Made to justify, denied access: What happens when Indian journos criticise films

From being compelled to give good reviews to facing fan abuse, entertainment reporters don't have it easy.
Made to justify, denied access: What happens when Indian journos criticise films
Made to justify, denied access: What happens when Indian journos criticise films
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About a fortnight ago, comedian Kapil Sharma made the news for verbally abusing a senior journalist, Vickey Lalwani. The latter, who is the editor of SpotboyE, had apparently written negatively about Kapil, which led him to call Vickey.

In the video that has since gone viral, Kapil threatens Vickey saying he would hurt him if they met. He also says that Vickey’s daughter is trying to "sleep with him" and that he should write about that.

Not surprisingly, the comedian’s response has caused shock and outrage. For journalists who cover entertainment and films however, being questioned by film celebrities for writing negative reviews is everyday life.

Compelled to give good reviews

Baradwaj Rangan, a noted film critic and reviewer, tells TNM that with Tamil films especially, there is a culture of treating stars with kid gloves. “People have had to give good reviews to films because they have been promised interviews,” he says.

“Over the years, Tamil press has kind of developed a situation where it's a give and take. Don't soft pedal a certain film, and they will not get access to the big star… and cinema sells in the state, so it’s a loss for them,” he adds.

This has happened with Baradwaj, too – he admits that he has found it difficult to get interviews if he has given those stars’ films a negative review.

Maneesh Narayanan has worked as a Malayalam film journalist for about a decade. He talks about a time when he hosted a show for Indiavision channel in 2011 and how actors would refuse to cooperate if their work was not reviewed in positive light.

“Say if I give a negative review for their film and they are invited for another show, they would plainly refuse. But at the same time, there were also actors and directors who take the criticisms positively,” he says.

How the stars take it

Hemanth Kumar CR, a film journalist who reviews Telugu films, says that he has not faced a situation in which he has been denied access because of a negative review. 

“I think it does not matter to the big stars what review you give. The newer actors, however, are keen to know why their film or performance has not worked. So, they read the reviews and take it sportingly,” he says.

However, the topic might come up the next time he runs into the celebrities. “They may ask me to justify why I wrote what I wrote. But if I am able to justify why I disliked a film, or something about it, it makes up for a lot,” he says.

Jogi, who has worked as a Kannada film journalist for three decades, has a similar view. For big stars especially, the reviews do not seem to matter. And if a reviewer gives a decent star rating, what is written in the review counts even less. However, it's different for TV. “When a TV channel gives a bad review, some people get flustered," he says.

Neelima Menon, who runs a website that reviews Malayalam films – – has also heard of directors “calling up and blasting the journalists for giving the film a negative review”, especially in mainstream newspapers. “They demand to know why we have written what we have written," she says.

Getting abuse from fans

Even if the stars and directors themselves do not pull up film journalists, their fans are another story.

For example, Ramnath Goenka awardee Anna Vetticad, faced plenty of name-calling and accusations online after she critiqued Baahubali: The Conclusion. She gave the film a 2.25/5 rating and called it a “cocktail of grand stunts, visuals, terrible acting, closeted conservatism.”

Here are some examples of the kind of responses Baahubali fans sent her after her review.

This is indeed common for entertainment journalists.

While Neelima has not had a film celebrity question her on her review, she too has been harassed and criticised on social media. Such abuse is common, especially when a big star's film gets negative reviews.

“It happened with me when I did not give a warm review to Villain. Mohanlal fans were not pleased. Mammootty fans also do the same sometimes, but I just ignore and block them," she says.

She concedes, however, that had she been writing in Malayalam, the backlash would have been a lot more severe. “I think they are kinder to negative reviews in English,” she notes.

It works the other way too – when Hemanth gave Mahesh Babu starrer Khaleja (2010) a glowing review, his fans were happy. But because the film wasn’t popular, he got trolled by others on social media for giving a ‘bad’ film a positive review.

“There’s a running joke among fans,” Hemanth chuckles, “they think that if I have given a film a glowing review, it’s going to bomb at the box office.”

Cinema over stardom

Both Baradwaj and Hemanth say that people in the film industry holding grudges for negative stuff that’s written about them cannot be generalised to an entire industry.

“The newer directors are more open to negative reviews and criticism,” observes Baradwaj. “I think it’s because they give precedence to filmmaking and cinema over the box office. The younger stars I talk to may not be happy with a review but are willing to discuss and fight it out, which I think is okay.”

He gives the example of director Karthik Subbaraj, whom he recently interviewed. They had a conversation about how some of the individual scenes in a film of his were fantastic, but the film itself did not tie together well. Karthik took it well. “But there are some stars to whom it’s difficult to say these things,” Baradwaj says.

Jogi, too, has noticed that the celebrities who care about how their work is portrayed in the media are usually the younger ones. “It's the artistes who are three or four films in -- they get hurt by negative reviews. But in my experience, they don't call to lash out or be angry. They're hurt, and they call to complain. They're not rude or angry,” he says. 

Hemanth, meanwhile, feels that a star is more likely to cut off access after a nasty gossip column, especially in newspapers. “It does not matter if there is no byline… It is easy to figure out who must have written it. If an actor does not like what’s written about their personal life, they are more likely to cut you off than for criticism of their work,” he says.

All about the business

Jogi has observed that over the years, people have started to bother less about the film, and more about the business aspect of it. 

“The number of people who watch films after reading a review has reduced. Now, most people go by what is said on Facebook, or the rating on platforms like BookMyShow,” he says. Even the questions that are asked these days, Jogi notes, are about how much money the movie made, rather than the scenes in the movie, or the story.

Hemanth points out that film journalists face flak if they do not take the public sentiment into account. 

“You either go with the popular opinion, or you go with how you see it," he says. 

Hemanth relies on the latter, and does not give prominence to the public pulse or the box office. “But it is the box office which matters to most people. At the end of the day, they want to know if they should spend their money to go for the film," he points out.

Further, it’s not as though film journalists have not taken favours or gifts from celebrities.

“There have been transactions between film journalists to go soft on certain releases,” Jogi concedes. “Now, however, film producers have started tying up with media houses, and are paying them quite legally as part of 'promotions'. We can't call it right or wrong, but that's the way the industry works today. So, there's no need to pay journalists any more.” 

It’s all about integrity

Anupama Chopra, film critic and founder of Film Companion, says that there have been multiple occasions when a Bollywood celebrity has refused to speak with her after a negative review. And while she understands why it must be upsetting for those who have worked on a film, she does not let it affect her work.

“I admire people who can take [criticism] on the chin and genuinely don’t get upset in a personal manner. I understand the other reaction as well, but I do not spend time thinking about what’s fair and not fair,” she says.

She also points out that film journalists in India have a tougher job. 

“Most film critics in the West are not interviewers. Ideally, that demarcation should be there, but in India, it’s not like that,” Anupama explains.

A lot of times, fans and film stars also try to indirectly influence journalists. 

“Many have told me subtly not to trouble them, which is in a way asking me to give a good review. But then, once people know that you are not biased, they will not try to influence you,” Maneesh says.

That being said, Anupama points out that a film review is a “subjective truth”. “But it is part of my job and it is my truth. And if I cannot bring that to the table at the end of the day, then I should just stop doing it. It’s all about maintaining integrity,” she asserts.

(Inputs from Megha Varier and Ragamalika Karthikeyan)

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