John W. Hood
Critics of the arts have existed for millennia, the more eminent ones having been writing since at least the times of Plato and Aristotle. Criticism itself might even be seen as an art, although that might be to inflate its importance somewhat, for criticism, by definition, cannot exist in its own right, but achieves its importance and flourishes as an adjunct of or complement to some other art. Indeed, the seriousness with which the practice of criticism is pursued is an indication of the importance we attach to the arts. The more valuable the product, the more prolific and profound is the criticism that comes to it. Except in the infinitely level realm of postmodernism where, to borrow from Sir Arthur Sullivan, “Everyone is somebody, [so] no one’s anybody”, one rarely comes across serious criticism of a pop song, a comic strip or a TV commercial. Even the higher forms of popular culture, such as bestsellers in literature or box office hits in the cinema or theatre, are rarely subjected to extensive critical scrutiny, criticism in that area which is usually restricted to the popular media being part and parcel of the total commercial bandwagon on which they ride. Indeed, it would be a truism to say that the lesser the work, the less there is to say about it.
The purpose of this paper is to make some observations on the role of the critic in the cinemas of the postcolonial world, the interest in cinema being confined to the serious or non commercial cinema. While the term ‘Third World’ is now outdated and hampered by its obvious limitations, most people do have a reasonably clear idea of what it may be taken to mean. ‘Postcolonial’ is now more acceptable a term, or so we are told, though it is not without its limitations, either.
Broadly, the ideas presented in this paper may well be appropriate to those societies that have emerged from a direct experience of Western imperialism, including developed nations such as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, as well as to those, such as China and Japan, whose experience of quasi colonialism has been a major factor in the revolutionising of traditional society and culture in those countries. Nevertheless, it will be apparent that most of what I have to say will have much greater meaning in the context of the cinemas of the less developed countries such as those of Africa and South Asia.
There are some significant criteria on which the role of the critic in postcolonial societies may be seen as distinct from that of his or her counterpart in the developed world. I would like to consider three of these in particular: the special problems of serious filmmakers in the postcolonial context; the determined need among those filmmakers at least, among the better ones not to ape the cinema of the West; and the very important desire of artists to articulate an ancient cultural tradition or aspects of it that might be vulnerable to obscurity in a regenerated postcolonial environment which, in many cases, might seem to be becoming more and more westernised.
The most obvious factor differentiating even the most talented of filmmakers in a country like India or Bangladesh from their affluent counterparts in Europe or North America is the availability of funds. A noted Indian director told me once that he would find it impossible to make a feature film of any real quality with a budget of less than $US80,000. Europeans and Americans might well laugh at the absurdity of this seemingly paltry sum, yet many artistically excellent films are made in the Subcontinent on considerably less than that. A very beautiful though somewhat rough and raw film by the Bodo director, Jangdao Bodosa, Rape in the Virgin Forest, shown at the International Film Festival of India in 1996, had a total budget of Rs. 6 lakhs, or about $US14,000. It hardly needs saying that an up and coming filmmaker can hardly afford a failure, or even a film that some may deem to be rather less than successful. Indeed, if a filmmaker is to become established, he or she must be able to work artistic wonders with less than a minimum of funds.
Intricately linked with the problem of funding for the making of a film is the meagre infrastructure for its marketing and distribution. Without the assistance of established distribution networks, a filmmaker very often has to go about the business of selling his film himself; this greatly depends on who he knows, and a filmmaker struggling to get started will usually know fewer influential people than the ones who have already clawed their way up at least some of the rungs of the ladder. If a director manages to have a film shown at an international festival, it will usually stand or fall, at least as far as foreign buyers are concerned, on its own artistic merits. But there is a lot of luck and sometimes more than a modicum of injustice involved in this. Moreover, just getting the film reasonable exposure at home is difficult enough. Even a new Satyajit Ray film that had a mere three or four week run in Calcutta might have been described as a box office success.
An artist is a product of his or her own society, and postcolonial societies have many distinguishing features that are not shared with those of the West. Filmmakers in postcolonial societies are naturally responsive to their indigenous problems and socio cultural characteristics and, understandably, feel an acute need to express their feelings about them. Despite the ever-popularity of screen versions of Romeo and Juliet, one can say that the star crossed lovers theme is now rather hackneyed in the West, but in the Subcontinent the idea of a boy from one community having romantic designs on a girl from another community is fraught with a complexity of problems infinitely more intense than the issue of two pompous Italian families bigotedly bearing a grudge against one another. However, not only are creative and original filmmakers in the postcolonial world reluctant to be followers of their Western counterparts, their vision and sensibilities are largely determined by their own socio cultural context, which is far removed from that of Western filmmakers. Furthermore, there are some postcolonial societies for example, Bangladesh and China, as well as the Latin American countries that are, outwardly and obviously, intricately tied to their recent past, and it would be extraordinary if artists were not to respond articulately to their contemporary history. Bangladeshi filmmakers, only too well acquainted with the prickly sensibilities of politicians and the nit picking of censors, must have a very special feeling for the importance of truth as they see it, as distinct from truth as others would have them and us see it. Making an art film is considerably more than getting images on the screen, whatever the compromises may have to be. In all of this, the American or European way of selecting material, working it into a plot and enunciating it through an essentially visual medium is not often appropriate in Africa, Asia or Latin America. Feature films such as Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum or the Liberation films of Tanvir Mokammel bear a profound significance well beyond the realm of cinema.
As well as being more obviously bound in momentous history, the postcolonial filmmaker is very often the product of a society with a rich and ancient cultural tradition. While political and economic leaders might see the need to pursue a course of modernisation along lines often suggested by Western models, the hearts of the people are often moulded by cultural elements much older and more indigenous. Kurosawa’s Shakespeare films are much more than adaptations into Japanese language and mise en scene; they are translations into Japanese culture, and as such are more obviously Japanese than Shakespearean. Similar cultural translations have been done very successfully in India, especially Kumar Shahani’s brilliant reading of Chekhov in Kasba and Govind Nihalani’s chilling re creation of Lorca in Rukmavati ki Haveli.
However, it is interesting to note that outside of Japan very few films of any real worth have been concerned with the ‘great’ traditions, although many filmmakers have been attracted to the numerous ‘little’ traditions, making superb cinema out of otherwise unremarkable people such as the dwarf in Rape in the Virgin Forest, the blind musician in Chen Kaige’s Life on a String, the bogey man in Aravindan’s Kummatty, or the bullock dray driver in Morshedul Islam’s Chaka. Such characters as these and the socio cultural contexts in which they live can be of great cinematic importance given their inherent originality and the contribution that their creators may make in the extension of vision among cinema viewers, along with the broadening of human understanding that may flow from that. A smug, western educated, urban critic might well write off Rape in the Virgin Forest as being rough and rustic and technically unsophisticated, missing altogether the potential the film has for magnifying the human soul. This may sound a little lofty, but films of the ‘little’ traditions are usually dressed in the trappings of difference, and the real joy for an audience is to get through these outward differences to touch what is essentially and universally human at their core. In the Subcontinent, at least, one does not have to go very far from the source of a given ‘little’ tradition to where it may become the object of curiosity. A Bodo film, for example, may be a novelty even to a Bengali, despite the regional proximity.
The critic of postcolonial cinema, then, must be acutely aware of distinguishing features such as these and try to be sympathetic to them. There is no reason at all why he should not have a thorough grounding in Western cinema, but he must also be well aware that the criteria of criticism appropriate to Western cinema are not entirely suitable to the cinema of a postcolonial society. Indeed, the values of that society and its culture must be paramount in guiding his criticism.
The Western critic writing about the cinema of a postcolonial society must also broaden his vision if he is to write intelligently about the subject. Western audiences have been brought up very largely on a diet of action, of things constantly happening. In so many Western films, time is crammed with event. The same is true of many postcolonial films, but the opposite is indeed true of many more. The Western critic, not well educated in the socio cultural context of his subject, would certainly find the contemplative films of Aravindan, for example, more than a trifle baffling, yet to dismiss them as ‘slow’ would be an act of cultural hostility. It is worth recalling that the eminent French director, François Truffaut, dismissed Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali as being boring and tedious. Of course, very few would try to detract from the cinematic discernment of Truffaut, nor are there many who would dispute the claim to greatness of Pather Panchali. But there is no great controversy inherent in this. Truffaut’s criticism speaks simply, and loudly, of the cultural chasm that the Frenchman had not been able to traverse. Sadly, the Truffaut trap is fallen into by many a would be authoritative Western critic writing about an African or Asian film.
The popular notion of a cinema critic is of one who writes about films for the press. Indeed, such critics are the most widely read, even though what they write is not necessarily the best criticism; in many cases, it is not even good criticism. There are also many important critics who do not write primarily for newspapers and popular magazines, but for more specialist journals; many of them also write books. In many countries cinema is a subject in schools and universities, just as literature and fine arts and music are, and it is fair to describe the teachers of cinema studies as critics of the art; after all, it is their job to help their students to analyse, interpret and evaluate cinematic texts, and this is exactly what conventional critics set out to do. Finally, the most common critics of all write nothing, yet they may speak volumes; they are the thinking members of an audience, whose intelligence and sensibility must never be underestimated in gauging the success or otherwise of a particular film.
Whenever a member of the audience gives a considered and thoughtful answer to the question, “What did you think of it?” he or she is indulging in cinema criticism. We might hope that these answers go considerably beyond “It was good” or “I didn’t like it much”, but very often they don’t. Useful criticism, of course, is much more than stating a simple opinion, although many paid critics often do merely this, while the awarding of a number of stars out of five is a substitute for critical appreciation. Cinema criticism, however, is a form of communication that goes beyond the perimeters of the film, yet speaks on behalf of the film. It offers analytical interpretation of a given work, and may also seek to aesthetically contextualise it by classifying it in comparison with other films by the same director or other films of its kind. Ultimately, the film critic may evaluate the work by making judgements about its overall worth.
All this may seem very simple and straightforward, and yet all critics at least from time to time, and some more often than others fall into traps of faulty criticism. One of the most common faults of film critics is negativity. Unfortunately, the English word ‘criticise’ is popularly (though not entirely correctly) taken to mean ‘censure’, so in popular usage the word carries a strong negative overtone. However, how many critics of Elizabethan literature censure Shakespeare? Criticism may involve praise as much as it may involve censure; indeed, good criticism does not have to involve either, but it must involve sound textual analysis.
There are also those critics who value far too highly their role as judge. Theirs is the sin of pontification. Because a critic is nearly always impossible to answer, critics often seem to think that theirs is the last word on the subject and so feel quite unrestrained in making lofty pronouncements about what is, essentially, someone else’s work. When a critic starts to think that he knows more about filmmaking than filmmakers do, he should re examine his credentials and reassess his purposes. Maybe he should take time off to make a film.
Of course, this is not to say that a critic cannot have constructive things to say about the techniques of making a film. Many critics know the art of filmmaking very well and may fairly demand to be listened to deferentially on the subject. However, most critics would be well advised to concentrate on what is, rather than on what might have been. I once read in a Kolkata daily:
“The music was not quite right for this film. While the cinematography was quite good, it could have been better, and there was room for improvement in the dialogue. In future [the director] should pay more attention to how he ends a film.”
This is pontification at its worst, raising more questions than it answers and saying nothing about the film, while confidently asserting the critic’s unquestionable authority. (At this point one should note with concern the number of pieces of film criticism now appearing in newspapers under the superscription of ‘Our Correspondent’.)
Closely linked to a propensity for pontification is the frequency in film criticism of unqualified opinion making. In every discipline of the humanities it is a cardinal sin not to substantiate an opinion with evidence, yet in much film criticism, especially in the popular media, we all too frequently come across unsubstantiated value judgements. Opinionated critics may well believe that their readers should simply trust them. But why should they? The stating of opinions without explicit reference to the text is tantamount to critical anarchy. If a naked opinion is acceptable, the value of criticism is diminished indeed, its need is all but denied.
Even worse are the critics who do not understand a particular film, and worse still are those who have not even seen it! One must not be too harsh about the former, bearing in mind that many films are, indeed, rather esoteric. Tarkovsky virtually delighted in the abstruseness of his work, upholding his notion of the essential mystery that separates great cinema from the mediocre. However, it is worth deferring for a moment to the literary critic, who has been established in his art for many centuries more than we have been in ours. It would be very surprising to find a writer on Shakespeare or Dickens or Forster who has written an article on a text he has read only once. We must acknowledge that the value of the work demands intense scrutiny. Is it not fair to suggest, then, that many of our number actually treat with some degree of contempt the cinematic texts they seek to interpret to an all too trusting public? And while a literary critic would be exposed as a charlatan immediately he tried to write about a novel he had not read or had glanced at only cursorily, how do we view all those film critics we see at every film festival ducking in and out of this auditorium and that, catching a bit of one film and a bit of another, then going off for tea and a chat before writing their lofty pronouncements for publication? If we are prepared to be honest about this, we must concede that many a filmmaker often stands to have his work praised or condemned by someone who may have seen fifteen minutes at the start, five minutes at the end, and whose friend filled him in on what might seem to have happened in between.
The film critic does have immense importance to the art of cinema. After all, he has the power of the written word and, for better or for worse, is readily believed by so many. His brief article, appearing but once, might be read by infinitely more people than may ever see the film about which he is writing. He may even have the power to destroy a film, given the vulnerability of many filmmakers, in straitened financial circumstances, to a bad press.
Ultimately, the aim of responsible and intelligent criticism should always be to prosper the art, not to diminish it. In a society where serious endeavours to produce films of high artistic quality might be overwhelmed by the vast commercial machine of the popular product, a critic should try to commit himself to the belief that a film’s strengths are, in the greater scheme of things far worthier of discussion than what he perceives to be its weaknesses.
This is not to say that praise should be unbounded. There are many films that are a waste of money, and a critic should never compromise himself by praising such films. However, where the endeavour has been genuine and the evidence of aesthetic and technical value is obviously more than minimal, one should not carp but take care to promote. It is much easier to demolish something than to build it up, and pompous, irresponsible and insensitive criticism can play a major role in the destruction of serious cinema in a postcolonial society.
In the years in which I have been studying and writing about Indian cinema, one of the saddest things I have come across was the eventual discovery of a film I wanted to see, lying in rusty tins in a wet cellar in the Department of Agriculture in Bhubaneswar. The film was Nirad Mahapatra’s Maya Miriga. If such a disgrace could be the lot of a highly regarded film like that, one shudders to think of what might have happened to that lovely film made on less than a shoe string budget, Rape in the Virgin Forest and, tragically, hundreds more. In countries like India and Bangladesh, caring critics can do so much in establishing the worth of so many films that may be destined for such an ignominious end, as well as agitating for proper archival care for all serious films but that is another constantly buzzing bee which I must keep in my bonnet for another occasion.