Acclaimed National Award winning critic Ashok Rane recently conducted a film criticism workshop at Seamedu School of Pro-Expressionism, and one of the topics that came up during the session was ‘behavioural bias and how mainstream film criticism in India is not always capable of rising above it when delivering their verdict’.
Since it is a meaty (and relevant) topic with many layers and undercurrents, we thought we would delve a little deeper into this topic in this blog post.
Before we go any further, we need to understand the term ‘behavioural bias’. Behavioural bias refers to certain individualistic character traits that lead to an emotional response rather than a rational one.
Rising above bias is important for film critics, because if they aren’t objective in their approach that pretty much defeats the purpose of passing judgement and sharing that judgement with the audience, because it wouldn’t be an honest one. Film critics have a strong influence on audience perceptions and as a result, the success or failure of a film, and as the famous quote from Spiderman goes, “with great power, comes great responsibility.” Critics then need to embrace that responsibility, and put their personal emotional responses in check when watching a film.
What does a film critic do?
In simple words, a film critic reviews movies. He or she has to put his or her individual differences and opinions aside when critiquing a film. The easiest way critics are led astray is when the subject or the topic of the film doesn’t match their ideologies. However, that cannot be accepted. A critic’s job isn’t just to run the rule on a story; anyone can do that, and responses to narratives are always subjective. The critic has to look at the story, the technical aspects like the camera work, lighting, editing, and acting, the sound score, the sets, the dialogue, and every single aspect that goes into the making of the film. The story is just one part of it.
Here is an example of this situation, from the Odyssey, where critic Zachary Palmer talks about story-based bias:
“It’s one thing to dislike a movie for its content yet still write an accurate review on social media analyzing what the film did well and where it could improve; it’s another to trash a film under the guise of “film criticism” solely because you disagree with the film’s ideas or political views, all the while completely ignoring the film’s aesthetics. This is why one of the largest problems in the film criticism community is the inability of critics to stay focused on the film at hand.”
Another trap that film critics fall into is pretentiousness. The idea that a critic can only appreciate intellectual, artsy films is a flawed one, and results in situations where the critic falls flat. There are many examples of this, as celebrated choreographer-turned-film-director Farah Khan illustrated in this interview with The Indian Express.
“It would be great if everyone likes the movie, critics and the audience. But I think there is a bias against commercial cinema. I know the critics are only doing their job, but there is a breed of critics that only likes slow and boring movies.”
“I am noticing that the critics today are liking only a particular type of film, which is arty, slow and a bit boring. They do not like commercial films at all. So if we follow only those four people, then the film industry will shut down.”
A sentiment echoed by this ScreenRant article. In the article, the writer talks about why critics might find themselves against the odds when talking about the more niche, independent films.
“As blockbuster film brands are becoming a staple of pop culture awareness, cost of ticket prices and concessions are increasing – dramatically. As a result, viewers have become selective about which films they’ll pay to see in theatres – meaning that more people are seeing a smaller batch of triple-A films (the ones that take advantage of big screen projection) and saving smaller movies for in-home streaming. Assuming that even open-minded cinephiles can only afford to see one or two films a month at the theatre, it makes sense that they’ll pay to view the movies everyone is buzzing about – and save indie fare for Netflix.
For that reason, reviewers that criticize casual-friendly films while advocating for lesser-known indie fare, can appear out-of-touch with a majority of their audience – even when criticisms are valid – simply because they are not judging a movie based on the same criteria as ticket buyers.”
Now that’s an interesting insight and one that film critics should keep in mind when assessing a film’s capabilities and qualities.
To sum up, a film should entertain their audiences, and the critic should judge them on this. How the filmmaker goes about achieving the holy grail of audience satisfaction cannot be a factor in the critic’s assessment of whether or not a film is successful. Especially when those reasons for dislike of the films’ approach stem from a personal hang up or worldview, because the audience isn’t a reflection of the critic, but the critic has to be a reflection of the audience, so watching with blinkers on will ultimately prove to be a self-defeating practice.
Film criticism is an important subset of film studies and we, at Seamedu (Pune and Bangalore), ensure that our students learn to watch and review films in an unbiased manner. Learn all about our film making courses and contact us for more details!