Bollywood today is technically superb, but its films are mostly drivel, rues veteran critic Derek Malcolm

Malcolm, who was The Guardian's film critic for more than three decades, speaks about the making of a good critic and the shrinking space for the arts in the media.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Derek Malcolm has been a film critic and historian for five decades now. For a long time, he was film critic at The Guardian newspaper, from the early 1960s until his retirement in 1997 aged 65.

In 1977, Malcolm was a member of the jury at the 27th Berlin International Film Festival. He went on to direct the London Film Festival, besides serving on the jury at Cannes, Venice and other prominent festivals across the world. He is president of the British Federation of Film Societies and honorary president of the International Film Critics Association, known by its French acronym FIPRESCI.

Malcolm was in conversation with Diorama Film Festival founder-director Manoj Srivastav as part of an ongoing virtual event. Speaking about film criticism today, he remarked, "You now find people writing about films from the entertainment point of view and not the critical point of view.

"The problem is that editors in India and Europe know that the arts don’t sell newspapers. It's politics and sport that sells newspapers. So the arts are being strangulated in India as well as in Europe, which means that a lot of bright people do not want to go into [film criticism]. They become general journalists because there is no point in being a critic. Besides, in Europe at the moment, there are hardly any films to review because everything is closed.

"In America, the situation is completely disastrous because all the best critics are now online and one or two critics are syndicated right through America. Earlier, a paper used to have its own critic, but now it takes them from somewhere else so criticism is not in a very good state.

"Film criticism in particular is too often handled by amateurs, people who haven’t seen enough films. They don’t know very much about world cinema. They don’t know much about their country’s cinema and they just come on, see a film and talk about it. That’s not really criticism, it’s more like gossip," he commented.

Offering insights on what makes a good film critic, Malcolm said, "First, you have got to know how to write well, because if you don't write entertainingly and well, they [the readers] won't read you, however knowledgeable you might be.

"Secondly, you have to be a good journalist. Many a time I’ve had to write a full-length criticism of a film within an hour of having watched it because of the deadlines. So you have to be a good reporter and a good journalist.

"The third thing is that you have to know something about cinema, not just of your own country but world cinema. That may seem a difficult thing but world cinema has only been going on for about a hundred years so you haven’t got a lot of history to look up. It’s not centuries old.

"The fourth thing seems rather silly — you have got to be a decent person. Why? Because films are about people and if you don’t like people much, you won’t be writing very well about their stories. So it’s quite difficult to be a good critic, but you have to know your stuff."

Continuing his observations on criticism, Malcolm said, “There are two ways of writing — one way says I don’t care what this person has directed before, I’m just going to see what’s up on the screen and give you my comments. The other lot of people, of whom I think I am one, will say that it’s very necessary to know what that director has done before and to compare it with what has been made.”

Discussing his own mode of writing, Malcolm said, "I am an interventionist critic. I believe that you should note what your director has done before and how good his film is in context with what other people have made and what he/she has made."

Malcolm, who turned 88 earlier this year, shared his aversion to the popular star rating system that distils a film down to the number of stars it is awarded by the critic. "The star system gives me the shudders because if you give a film one star people will read [the article] to see how awful the film is. If you give it five stars, they will read it to see how wonderful the film is. But I wonder if they take much notice of two, three and four stars. 

"I think very often they just look at the stars and don’t bother to read the reviews, and so I think the star system is not very good value, but I suppose it’s become a habit now. It trivializes things and it’s very easy to trivialize films now. I think they should be treated seriously because the best directors are wonderful and when you look at the past, when you think about [Luis] Bunuel, [Ingmar] Bergman, [Federico] Fellini and the great Indian directors like [Satyajit] Ray, Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal and people like that, I wonder whether they are honoured enough today.”

As someone who has keenly followed Indian cinema through the decades, the critic has a soft corner for older Indian films. “In India, 'Bollywood' [commercial Hindi cinema] used to be very good," he said. "They used to have top-class singers, musicians, dancers and I’m not sure that they do now.

"What I hate about Bollywood films is when they have an orchestration which is European rather than Indian. I would like to see Indian films with an Indian soundtrack and you don’t get that all that often nowadays. I think the acting [in Indian films] has gotten a lot less melodramatic, the camerawork is much slicker and there is a great deal of technical superiority as compared to the old days, but in content, a lot of it is drivel now whereas [50] years ago, the best of Bollywood was amongst the best films in the world. There were really good directors who were world class. Now, Bollywood has directors that sell across the world but I’m not sure they are wonderful."

He, however, sees the possibility of change in the rising crop of new and independent filmmakers, though the lack of finance and distribution channels remain problems.

“I think there is hope for Indian cinema because more and more young filmmakers are making films which are not Bollywood films at all," Malcolm said. "The trouble is there is no art circuit in India, so the small, independent films have nowhere to go. That’s why they go off Westwards because that way they can get a bit of publicity.

"When you look at giant, starry Bollywood films, you cannot expect a tiny, independent film on a serious subject to be put in the same cinemas as them. It wouldn’t work,” he added.

While Malcolm is pessimistic about the shrinking space for the print media and the even smaller space for art critics within it, he shared his hope for independent films to find alternate avenues for exhibition, so that more people get to watch films that do not follow beaten tracks.

He also emphasized the responsibility of a film critic to write about smaller, engaging films and introduce them to a wider audience. “I’ve been a critic now for 50 years and I have seen 500 films every year for nearly 50 years. That’s quite a lot. Now, most of those films aren’t very good, but some are. You have got to identify the top-class films and encourage the directors and actors who know their stuff.”

The Diorama Film Festival, which is being held virtually, began on 18 December and ends on Christmas eve.

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Diorama Indian cinema