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5 persistent myths about film criticism – KA Abbas death anniversary special

The film critic and journalist, who died on this date in 1987, wrote about the perils of the profession in an article published almost 80 years ago.

Sonal Pandya

Illustrious author, filmmaker and journalist Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’s long-running column for The Bombay Chronicle newspaper and, later, the Blitz weekly tabloid ran from 1935 until his death in 1987.

Writer-director of several award-winning films such as Naya Sansar (1940), Neecha Nagar (1946) and Pardesi (1957), Abbas also wrote reviews and columns for Baburao Patel’s magazine Filmindia.

Along with fellow critic Clare Mendonca, KA Abbas was co-vice-president of the Film Journalists Association, under president Baburao Patel, since it was founded in 1939.

One such article, possibly a manifesto, published in April 1939, the early years of the magazine, was titled 'Pity the poor film critic'. In it, Abbas went through the list of grievances and myths held against film critics and the business of film journalism, one by one, in his inimitable style.

We present some excerpts from the article, which remain relevant to this day:

Myth #1: Film critics are blackmailers and take bribes.

“For almost two years I have been writing about films and patiently waiting to be approached by a producer for an offer of money. Up to the time of writing, no such offer has been made. Rather discouraging for a budding blackmailer.”

Myth #2: Film critics give their personal opinions about films.

“Seeing all kinds of films as a routine job and a comparatively closer familiarity with the technical processes of film production tend to give us an objective (you might call it cold-blooded) attitude towards films — so that we are not so easily carried away merely by the glamorous personality of an actress or the glycerine-tear-stained climax of a sentimental photoplay, as the cine-goer is quite liable to do. We also make it our business to study the box office and on seeing a picture should be able to say, within a reasonable margin, how the public would react to it.”

Myth #3: The film critic does not care about the audience.

“He owes it to the fan to describe the pictures correctly to help him (or her!) choose an evening’s entertainment. There is a demand for all sorts of films — from mythological epics to crime 'thrillers'. It is the duty of the critic to see that he does not send those who would like Tukaram to see Hunter Wali and vice-versa! That would be a tragedy and a betrayal of the trust that the public reposes in him.”

Myth #4: Film critics believe all the publicity about an upcoming studio film.

“These studio-made 'write-ups' according to which every picture is the 'greatest, mightiest, star-studded screen epic of all times' are one of the curses of our film industry. I once remember observing that every one of a dozen pictures noticed on the cinema page of a well-known English daily was described as 'the best show in town' and praised in the choicest of adjectives out of the Thesaurus. A greater tragedy is that more or less the same adjective-laden write-ups appear week after week.”

Myth #5: A celebrity endorsement is a stamp of approval for the film’s future.

“The Aga Khan who, according to an advertisement, had never spent more than fifteen minutes to see any film in Europe or America (what a qualification for a film critic!) is said to be another admirer of this picture. I wonder whether he was drugged to sit through the whole picture. A few years ago an eminent national leader who is a lady of great talent and culture spoke in glowing terms of a short comedy produced by a local studio. The film hardly ran for two weeks and was such a miserable failure that the producers did not repeat the experiment.”

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