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Aseem Chhabra: Confused American Critics

June 20, 2010

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By **Aseem Chhabra**

Twenty-five years ago, the film school at University of California, Los Angeles organized a press screening of Raj Kapoor’s Shree 420. I arrived at the screening to find only one more journalist in the theater—Los Angeles Times critic Kevin Thomas. But fifteen minutes into the film Thomas walked out in a huff. He just could not take the film anymore.

UCLA’s Gary Gilmore, who has since run the Sundance and Tribeca film festivals, begged Thomas to give the film a chance. But the critic was uninterested in the film and he left. Two days earlier Thomas was present at a press conference addressed by Kapoor and had commented that he did not have a question to pose to the actor, since he was not familiar with his work.

Thomas still writes for the Times, and he seems to like Hindi cinema a lot more. In February he reviewed My Name is Khan referring to the film as “a potent, engaging and timely entertainment.”

Last month he wrote that Kites was an “exhilarating escapist entertainment that plays out like a violent and floridly poetic allegory.” Like many other American critics Thomas was drawn to Hrithik Roshan’s looks. He pointed out that the Bollywood star possessed “dashing, chiseled looks of a silent movie matinee idol.”

I wonder what Thomas would have thought of films such as MINK and Kites had they been made by Hollywood filmmakers. My sense is that he may have walked out of those screenings.

American mainstream publications have been reviewing Bollywood films for a few years now, but most critics still appear to lack the basic understanding of how to respond to India’s popular Hindi language cinema. For a while there was even a debate about how to treat the popular films from India. The films were in a foreign language, but too commercial and popular in content for art house theaters.

That sense and confusion still remains among many mainstream critics who practically every other week are being asked to review Bollywood films. They often do not get the context of the films, and so they cannot dismiss them, for the fear of offending the sensibilities of an industry with a one hundred plus years of history. Perhaps they do not want to come across as arrogant by being too critical.

Many of these critics then treat Bollywood films with kid gloves, measuring them with a much lower benchmark. In the process they end up giving a lot more positive reviews to Bollywood film as compared to critics in India. I have never seen a Bollywood film receive a scathing review from an American critic.

bq. American mainstream publications have been reviewing Bollywood films for a few years now, but most critics…end up giving a lot more positive reviews to Bollywood film as compared to critics in India.

The New York Times assigns the task of reviewing Bollywood to its second tier critics—including Rachel Saltz. Her reviews are usually brief and mostly kind to the films, although she sometimes passes backhanded compliments. At a time when Mani Ratnam’s Raavan is being torn apart by most reviewers in India, Saltz surprised many by listing it as a critics’ selection for the week.

There are a couple of American critics who do understand Bollywood cinema. David Chute who reviews Bollywood films for LA Weekly and Village Voice writes balanced reviews. Time magazine’s Richard Corliss actually immersed himself into Indian cinema (mostly Hindi films) after discovering Ratnam’s works at the Toronto Film Festival in 1994. He later described himself as a “strange, nearly solitary creature: a non-Indian fan of Indian movies.”

Corliss was the only critic who stayed until the end of Devdas at the film’s press screening in Cannes in 2002. All other critics walked out (as did most Academy members when the film was screened for the Oscar nomination process). Corliss watched all of Devdas, fell in love with Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s films and later ranked the way over-the-top melodrama Black as 2005’s top ten films from around the world.

Unlike Thomas, Corliss also put in an effort watching Kapoor’s black and white films and later included the actor’s role in Awara in Time’s list of top ten all time great performances. But Corliss is still very much that solitary creature.

Copyright 2010 Mumbai Mirror

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This article originally appeared in the Mumbai Mirror.

Robert Reich.JPGAseem Chhabra is a freelance writer who has been published in The New York Times, Time Out, New York, and others. He is the host of The Aseem Chhabra Show, which features interviews with artists and other creative minds writing about South Asia or the South Asian Diaspora.

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One comment for Aseem Chhabra: Confused American Critics

  1. Comment by dmf on January 20, 2012 at 4:57 am

    It’s a pity that 1.5 years hasn’t improved the situations, even as Indian films have become dramatically more accessible. (e.g. Multiplexes devoting a screen or two to them, and the occasional subtitling of south Indian films.)

    And yet Rachel Saltz (searching unsuccessfully for her email address, in order to give her a piece of my mind, is how I came across your article) can write (in her review today of “Vettai”) “one of the few Tamil-language films to be released in American movie theaters”, when there are dozens released each years in dozens of theaters in the US.

    Bleah.

    –another solitary creature

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