even proceeded to elaborate how well its dark shadows were used till it was pointed out that the film was anything but black and white and the correction then hastily made. Am I to take anything written by this reviewer seriously now or ever again? You tell me.

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  1. OK, that is a lot of reactions!

    @Deepa, Sanjivan: Thanks!

    @Rahul: Wow, Rahul in full stinging mode! Sure other opinions are valid too and I have just elaborated on mine. If I have spoken out on certain things, you have too and one’s fine with that. If I was so rigid only on my thoughts, why would I put up other reviews that don’t go with my take on the film on Upperstall? All I always say (and you know that) is that the reviewer be able to justify his stand and I haven’t had any issues with your reviews even if I have thought differently about the films sometimes, have I? Coming to other points, I don’t think history is overrated at all. When you’re involved in something like filmmaking, you must know how your country’s filmmaking has evolved to put things in proper context. Here sweeping statements are made without bothering about history and facts. And sure I love Tennis as a sport but I don’t write about it and if I were to do so, of course I would brush up on my knowledge of the sport and that includes delving into its past. In terms of Kshay, I’m not denying it could be a great film, and in fact, on Upperstall, we’ve already promoted it specially if you recall and of course we’ll go with the reviewer’s take on it. My point is that when mostly everything ‘indie’ is blindly regarded as brilliant as an agenda, that is not right and it’s now happened enough in the past for me to seriously be on my guard. And I’ve said in the piece that one of the fall outs of this is that truly good films could suffer.

    @Varun: I’m not saying anything like that. All I’m saying is that I’ve seen two adaptations of the same novel, and I still think the one done 43 years ago holds better. Sure, Z was made in its context and time and this in its own context and time but that one holds up much better as a film to me even today and I find the present one overrated. That’s all.

    @Sudeep: Why just three shows? It was 5. Jokes aside, I have seen and reviewed the Tamil version, Siruthai (http://www.upperstall.com/films/2011/siruthai) and you can see what I thought of it. Again all I’m saying is no matter what sort of film, it should be engaging for audiences. Shanghai, to me, was not. I just feel that the minute something is outside the mainstream or made by a particular filmmaker, it is regarded as brilliant just for being so. And it’s not as if we haven’t good movies outside the mainstream. I think Paan Singh Tomar and Kahaani are two great examples this year itself.

  2. The history of Indian cinema is overrated. The history of World cinema is overrated. Going on about how Z was miles ahead, and how we mere mortals don’t know enough about the films made by our ancestors’ ancestors, isn’t exactly an argument to start with. What matters is this year, this week, right now- and if Shanghai isn’t good enough for you- you can’t say ‘everyone can have their opinions’ and then spend the next 700 words deriding those who appreciate the film. Come on, Karan, just because I know much more about Tennis and its history doesn’t mean I don’t allow you to appreciate the game right now, no? Forget eras and our useless history for once, worry about the moment.
    If you don’t like it, absolutely justified- but don’t question a reviewers skill and job after that. Doesn’t do upperstall any good, either. That said, naming genuinely good efforts like Kshay (now, thanks to you, a lot of your ‘followers’ will actually ignore this film) in the post as part of your indie rant isn’t very becoming.

  3. So, according to you, Mr. P-d-P, if we play ‘Z’ in Indian theatres today (with Hindi dubbing, say) it will be appreciated by the audience widely. Right?

    Or if it’s rejected too by masses but loved by a bunch of critics then then that will also be breaking the back of some imaginary camel. Right?

    (Btw: Cool with rest of your ‘opinions’, but this comparison with Z is too self-congratulatory and bizarre to let go.)

  4. Karan, I certainly ignore most reviews. I haven’t seen ‘Z’, but ‘Shanghai’ did get boring, specially in the 2nd half. What engaged me is only Emran and Abhay’s performances. Anyway, the points you raise are really valid. I find such deification of indie film-makers embarrassing to say the least. As you rightly, say, ‘Andhon mein kaana raja’. This is not to say, that Dibakar hasn’t made interesting films, but it’s not necessary that everything he makes is path-breaking or interesting.
    On another note, got to know who Reel Reptile is without writing a blog post. 🙂

  5. @Batul, hmmm yeah it does seem you haven’t read too many reviews recently including Upperstall’s! 🙁 Reel Reptile came out with his identity a while back!

  6. Karan ur piece / article not just needed to be written but Now is the need of the Hour (this one for you Rahul). This continuous bamboozling / buldozing by a certain section of media which is telling you what is ‘great” or “good” is doing a lot of damage man. It is lowering the standard of what is “good” and unfortunately will have it’s emulators and we would have slid further.
    And there we are (at least 2 of us) with one heart in the Cinema we inherited and the other heart on how to interpret the world we live in. Painful to say the least. Blocked at every step is what we suffer.
    For me the moment Mumbai Times blazons how Kalki kissed and bit Prasenjit gets me wary. And how many sex scenes ityadi it suddenly punctures any enthusiasm i might have felt for the film. Because if that is the push then it’s obvious there must be just those “headlines” worth watching in the film. As I mentioned yesterday on FB – the shriller the scream the shallower the material.
    On a humorous aside Dibaker mentioned how people walked out stunned from his film. : ) Stupefied with dullness? Ennui?
    Rahul i agree with Banno that you have been unmasked. You have come out with your fangs bared at poor Karan. Frankly your review was so ra-ra that I just lost the point of what you FELT about the film. No background music! Wow! And what else…. Dear everything “dark” and “gritty” could also be bad cinematography and no application of the craft of editing! Think about it.
    Karan shall now post my “dark” “gritty” reboot of all the fairy tales we have grown up on. On Upperstall. So fed up and pissed off I have got.
    And for a political debate abt the so called “reality” of India I am game Rahul. Best wishes.

  7. Great article! You’ve hit the nail… Shanghai is a pale shadow of ‘Z’ … and I feel a bit tired of the tyranny of reviewers who often attempt to force their own biases {both artistic and commercial (?)} on the readers.

  8. Karan, what I understand from this piece is the following:
    1) You didn’t like ‘Shanghai’ because you believe it is inferior to ‘Z’ which was made nearly 50 years ago.
    2) Film critics have appreciated the film merely because it has been made by Dibakar Banerjee and not because they may have enjoyed watching it on its own merit, even though they may never have seen ‘Z’ and hence can’t make a fair comparison (assuming it must be made in the first place).
    3) People like Dibakar Banerjee (and I suppose Anurag Kashyap too) are applauded merely because they make off-beat films and not because they make good films.
    4) Critics mislead audiences by giving high star ratings to films like ‘Shanghai’ and at some point audiences will catch on.

    All of these assumptions are based on the single fact of your not liking ‘Shanghai’ and one critic providing incorrect information about ‘Z’ in his/her review. Comparisons to ‘Aakrosh’ and ‘New Delhi Times’ are misplaced because just in terms of numbers, there is no comparison between the viewership of a ‘Shanghai’ (however poor its business my have been) versus the art cinema of the ’70 and ’80s. Cinema needs an audience to survive.

    My review of ‘Shanghai’ states my reasons for liking the film immensely, but the primary one bears repetition — because this is the first time in a long time that I’ve seen a film that’s raging with anger against the apathy of the system. That, for me, is a very important achievement at a time when there is supreme indifference to socio-political issues among the middle/upper classes who are probably the chief consumers of films like ‘Shanghai’.

    But I object to your classification of critics as a biased lot simply because they liked a film you didn’t. Let’s not focus on the critics, but rather on critiquing why ‘Shanghai’ is a bad film. And personally, I don’t see the relevance of comparison to ‘Z’ either. Sure it’s adapted from the same source, but this is a film about a different place with different issues made in a different time. And even given that ‘Z’ is a better film, it needn’t take away from the value or importance of ‘Shanghai’, or, frankly, we should stop making films altogether till we achieve the highest standard of excellence (which again can be debated by various factions depending on personal tastes).

  9. Deepa,

    1) I didn’t like Shanghai even on its own as a stand alone film. Of course, it didn’t help I saw Z a few days earlier. Yes, Z is about a different time and different space but there are common issues and both are adaptations of the same source, but one so much better and that too as a I said 43 years ago. A film can rage against the apathy of the system but if it is not engaging as a film – and by engaging I mean good straightforward storytelling not some masala film – what’s the point? Sure, everyone knows our system is rotten to the core, sure something should be done. The script was meandering all over, the first half was bloody boring with none of the three tracks even moving, Kalki was woeful in the film, Emraan doing nothing more than playing a ‘likeable’ rogue as he has been doing of late – adding stains to teeth doesn’t make it a career defining performance as many critics have said, Abhay Deol flat with his accents slipping up. And we are to accept all this as brilliant. And that’s the point, if this is good enough to be called brilliant, this standard is thought to be good enough as great contemporary Indian cinema. Sure, we’ll continue to make films and sure, since maximum will be shit, the ok ones will continue to be hailed masterpieces and there might be only the odd film that truly stands out instead of many more.

    2) and 3) It’s true. Anything Dipakar and Anurag do because they are going on the road not taken itself earns a certain basic rating by default and is enough to be classified as great and many critics do that. I felt this even with LSD earlier, though I have to admit the second story worked really well – not 1 and 3. And the indie community – and many reviewers are also filmmakers or wannabe filmmakers and consider themselve as ‘indie’ – believe them to be their gods and go into orgasmic frenzy even if they sneeze and rate their snort which comes out as artistically created goo. And I’m not saying – they had to have seen Z or know everything about cinema history. What I object to is dropping wrong facts and making sweeping statements just like that. And like other things, I honestly feel, a lot of our film writing and film reviewing is not very good either. And this is not only about Shanghai – it has happened enough times earlier. Like I said, maybe it just happened to be the straw that broke this camel’s back to write this piece. And talking about Aakrosh and New Delhi Times, their impact even amongst their circuits was much better compared to what Shanghai should have done with such a wide release all over. Having said all this, I still maintain there are films like Black Friday and Khosla ka Ghosla to be very, very fine films made by Anurag and Dipakar respectively and of course, they are directors more than many others who have in in them to make more truly great films but I don’t feel Shanghai was anywhere near it.

    4) I don’t know about people catching on but if this happens more regularly they could start to catch on. By and large, they pretty much know what they want to see. I know enough people who don’t bother with reviews and at the other end, I could hear viewers in PVR, Goregaon abuse the review they had read and one group even walked out. Kahaani. Paan Singh Tomar and Vicky Donor too were not mainstream Bollywood – they were good stories well told and audiences responded to them. Why not for Shanghai then? Why did it not spread even a bit by word of mouth the way Paan Singh Tomar did? And I’ve met people who loved all 3, prefer these movies to masala Bollywood and they hated Shanghai calling me up and citing disappointment with the reviewers they normally read. A couple even told me they’ve had it with film reviews and reviewers. They would now make up their own minds and go by their instinct alone. My point was that if Shanghai doesn’t do well – and it hasn’t, filmmakers (and reviewers) cannot blame audiences here. It’s the film and it’s shortcomings that caused it not to perform at the box office and as I said, the other big flip side of all this is that it makes one very vary of any subsequent film that has the critic and indie world salivating and that makes the truly good film suffer as well if it is unable to find audiences. Which would be a pity.

  10. Karan, this argument can continue forever. My only contention is:
    1) Different people respond differently to each film and there is no absolute measure for excellence, except weighing films against other films we’ve watched or based on our individual sensibilities. On that count, I fully accept that you didn’t like Shanghai and respect your opinion. The only valid test for a film’s class ultimately is its longevity — as we are discovering in the case of Guru Dutt who is likely to outlive most of his contemporaries because his films perhaps have a timeless appeal more than the others.
    2) It’s a slippery slope to measure the worth of a film based on audience reactions and by extension to ascribe value to a review greater than an appreciation of the film at hand. A film which gets great reviews can flop and one that gets entirely infavourable reviews can rake in 100 crore plus. So why must we assume that people who watch Rowdy Rathore don’t care about reviews (I know enough educated people who routinely watch such films and call them ‘timepass’), but those who watch Shanghai do? Show any audience in India except FTII students a film by Mani Kaul and they will all call it ‘boring’ and ‘pointless’. Most people I know other than hardcore film buffs can’t sit through any of Satyajit Ray’s films. Does that make either filmmaker irrelevant?
    It’s a little presumptuous to label critics as a biased lot because their opinion of a film or filmmaker doesn’t match yours. For example, I didn’t like Vishal Bharadwaj’s ‘Kaminey’ at all. He’s another one of ‘new’ cinema’s poster boys. Most other critics applauded the film. I thought it was very derivative and not at all engaging. But that’s my opinion, not a definitive statement about ‘Kaminey’ which cannot be challenged or questioned by someone who has a different take on the film.
    I have a problem with labelling people casually because it dilutes the main purpose of film criticism, which is to critique the film for its content and nothing else that may or may not be happening around it….

  11. Yes Deepa, this argument can go on and on – just as a film critic (now that we’re on critics) in London wrote about Aan! 🙂 Maybe this is a good excuse for us to finally meet, which we only talk about, and chat generally about this!

  12. I,a Dibakar admirer,AGREE that Shanghai is a MEDIOCRE FILM,period.
    Its not mandatory that every Dibakar film be good,be praised.
    Call a spade a spade.

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