Art & Culture

Making enemies among the un-grammatical | Raja Sen, shares his unique journey as a film critic in India

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In the movie, Birdman, the central character, lambasts a critic in a dramatic scene, who is determined to destroy his play in the New York Times review that she is about to write. He lashes out by saying that all critics do is put ‘labels’ to their work and have no real comment on technique, execution or the theatrics of it. This scene went on to become one of the best in the film, possibly because it had a ring of truth in it talking about critics everywhere.

But I was about to be given a different perspective by a leading Indian film critic and writer, Raja Sen. Being provocative and in some cases downright mean is enjoyed by readers, and gives a vent to the critics for having to sit through a bad film. And sometimes, the critics indulge. Raja Sen, who reviews 100-120 films in a year has to watch some really bad films to compensate for the job that many would call ideal.

Raja comes across as a showman of the film reviewing clan in our country. A small clan, which is illustrious, banal, at times inconsequential too, and the really good ones have probably offended a few directors and actors with their word wizardry.

I am a bombastic writer, there is a lot of bluster to my writing, I am not sparse. I am not as clean as many writers I like. I write with a lot of imagery and similes and adverbs, these are all considered weaknesses I think but I enjoy it, I mean I have fun!

Fun was all that he wanted to have when he started writing. And developed a style very early on, searching for a freedom to take off in any direction as long it stayed with the audience. His flights of fancy have worked because they are bolder, less measured, and have remained unrestricted from a very young age.

He watched his first important film at the age of 8. But this he owes to his ‘good Bengali boy’ upbringing, receiving fairly large doses of Ray, Mrinal Sen, and the Italian filmmakers.

One of my most vivid memories was being very young but watching the Godfather with my father and my grandfather and obviously, Ma came in and yelled at them because it’s a violent film and it’s not a film children should see. But it was exciting. I remember the scene was one where they take the guy to the middle of the fields to execute …I remember how Dad kept pausing and talking about how that scene was composed.

This went alongside a lot of reading as well as writing during his childhood. At home he was mingling with people who were not necessarily his age or creed, helping him develop an artistic temperament early on.

It was a house full of very bohemian people and very crazy hours, you know artists, illustrators and designers, novelists, and it was just very cool growing up like that.

I guess the biggest thing about growing up in a creative household is the fact that you are allowed to kind of blaze your own path…

In school, I would write about random things but I was encouraged to because as long as I was able to write, people didn’t mind what I was writing about. So that cockiness came early on.  

Cockiness or no cockiness, perhaps being average at studies gave him the fillip to become better at what he knew best – writing.

I was writing confidently, I was writing in a voice that sounded like it knew what it was talking about, even if it didn’t, I would have fun with my papers, I remember writing about Milton and quoting Marilyn Manson lyrics.

He was still searching when he decided to leave Delhi and go to Bombay. It took him just 2 days to get a job in a small advertising agency on reaching Bombay.

So we would write ball pen ads, it was insufferable, but it was advertising which is a seductively fun job, where you’re working in the office till 2 in the morning, faffing around because you are also told that it is ok to do what you want as long as you got the idea.

He had also started writing a Formula 1 column for on the side. It was exciting to write those 1100 word pieces each weekend. Doing that he experienced his first brush with an instant audience on the internet. But he had to wait for films to happen before facing the full-blown effect of this audience.

F1 was a much friendlier place than cinema, it wasn’t about – Who are you? How dare you talk about our Shahrukh Khan?’ (In films)…it was madness and bloodbaths in those message boards. This is much before twitter and facebook existed.

He’s received threats to get sued for his reviews, which he felt was ‘ridiculous’, because ‘how can you sue someone for having an opinion’? Or was at the receiving end at parties for offending an actor because he called her character a ‘cow’ in a movie.

A friend of mine astutely put it that you should feel good about it, because you have made enemies out of the un-grammatic.

That was reassuring. People were arguing just for the sake of arguing.

Raja was getting hooked on to the idea of an audience reaction each time his column came out, good or bad.

I remember the moment I felt that I was onto something, pursuing it as a career during Rediff’s early years. I discovered an ‘I hate Raja Sen’ group on Orkut, these were the people talking about which of my reviews was shittier, and it was really interesting for me to see that level of passion, and I said ‘Hey, not bad’.

When you are a writer, to be given an audience, an instant, willing passionate, audience is very exciting and I wanted to see how long I could do it for.

Cut to years later – Film and Talk

Raja is still having fun after 13 years of the bloodbaths on his message boards. And is glad that the passion still runs deep. His relation with his audience has grown. He defends his position and regains ground each time through arguments. But more than anything he looks forward to the conversations.

With cinema, everybody has an opinion and everybody is aware of their opinion. So I could write a review about a film I loved and somebody could say we hated that and proceed to lambast me about it. That often includes the people who have made those films. But I think it’s fine, it’s a conversation and as long as the conversation is interesting it is great.

Reviews per say do not always remain in the reviewer’s domain. A review can open up a discussion on important subjects, which were originally not intended.

A couple of months ago I met this very interesting young writer in Delhi, who happened to be gay and he was talking about how upset he was with my Dostana review, but I said that that film was so regressive and campy, and showed homosexuality in such campy light. He said ‘but so many things about this film brought homosexuality into a mainstream familial conversation’, which was exciting to him and he felt that that balanced out the regression in it. And it was really eye-opening to me.

Raja takes sides, champions films and filmmakers he likes. He thinks objectivity is not a high ideal when it comes to writing reviews.

I remember a couple of years ago at the Mumbai International Film Festival, we were having this conversation where someone was going on about how, Raja Sen would always give Vishal Bharadwaj movies a good review and Anurag Kashyap, an unlikely savior came for to my defense…see Raja will like Vishal’s films, but then if you read Raja’s review of a film like Saat Khoon Maaf, it reads as if Vishal, like he is writing about his father having been caught shoplifting. It’s that profoundly embarrassing, it has that much is at stake.

The best reviews are the ones that give you a bit of the reviewer’s personality, what the reviewer went through, what they felt.

You should write a review that only you can write, that’s really important.
The only thing that has to happen in a review is that it has to be an opinion that is informed.

From watching bad films to watching masterful films and then watching a few films over and over again, Raja Sen is satisfied to have ‘gone to films’. He suggests the same for anyone wanting to try film writing. And believes that everyday opinion is very welcome, however being consistent and informing is important.  

When I am working, I am working There are these young men who are critics, who I chastised recently, who went to see a film and then walked out of it and wrote in their reviews of how bad it was. You know that’s not done. Or people who are texting in the middle of a film you can’t do those things. It’s like if you are in a bad film it’s like being in a boring board meeting, you have to sit through it, you can’t not do it.

So those of us reading a Raja Sen review of the next new release can expect a lot of critiquing, sure, but possibly not one half-baked notion!!

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Ipsita Basu

Media professional, film buff, nature lover. Loves and hates to be in the flux of things - 'coz destinations are boring.

About the Author

Ipsita Basu

Media professional, film buff, nature lover. Loves and hates to be in the flux of things - 'coz destinations are boring.

Read more from Ipsita