No room for criticismFor a film industry to grow, film critics play an important role, but in Nepal, most filmmakers would rather not have their films reviewed.
In June 2019, Nepal was making headlines all over the world for the wrong reason. A young stand-up comic Pranesh Gautam was arrested for making and uploading a review of Bir Bikram 2, a mainstream movie. In the review, Gautam criticises the film. Unhappy with the review, the movie’s director filed a police complaint and Gautam was charged under cybercrime law and detained for nine days.
Gautam eventually got bail, and just last month, the Patan High court gave Gautam a clean chit. While Gautam is the first person to get jailed for criticising a movie, it’s common for Nepali film reviewers and film critics to get abused for criticising movies.
“Most Nepali film critics have been threatened by filmmakers for writing negative reviews. Filmmakers often threaten and intimidate critics for writing bad reviews,” says Dipendra Lama, a critic-turned-filmmaker.
The history of filmmaking in Nepal began in 1964 with the movie ‘Aama’, which was funded by the then king of Nepal Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev to support his propaganda of one nation, one language, and one culture. With the introduction of multiparty democracy in the '90s, which is often called the golden period of Nepali films, filmmaking in Nepal started seeing immense growth. But it was only in the early 2000s when Nepali films started getting reviewed by film critics.
“We had so many radio shows and magazines dedicated to Nepali films, but none of them reviewed films. They just wrote a synopsis of movies and praised the actors and the filmmakers. In the early 2000s, newspapers started giving space for critics to write movie reviews and that’s how the formal culture of film reviews began in Nepal, ” says Lama, who started reviewing films from 2000 onwards and is now the chairperson of Film Critics Society of Nepal, an institution formed for the growth of film critics in Nepal.
However, according to academic and filmmaker Manoj Babu Pandit, it was only after the release of ‘Loot’ in 2012, a film directed by Nischal Basnet and is considered as the game-changer for the Nepali film industry, that people started taking film reviews seriously.
“When Loot was released, many people didn’t like it. But the film got a lot of positive reviews from critics, which played a major role in making the film popular. I watched the film and enjoyed it and wrote a review of it for a website called Mero Cinema,” says Pandit. “Once my review of the film got published, many people went to watch the movie, and the film started doing good business. So, in some way, my review did help the film to get the exposure it rightly deserved.”
Despite the important role reviews played in making ‘Loot’ popular, many say the majority of people still don’t realise the important role proper film critics play in improving the movie industry. This, they say, is the reason why even after nine years of Loot’s release, film review culture in Nepal has seen no growth.
In the name of reviews, it’s customary for critics to explain only the plot of the film. Rarely do reviews mention the visual language, sound, cinematography, and other such elements. And this is one of the main reasons, say, movie critics who spoke to the Post, most film critics are not taken seriously.
“What most critics do is neither an analysis nor a review. Probably because most of us have this ingrained belief that films are largely for entertainment, so we just write what is good, what is bad and rate them,” says filmmaker and film educator Abhimanyu Dixit, who writes film reviews for the Post. “But film reviews should be more than that. We, as critics, should question, challenge and carry forward the film’s conversation.”
But writing a review that honestly assesses the aesthetics, technical and socio-political aspects of a film is a huge task. And for that to happen, the film industry and the society at large should be able to take criticism. But the problem is, says Pandit, many filmmakers take it very personally if the reviews criticise their works.
“We, as a society, are emotional and not very rational. When I used to review films, directors and producers would request me not to review their films. Our filmmakers were that hesitant when it came to their films being reviewed. Even though it might not be the case today, most filmmakers still would rather not have anyone review their films and they end up taking things personally if critics pinpoint bad things about their films,” says Pandit.
All the critics who spoke to the Post said they have received mostly negative reactions from filmmakers and some have also tried to intimidate and boycott them. There are also cases of some filmmakers visiting the offices of film critics to make physical threats.
“I once wrote a review of a film and the filmmaker came to my office and told me that he would break my leg,” says Lama.
According to critics, it’s a common trend among filmmakers displeased with reviews to question the credibility of critics and questioning if critics are capable of making a movie.
Many filmmakers also say that Nepal hardly has qualified movie critics, and some critics do agree with this.
“In Nepal, the majority of people who review films are actually journalists. Merely having journalistic experience and watching a lot of films are not enough to become a movie critic,” says Pandit. “For anyone to be a critic, they should have the capability to look at the many elements of a film, from its content to the cognitive impact it can leave. However in Nepal, rarely can we find such a critic who passionately reviews and dissects each and every element of films. This is why many of the film reviews we get here are mediocre.”
Among the very few qualified critics, the majority of them are male. So most of the reviews are written from males’ perspectives.
This is not sufficient as every review should contain a unique perspective, says Sajana Baral, a journalist who works at Himal Khabar and is also a member of Film Critics Society of Nepal.
“Multiple perspectives in the form of reviews is essential for Nepal’s film critics community and the film industry to grow,” says Baral.
To build a strong foundation of talented diverse critics requires sustainability in the profession. But working as a full-time critic in Nepal comes with its own struggles. Entertainment and arts beat is often overlooked in Nepal’s journalism landscape and only very few publications give space for critical analysis of various forms of art.
“In a country like ours, working as a film critic for a living is not possible as publication houses do not regularly provide space for reviews. So, practically it’s not possible for many of us to survive just by writing reviews. This is why many critics have no option but to take other jobs as well,” says Lama.
While for many, the lack of review culture isn’t a big issue, but for filmmakers who want to learn and know the perspective of an expert, it’s the biggest missed opportunity, says filmmaker Shanta Nepali.
“What we need to understand is that constructive, healthy criticism of films is an utmost need if we want the art form to progress. No filmmaker should take criticism of their art personally as such criticisms not only help filmmakers to grow and improve but are also good for the development of the whole film industry,” says Nepali. “Unfortunately, in the name of reviews, all we get is what the reviewer liked and didn’t like.”
Pandit agrees with Nepali on how not having a film review culture is affecting the growth of the whole industry.
“I believe one of the biggest reasons why our films haven’t reached the creative heights it should have is because of the lack of film review culture. Only when we have an environment where a film critic writes reviews in a way that challenges and questions a filmmaker and analyses each and every technical aspect of films and their impacts, then only our film industry can prosper,” says Pandit, who recently wrote Cinema Manthan, a book on various issues related to films.
The kind of impact even a handful of good film critics can have on the whole filmmaking culture is known to all. The whole French New Wave was started by a bunch of film critics turned filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Andre Bazin, and several other people who revolutionised the whole cinematic language of the world. In Nepal too, many former critics like Lama, Deepak Rauniyar, Sahara Sharma, and others have turned into filmmakers, bringing their own unique voices to films, which they advocated for in their writings.
While critics’ impact might not be as big as it should have been, a few Nepali film critics have indeed contributed to the growth of the film industry as it was through their reviews that the culture of blatantly aping old Bollywood films has stopped in Nepali film industry, believes Lama.
And this is the reason why critics and some filmmakers believe that it is high time for the Nepali film industry to build an environment for film criticism to thrive for the industry to prosper creatively.
“We are in high need of young, fresh perspectives to review our films. Film critics can play an important role in guiding filmmakers, actors and technicians on the path of progress,” says Lama. “And it’s the responsibility of all the stakeholders involved to give that space to film critics to do what they do best.”