‘There’s a kind of dumbness in people who complain about spoilers’

On 13 May, 2015, filmmaker Neeraj Ghaywan, whose debut, Masaan, screened at the Cannes International Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard section, tweeted to Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian’s film critic: “Sir, it’ll be an honour if you’d watch #MASAAN :-) 19th-16:30/22nd-11:00 (Salle Debussy) or 20th-17:00 (Bazin) #Cannes2015.” Eight days later, Ghaywan drooped another tweet to Bradshaw, requesting him to watch, and presuambly review, his film’s last screening at the festival. Ghaywan, a Mumbai-based filmmaker, is a fan of Bradshaw’s writings, and he’s certainly not alone. Bradshaw, who’s been with The Guardian for more than 15 years, is perhaps the most well-known foreign film critic in the country. His reviews are often debated and discussed among Indian cinephiles on Twitter, and his opinions on films, especially ones that are yet to release in India, matter a lot to them. This year, Bradshaw has been invited to the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival to mentor young college students for the festival’s Young Critics Lab, which consisted of two workshops, that concluded two days ago.

I met Bradshaw at the JW Marriott hotel, in Juhu, a few hours after he had conducted the final session of the Young Critics Lab. Nibbling on french fries and sandwich, Bradshaw appeared visibly tired, presuambly from having given a lot of interviews, something he’s not used to. As a film critic and journalist, Bradshaw is accustomed to asking, not answering, questions, but for the last few days in Mumbai, he’s frequently found himself on the other side.

Excerpts from the interview:

You became a film critic relatively late in your career. You worked for the tabloid London Evening Standard for around a decade, writing “about almost everything”, except film reviews. However, a bunch of controversial pieces made The Guardian‘s editor Alan Rusbridge offer you the job of the newspaper’s film critic. What made you say yes?

I always loved the movies. I still do, and I thought, “My God, [I am] actually getting paid for doing this.” I thought it was like winning the lottery because I didn’t seriously envisage this happening. It also happened at a really weird time. In the late ’90s, I wrote a series of satirical articles about the British Member of Parliament Alan Clark. He got very annoyed, sued us, the matter came to court, and it became a very bizarre, hilarious and ridiculous case. And it caused me to be in the public eye in a weird way, and it must have caught Alan’s attention. At that time, The Guardian, too, was going through a difficult phase, because Derek Malcolm, a very revered critic, was stepping down, and they didn’t know what to do. They tried out one of their most respected writers, Richard Williams, who wrote more about music, and he didn’t enjoy doing it. So they approached me. Alan Rusbridge called me over the phone and I often wonder, did he think I would play hard to get — “talk to my agent; talk to my business manager.” But I virtually shouted over the phone, “Yes”. So it was as simple as that. Nobody asked me about my qualifications and, to be honest, I had to learn on the job.

As there’e no formal degree in film criticism, people often wonder about the qualifications of a film critic. Moreover, the major criterion to become a film critic is also fairly vague — that is, one must have seen a lot of films — leading to lines blurring between movie geeks and critics. How would you define a film critic? 

A critic is somebody who has to bring a critical and analytical sensibility to bare a film. A critic has to show love for the movies, and sometimes it is tough love, but sometimes you have to stand back and analyze a movie and, when it is appropriate, you surrender to the film, get behind it. You also need to have the skills of a journalist, the skills of a writer. Because it is not simply about the intellectual equipment to analyze and take films apart. A critic is first and foremost a writer; and not just a writer, but also a reader. You will be surprised to know how many critics aren’t reading; you know what I mean? They are seeing a lot of movies, which is great and you have to, but you will be surprised how uninterested they are in serious reading.

It is also important to realise that films don’t just appear out of the blue. There is history and precedence, genre and style, archetype and assumptions, and all those things that a critic has to learn. A critic also never stops learning. I have never stopped learning. But there’s nothing wrong with being a movie geek at all. You are a movie geek because you are passionate and partisan, but as a critic you have to demonstrate detachment.

You mentored college students for Jios MAMI Mumbai Film Festival’s Young Critics Lab this year. What are some of the challenges of an exercise like this — ‘teaching’ students how to react to a film? 

Well, you know what, I wouldn’t regard [this exercise] as trying to teach anything, but kind of curating and leading the discussion. I wanted to get the balance right between leading the discussion and just getting up and pursuing my own trajectory. I only had a few notes; I didn’t really have a lecture to read out, because I thought that would be quite boring. You have got to lead the discussion and get people to say stuff themselves. My feeling was that if I had the microphone in my hand for too long, then something’s wrong. It’s as if the microphone is getting hotter, and hotter, and hotter, and you have to give it to someone else, let them speak, and you got to be kinda tough, “Come on, you haven’t said anything. Say it. It doesn’t matter; there’s no right or wrong. Just say something.” And the actual discussion doesn’t have to be very ‘learned’ but it has to be engaging, and it was quite a loose, informal discussion till the end, when we discussed Chris Marker’s Le jetée [a 1962 short French film], and I was very impressed because I thought the students really raised their game. I thought they really wanted to talk seriously about the movies.

You once admitted in a 2010 interview that you have been guilty of giving away too much of plot (at times, spoilers) in your reviews. Have you, since then, consciously tried to find ways to work around this shortcoming?   

I have, to some extent. But to some extent I am resentful of this, because the spoiler debate is difficult to pin down. If you give any indication of what goes on in the film, then, in theory, you have given spoilers. So I find it very difficult to know whom to please. Obviously you shouldn’t give away the ending or important plot twists, and I have always tried not to do that, but I think there’s a kind of dumbness in people who complain about spoilers. Because, you know, if a part of my job as a critic is to analyze the way in which the narrative holds together, then I have to give away the plot a little bit. I mean, obviously, you shouldn’t just give away the ending. Of course not. But spoilers have become a game of gotcha, and it’s a way that you can get trolled — “Huh, spoilers! Or you should have put a spoiler alert.” And I just think, “What do you mean I should have put a spoiler alert?” That’s kind of stupid.

Over the last few years, the relevance of film critics in today’s age of instant opinions — blogs, Twitter, Facebook — has been constantly questioned and debated. How much merit do you see in these discussions? Do you think it’s going to be progressively difficult to make a living as a film critic in the subsequent years?  

I don’t know. During the last 10 years, it seems to me that almost every week I was invited to participate in some panel about ‘Has film criticism got any future?’ and I think there doesn’t seem to be a crisis in any other kind of criticism. People don’t seem to ask that has literature criticism got a future? Has music criticism got a future? Has art criticism got a future? In theory, they are all influenced by the web, but it’s only film criticism that people seem to be worried about. I am not worried about it at all. As far as I can see, film criticism has been made more dynamic and energized by the web.

Few very good critics in Britain have lost their jobs, but that’s mainly because the proprietors of newspapers didn’t want to pay them the kind of money they were being paid. But I think it’s always been hard to earn a living as a critic, to get a staff job as a critic on a newspaper. The web basically ended the one-party state of the medium. There used to be a thing that if you wanted to join, you had to pay your dues, and join [at a lower position], but now you don’t have to do that — wham, you just set up a blog, and you are published. Sure, a lot of people aren’t very good at it, but some of them are.

It’s interesting to note the different ways in which new technology has impacted moviemaking and film writing. If it’s made things relatively easy for the former — made filmmaking more accessible — it’s complicated the scenario for the latter: the pressure to be the first one to come out with a review has severely impacted film criticism. How do you reflect on this change?  

I don’t. Because I was brought up in a no-nonsense background. The Evening Standard was an evening paper, and there wasn’t any nonsense about going away and thinking about it [an article]. You had to do it right away, but a lot of critics have been brought up in an entirely different environment, where you go away, and it’s like writing for a monthly magazine, where you can brood about it for ages. Everyone [colleagues at The Evening Standard] used to tell me, “We need it; we need it right away. You have got half an hour to write.” So I didn’t find the whole digital acceleration as a shock. In fact, I found myself reasonably well equipped to do it. But you are right; there is a kind of rush to be the first [to come out with a review], which is kinda crazy. I get it with news, but I don’t get it for reviews.

How familiar are you with Indian cinema? What have been some of the recent Indian films that left an impression on you?

To be honest with you, a part of my reason for coming here [the Mumbai Film Festival] is to reconnect with Indian cinema. There was a big explosion of interest in Indian cinema in the U.K., ages ago with Lagaan. The film had U.K. actors, and then there was a big interest in Indian commercial movies. But I think it became harder to review them because the company that distributed those films in the U.K., Eros International, said that logistically we can’t get you the films on time. We literally got films on the day of their release, and Indian cinema, as such, doesn’t need reviews.

Who are some of the contemporary film critics whose work you enjoy reading?

 I know some very good critics in the U.S. Manhola Dargis and A.O. Scott of The New York Times, Justin Chang [of Variety], Anthony Lane, of course, of the New Yorker. Micheal Philips from the Chicago Tribune, very nice, and a very good friend of mine. And, you know, I admire the American style, because it is very clear; it is funny; it is smart; it is produced to a wonderfully professional standard. I have to say, though, that I am not very familiar with Indian film criticism. So, again, you know what, I am waiting for the festival to begin.

An edited version of this piece was first published in FirstPost.

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