Monday, October 19, 2009

Declaration of Annoyance

This is the post in which I officially declare a feud with The New York Times Bollywood reviewer Rachel Saltz. Yes, I'm adding to my lengthy list of people I find objectionable. I can't help it in this case because she clearly has NO IDEA about Bollywood. All of her reviews are filtered through this lens of "international cinema" that is totally irrelevant to Bollywood. Roger Ebert says that we should judge a film based on whether it meets the goals that it sets for itself. So, something like Partner, which is by no means a piece of great cinema, is still a successful film in that it gives the audience exactly what it wants - Govinda making a fool of himself; Salman without a shirt on; some romance; some comedy; upbeat songs; a wedding scene; etc. Partner delivers exactly what is promised and those who enjoy that kind of comedy - i.e. ME - walked away perfectly satisfied.

While I am certainly no stranger to tearing apart movies I find dull on my blog, the difference is that I'm not pretending to be an objective reviewer. I'm letting my personal tastes shine through on purpose because that is what blogging is all about. I can and do write unbiased reviews - for Bollyspice.com, for instance - so I understand the difference between expressing my personal opinion and writing a critical review. Rachel Saltz does not. If she was blogging away, that would be fine, but she's not. She is using her platform as a film critic for
The New York Times, one of the papers of note in the United States, to spread her personal opinion and misunderstandings about Bollywood.

Let's just take a sample of her reviews - here is the one that got me super-annoyed and set off this rant - her review for All the Best: Fun Begins:

Where has all the drama gone? Hindi cinema has a serious case of the giggles these days. So perhaps it’s not surprising that an actor like Ajay Devgn, who played a powerful, brooding Othello in “Omkara” (2006), should want in on the comedy fun.

Where to even begin with this? First of all, Ajay Devgan has done plenty of comedy - not limited to EVERY ROHIT SHETTY FILM EVER. And don't get me started on the alleged lack of serious films - just this year two of the biggest standouts were
Dev.D and Kaminey, both far from comedies.

Mr. Devgn produced and stars in “All the Best,” a more-is-more farce set in Goa that features spectacular car crashes, a mute villain who communicates by tapping a spoon on a glass, torture by ice, and rock ’n’ roll mayhem on the beach. (There’s also some gratuitous blackface at the end. Message to Bollywood: If you can’t find black actors, don’t write a scene involving gun-toting enforcers from Lesotho.)

Okay, so "more-is-more" is standard operating procedure with this kind of comedy - fair enough - but the obvious throwback to the infamous Sir Judah (Premnanth) from
Karz just flys right on over Ms. Saltz's head. And the blackface scene, while tasteless, is certainly not unique to All the Best - nor was it meant to be insulting. For the record, there were black actors in the scene - and the black face was certainly no worse than Preity's turn in a blond wig pretending to be "Russian" at the end of Jaan-e-Mann. You can't judge Bollywood on American standards - they are much more free and easy with making fun of different races, ethnicities, etc. etc. She may as well have criticized the film for not have actors who appear to be playing their instruments in the "rock 'n' roll mayhem" section of the piece.

“All the Best: Fun Begins ...,” which starts with a burst of tropical glory in the carnavalesque title number (it sounds a bit like “Ring My Bell”), has a story too complicated to explain. Even the subplots have subplots. In short, lies beget lies, and the antic confusion is meant to beget laughs.

This is just lazy - "too complicated to explain"? Then why mention it. And why waste words on explaining that "All the Best" has a chorus that sounds like "Ring My Bell"? Again, lazy.

While the movie has plenty of energy, it rarely hits the comic peaks it’s working so hard to achieve. Mr. Devgn is a decent enough comic actor. But maybe next time he and his co-stars, who include Bipasha Basu and Sanjay Dutt, will find a nice meaty drama to sink their teeth into.

And the final paragrah just completely misses the point. It's a lighthearted comedy. Review it like one and save the whining that you weren't watching
Omkara for your personal blog or the op-ed page.

It's not just
All the Best: Fun Begins that gets the ignorant Saltz treatment.

There was this gem from
Kambakkht Ishq: South Asians everywhere (but India nowhere in sight).

I'll take great pleasure in tearing apart any more ridiculous reviews that come across my radar screen. Rachel Saltz: It's on.

9 comments:

rhilex said...

It's decided-- YOU should write column for the New York Times, titled 'The Anti-Saltz' or something similar. :p Someone help me come up with a cool column name!

Anonymous said...

Perhaps that was her Terms of Reference for the job of being a critic on NYT - " rip apart films from other cultures with all your ignorance" coz the paper will sell and get more readers

or

is it a case of "I am the biggest and best" in the field with a sizeable chunk of the media market so NYT can get away with any crap?

No wonder people in general in the western world are prejudiced against movies from other cultures. This is not to decry the genuine ones who do appreciate and enjoy movies from other cultures especially India, Korea, China, Iran etc

veracious said...

Re: blackface, it might not be as highly a sensitive topic as in the US, but I think blackface is offensive nearly always, regardless of context. There's a lot of other kinds of questionable humor in Indian films that has nothing to do with racism but more to do with regionalism, colorism, other forms of discrimination, but I'd say blackface, even in the Indian context, is not a commendable effort. And while it's not limited to this one movie, it might've been the stand-out "ohgodno" moment for the reviewer, hence why she wrote it in.

There's no objectivity in film reviews but I think the best ones do such a good job of describing both the film and the reviewer's take on it that people walk away knowing whether they'd like it or not. Whether this particular viewer is ignorant, you know, I'm sure she is in some ways. And I totally agree with you that Bollywood requires knowledge beyond general knowledge of "foreign" (aka non-American) cinema. But based on just this review, I'm not entirely sure if I agree with you on the extreme annoyance. Would have to read more of her views.

moviemeh said...

Trivia question. Who said it?

"I always watch the movie with the intended audience in mind. Otherwise, everything's, Well, it's not 'Citizen Kane.' "

moviemeh said...

Answer to Trivia question (linking to page 4 of a 5 page article, so you can scroll to the bottom and read the quote in context.)

Filmi Girl said...

@rhilex LOL! I'll just wait for the call... XD

@Anon I think the NYT wants to expand to capture the "ethnic" market but can't be bothered to find somebody that knows what she is talking about. If they can't review films properly, they shouldn't be doing it at all. It's not like All the Best is playing at the regular multiplexes in New York City or anything... there was no need for Ms. Saltz's lazy review.

@veracious I think we should do a point-counterpoint on blackface! Are you in?! My short answer on blackface in Bollywood is that I don't find it more objectionable than the "whiteface" put on by actors - like Preity Zinta in Jaan-e-Mann. Certainly it's not tasteful nor sophisticated but it doesn't have the nasty and deeply disgusting connotations that such humor would have here in the United States.

@Moviemeh That quote is exactly on the mark! XD It's just lazy and bad reviewing to compare All the Best with Omkara and say... "Well, clearly it's not as good..."

veracious said...

The thing is, though, I don't think whiteface is anywhere nearly as common as blackface. Or at least based on what I've seen. Both are questionable, of course, and Indian films certainly have a history of portraying white people negatively but I honestly don't think Preity's "whiteface" was equal to Captain Russell of Lagaan or such.

And honestly while blackface may lack the connotations of America's racial history, minstrel shows etc elsewhere, the blackface phenomenon could, in my eyes, be offensive worldwide. In many countries school books have taught that people of African descent are somehow less than human. And in an increasingly global world, I don't think you can feign ignorance to such issues.

I think in this case it might've just been the straw that broke the camel's back; and the reviewer has got a point that if your portrayal of black people is so offensive that you can't get anybody black to play the character OR you're just too lazy to, maybe the character should be something other-than-black. Maybe it's the film makers who were even lazier than this reviewer.. ;)

ajnabi said...

I totally agree with most of your points--I mean, if someone is a Bollywood reviewer, shouldn't that someone have a working knowledge of classics like Karz so they can get those references? I wouldn't have caught it, but then again I just blog so I would've asked what it meant and five commenters would have informed me. :-) It *is* totally annoying.

However, I am going to take issue with your point about blackface as well. I think that in a country where actresses say as a compliment to their make-up artist, "She could make a black African look beautiful," like, oh gee, the impossible is possible with her, and where fair is beautiful and dark is "ugly," there's obviously some issues going on. They might not have the history of slavery and Jim Crow behind the practice, but they do have a long history of looking down on people who are darker-skinned. It might not be the heavy issue it is here, I'm willing to admit that, but I find it as objectionable as I find the constant "moto moto moto" jokes in K3G's first half.

For the rest, though, I couldn't agree more with what you have to say. Surely as prestigious a publication as the NYT could find someone who has a basic working knowledge of Hindi film conventions and history.

Filmi Girl said...

@ajnabi I'll have to do a post on blackface - I just bought Kambakkht Ishq so I can get screencaps of the blackface scene in that. I guess it doesn't offend me that much because Bollywood makes fun of everyone - from overly exaggerated "sheiks" and "made in china" jokes to the horrific white people ones finds, that kind of race-based humor is just part and parcel of low-brow humor.

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl