R Balki has just made Chup: Revenge Of The Artist where his psycho killer is murdering film critics in the most brutal fashion. One of his characters (who is not a psychopath) even brands movie critics as ‘killers’ of movies.
The movie is an interesting watch with gruesome moments of blood and gore puncturing through the poetry of beautifully-shot scenes of Mumbai in the rains and exquisite homages to Guru Dutt. But the disturbing darkness that is in the heart of the film shines because of this sharp contrast. “Serial killers or psychopaths are otherwise normal people, whose minds become twisted when faced with a particular situation. I didn’t want to portray the character as a demon; he also has his sensitive side. I wanted to show the contrast between the two sides to a personality,” explains the film-maker.
But, Chup is also a deliciously devilish challenge that Balki had devised for critics who are supposed to not bring their personal biases into their reviews, and one can’t help but applaud it. “If you make a film criticising any community, there would be backlash. If a film critic can’t keep his/her personal feelings aside and look at a film as a film, then there is a problem,” he smiles, as we proceed.
What was the starting point for the movie?
Any artiste in the world, be it a sculptor, a painter, a film-maker or even a person cooking at home, they put in a lot of effort in their respective creations. People in the media, who have the power to shape opinions, are often so callous in dismissing these works as rubbish. And they expect everyone to take it on their chin. What if one is unable to do so? What happens then? The media can write anything they want, and no one can hold them accountable. I think it is a very unfair equation. I wanted to talk about this but I didn’t want to make a preachy film out of it. So, I decided on making an entertaining thriller.
I decided to also pay homage to Guru Dutt as he was the last artiste and his greatest work, Kaagaz Ke Phool, was so heavily criticised that he didn’t make a film after that. While tearing his art apart, nobody thought about the sensitivity of the artiste.
But even Abrar Alvi (writer of Kaagaz Ke Phool) had said that the film was so personal that somewhere the audience failed to connect with the film, and the failure of the film was not just due to the criticism of reviewers.
Cinema is also about experimenting with newer themes and techniques, finding newer ways to tell stories, and doing something off the beaten path. That is how any art form evolves. Anything new, anything as personal as a Kaagaz Ke Phool will not be readily accepted by the mass audience. They needed to be guided and sensitised when it comes to such movies. These films need extra support from the critics — people who know cinema and can then guide the audience. People might then like or dislike it, but critics can help expose them to a new kind of idea or concept. Critics are responsible for that — to push people to explore something new. It is a cardinal sin not to do that. Nobody is trying anything new or pushing the envelope. Nobody is thinking out of the box, even when they are, it is just another box. This is because they are scared of not being accepted.
You are saying cinema should be treated as an art form. But you are then blaming critics for ruining box office numbers through negative reviews. What is your main concern: cinema not being given the respect of being an art form by critics, or the commerce of it being determined by their words?
I am not saying that the critics determine or dictate the box office. The point is not whether you affect the box office, but whether you affect the opinions. As it is, watching a movie at the theatres has become extremely expensive. If you read four or five official film critics that you follow saying that it is not worth a watch, you might get dissuaded. But that, whether or not it affects the box office, is not the point.
Critics are important for art. When you create a work of art, you want an expert to see it, and analyse its merits. But a lot of times, especially in the movie industry, critics have agendas, and the reviews reflect their personal biases. Most would have their opinions on not what the film is, but if it works with the audience. The job of a film reviewer is not to analyse the prospect of the film, but to critique and analyse the film.
What is your take on social media and the rise of OTTs? Do you think OTTs are democratising the whole process or brewing more hate, given that hate sells a lot more these days?
Today, people are more interested in reading reviews trashing a movie than the movie itself. Everyone is a pundit today, so there is no room for conversation. But I think people are becoming more aware of things now and realising the game. It is time to correct, and go back to genuine things. There is unfair criticism and hate and negativity, but you can’t say that is the norm. However, I don’t think reviews work in the same manner when it comes to OTTs. People often watch the first 20 minutes and decide whether to continue or switch, instead of deciding whether to go for it after reading a review. But that option is not there when it comes to movies screened in theatres.
Why, then, are the audiences not coming back to the theatres as much as one would have hoped for?
More than the rise of the OTTs, it is the rise of the ticket prices that is keeping the audience away. The first-day first show of Chup was an eye opener for the industry, especially the exhibition chain. I don’t think we have seen such house-full theatres for 10 shows in recent years. It was National Cinema Day (September 23) and the tickets were sold at Rs 75 everywhere. I wanted to put out Chup at that ticket price because it is not about 10 people watching it for 400 rupees, but reaching the film to the maximum number of people.
Cinema is a mass medium, and there is no point in running with 30 or 40 per cent occupancy and calling yourself a hit after charging Rs 400 per ticket. People want to come to the theatres. They just can’t afford it. Even the bad films would have done much better business if the ticket prices were affordable. Nothing beats the charm of watching a movie on the big screen. Today, if you have to spend that kind of money on a movie ticket and you are taking your family along, you need a big spectacle unfolding on the screen to deem it as paisa vasool. If such films are making money, it is not a guarantee that people are loving the film. They are in it for the family experience.