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'Film Critics Need to Distance Themselves from Film Personalities'

Film Critics Need to Distance Themselves from Film Personalities

Sentinel Digital Desk

Parthajit Baruah

Veteran film scholar and author based in Kolkata, (Dr.) Shoma A. Chatterji, whose contribution to Indian film criticism is immense, unfolds news insights on film criticism.

  1. What, according to you, the true function of a film critic?

Shoma A. Chatterji: The true function of a film critic is to distance oneself from much personal interaction with film personalities in any capacity. This sustains your objectivity and you are free from feeling any pressure to compromise on your writing about them or their films. Second function is honesty and integrity to oneself which translates into one's writing irrespective of how people react to your appreciation or criticism. Third function is to research as thoroughly as you can before you begin to write on a given film or topic or filmmaker even if you are writing the review of a single film. Fourth is the quality of control over your writing which is a difficult proposition. I for example, tend to keep on writing when it is no longer necessary to go on and on and I have said what I needed to say.

  1. How is the historical sense necessary to be a good film critic?

Shoma A. Chatterji: A sense of history educates you as well as enriches your writing. I once heard a talk by Chidananda Dasgupta where he was launching a book on Shyam Benegal authored by Sangeeta Dutta. He gave such a spectacular narration of Benegal's socio-historical background since he was a boy was not only amazing but also a learning experience for me. I believe in history and even if I cannot intercut my reviews with history because it is not always necessary, I still read up for my own education and this, I believe, somehow seeps into my writing. Also, reading up on history is necessary for giving depth to your writing; never mind whether you are writing a review, a criticism or a book.

  1. How can a film society movement create an audience who can understand good cinema?

Shoma A. Chatterji: Since I have spent a major part of my growing up in Mumbai where the film society movement almost did not exist, I am unable to answer this question properly. But looking at Kolkata where film societies are organizing film festivals almost throughout the year, I think it they do contribute to a love for good cinema though people who come for the screenings are already lovers of good cinema. Most society screenings are free so people walk in sometimes out of curiosity and some get addicted. But many societies get embroiled in hierarchies and internal politics while some are hooked to use the membership of societies for free tickets to foreign festivals so one is not very sure how the system works now. But societies are a good thing and should remain.

  1. As you have been associated with the film criticism, what are the changes have you noticed in Bengali films in last few decades?

Shoma A. Chatterji: Over the last few decades, there has been a sharp downswing in film magazines and those that have survived the onslaught, have shifted the focus on gossip, masala-filled interviews, and less on any serious writing on cinema. Then, even for other printed media like newspapers and their cinema supplements, the demand is for pictorial features, gossip in different forms, some disguised and some open, on stars both top notch ones and the ones whose names we are not familiar with. As a consequence, this has impacted on the quality of films are made, and filmmakers also are more involved in getting pre- release coverage of their upcoming films than in the reviews. I asked one eminent filmmaker whether he had read my review of a given film and he looked at me as if I had spoken to him in Greek!

Directors are either making films to hit the box office or to be screened at film festivals in India and beyond. If the aim goes beyond the film itself, how can they focus on the film they are making right then? We give a "good" rating for a given film but our standards of "good" and "bad" have also automatically adjusted to this downswing. Directors are in a great hurry to finish one film and get on to the next. Veterans like Koushik Ganguly and newbies like Srijit are having two or three releases every year.

  1. Tell us briefly the background, the growth and development of film criticism in the history of Bengali cinema.

Shoma A. Chatterji: Not much information is available on the beginning of film journalism in Bengali cinema. The one whose name is associated with great respect among old timer filmmakers and film journalists is that of Kalish Mukhopadhyay (1916 – 1983) who brought out a regular magazine in Bengaili called Roop Mancha. It was a cultural magazine because apart from cinema, it also covered theatre and among its contributors were famous names of that time among writers, theatre personalities and also actors and actresses. He not only published and edited the magazine but also wrote articles himself and was a photographer too. The magazine was founded in 1939. He founded the first ever film archive in the city name after Bidhan Chandra Roy called the Bidhan Sangrahasala. He has left behind two encyclopaedic volumes called The History of Bengali Theatre and the History of Bengali Cinema respectively. Roop Mancha ran from 1941 to 1966.

It contained full page advertisements of Bengali films. Even the cover page had a small ribbon ad at the bottom. Serialised plays and biographies were also part of the publication. The price of each issue was Re.1.00

Chitrapanji was another Bengali film periodical, published since (Oct-Nov 1931) till (October- November, 1937). Chitrapanji also carried crossword puzzles. This was exclusively a film magazine which had articles, photographs, advertisements and also poster ads of films. "A Few words on Current Bengali Cinema" authored by a Chatterjee could be seen. Another article is on "Acting." There is another article called "The Triumph of Women" by Girija Kumar Bose and a collection of anecdotes on Marlyn Dietrich by Purnachandra Mukhopadhyay. One does not notice much reviews of films.

Micro issues of old film magazines in Bengali and English can be found in the Media Lab of the Jadavpur School of Film Studies. Among the magazines featured are – Chitrabani, Chitrbhash, Dipali, Filmland (English), Varieties Weekly (English) Chitrabikshan, Chitralekha, Batayan, Suchitra Sisir and Kheyali.

What one notices is that they carried a veritable medley of articles covering humour, satire, serious analysis, and so on written with proper research and authority, integrity and honesty. There was no gossip if at all and no barbed poking at personalities. Some articles were worthy of being archived for posterity.

Along with Chidananda Dasgupta, I had begun a research project on old Bengali film magazines when FIPRESCI was first formed with Dasgupta as President and yours truly as secretary. But it fizzled out for want of funding and lack of encouragement. I had some old issues but I cannot trace them now.

Over time, today, film criticism and reviews are restricted by want of space in newspapers and lack of film magazines of a serious kind. We have to write reviews within a word-limit and a deadline which restricts creativity severely. Within these too, there are some wonderful writers in English like Priyanka Dasgupta of the Times Group who are known for in-depth research and wonderful style. But most young film journalists do not do much research at all as they do not feel it is necessary. The television and satellite channels have dealt a severe blow to film criticism not only in Bengal but the whole of India.

Three very popular monthly magazines named Ultorath, Cinema Jagat and Prasad would give a wonderful opportunity to study the trend of Bengali writing on Bengali cinema but one wonders whether they have been archived anywhere. They were designed like books, a little larger than Readers Digest and brought out a thick Pooja issue filled with novels, short stories and so on.

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