Whenever someone asks me what I do and I tell them I’m a reviewer, there’s a shine in their eyes and a sneer that lurks on their lips. The shine is because they also want to be paid in exchange for telling people what they think of the latest Bollywood release. And the sneer is because they don’t think this business of film reviewing is a real job.
I’m here to tell you that film reviewing is not a cakewalk. It’s like spying and reporting from conflict zones; only from inside a movie theatre. You need to think on your feet, you need to navigate a maze of egos, you need to take tough decisions – and that’s not even taking into consideration the trauma of watching the movies that Bollywood makes.
The first challenge when you begin as a reviewer is getting the legions of public relations firms to acknowledge your existence. If only someone had warned me while I was studying Plato’s Republic and reading Rilke’s depressing poetry in college that I would spend weeks and months trying to get on the list of a firm that sends out emails like “Rahul Bose Retires From Acting To Focus on his International Rugby Career”.
Much like St Paul guards the pearly gates of heaven, PR firms guard access to all things Bollywood. Whether you want to get in on the press screening or score an interview with an actor, you need to be on the list. The problem is that the PR firms are peopled with two varieties of idiots.
On top, are the ones who run the firms – old timers who don’t believe “press” means anything beyond print and television. Apparently, it took a while to convince the PR gang that entertainment in news channels wasn’t a waste of time. That’s before my time. What I can tell you is that convincing a PR rep to realise you as a reviewer for a website are a real, live human being is about as easy as getting Kim Kardashian to boil an egg for herself.
At the other end of the spectrum are the legion of little girls employed by the PR firm to do the running around, calling and emailing. If the website you work for registers in their horizon – rejoice ScoopWhoop, you’re one them – then they’ll not only include you on their list of reviewers, but you’ll also get phone calls in which they’ll chirrup to remind you to come for a film screening or music launch, and other such places.
I have gazed upon those who enjoy such benefits with envy and longing because tragically, I have not worked for a website that can boast of a target demographic in the 20s. Which has basically meant that I have called and emailed and called and loped up to the little girls each time I’ve made my way into a press show – to no end. The website I work for is general news and not about to make dollar signs shine in venture capitalists’ eyes. This is why every time I’ve managed to get on a list, I have run around Bandra Bandstand waving my barely-smartphone wildly in the air.
The reason this is frustrating and feels like a hybrid of a leech and an earworm is that on every Bollywood PR’s list are a list of people who have no business being in any movie theatre. They’re not invited because of their popularity or because they were once associated with any publication of any repute – it’s only because the PR can’t be bothered to update their list. Plus, these old fogies are nice to the little PR girls, who are therefore more inclined to be nice to these guys.
See, being nice is a plus point that not too many of the ‘reputed’ reviewers get. The fact is that publications like Mid-Day and those from the Times of India stable are considered important and influential. This makes those writing for them feel the same way, and so they’re the clique you want to get with as a novice reviewer.
Let me just put it out there, because I can, thanks to my awesome anonymous cloak. All those rumours of reviewers being paid to write good reviews or getting bribed in kind? They’re all true.
I don’t mean every reviewer is corrupt. Some of us don’t even get the chance.
So come Diwali, there is a fulsome list that is collated by different producers – what will go to which reviewer? If you’re in the big league, you’re in this list. If you’re in the really big league, you’re getting a whole lot more than dried fruits. One year, iPads were distributed to a chosen few. Bottles of foreign liquor go around to many. If you’re considered important, then you may even score a foreign holiday or two at the expense of a film production company.
However, to my experience, the bulk of unnecessarily generous reviews are actually born out of necessity. If you work for Big Media in particular and are on the Entertainment beat, then it falls upon you to get stars for various events and programmes. Now, if you’ve been a reviewer with integrity and told Karan Johar that Ae Dil Hai Mushkil is tripe rolled up in saccharine and deep-fried in stupid melodrama, you think Johar is going to show up for your channel’s live event or give you an interview?
If you’re gasping at the thought of Bollywood hot stuff being so petty, let me break your heart a little further. Even people at top of their game, like Shah Rukh Khan, do this. Khan, for instance, was hugely miffed at not getting good reviews for Happy New Year. Yes, that pile of awfulness. Net result, some of the biggest names in Indian film reviewing were “boycotted”.
So this is the world in which we reviewers live. A world of intrigue and drama and excommunication. These are the minefields we negotiate. Which is why the next time you meet one of my tribe, show some sympathy. It’s a jungle out there.
Bollywood Insider is a disgruntled film reviewer by night. And a khufiya columnist and double agent by day.
(Feature Image Source: Reuters)