Reviewing Paa Reviews

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American news outlets have begun reviewing Bollywood films. I’m not sure whether this is a reaction to growing NRI communities across the country or a response to the unexpected popularity of Slumdog Millionaire, but either way the tone of the coverage has shown a distinct lack of respect for Bollywood films as films.

I have not seen Paa yet, so this is not a commentary on the quality of the film itself – it’s a critique of the critics.

Let’s start with a baseline review to judge our critics with – Rajeev Masand, who is a pretty good barometer of where Indian film critics fall on any particular film.

You can read his full review here.

He praises the filmmakers for tackling a difficult subject and the performances from Vidya Balan and (especially) Amitabh Bachchan but has some reservations about the narrative – particularly the portions centering on Abhishek’s character’s career as a politician, which he feels distracts from the narrative as a whole.

An illustrative section of the review:

“PC Sreeram’s dazzling cinematography and Illayraja’s soothing score help make up for many of the script’s flaws, and ultimately contribute to making Paa an easy, enjoyable watch.”

“I’m going with three out of five for director R Balki’s Paa. Few filmmakers stick their necks out to tell difficult and different stories in these days of mindless entertainers making potloads of money. For their intentions alone, the makers of Paa deserve a thumbs-up.”

Now, moving on to our contrasting review, take a look at the Los Angeles Times idea of a critical review. You can read the review by Kevin Thomas here.

Mr. Thomas begins by calling the film a “tedious Bollywood soap-opera” and you can imagine where he takes it from there. He criticizes the filmmakers for combining footage from Oxford and Cambridge and damns the performances with faint praise.

An illustrative section of the review:

“All of this happens early on in the film but writer-director R. Balki stretches out Paa, which is “Pa” in Hindi, to an unconscionable 145 minutes that seems all the longer since it’s clear that father and son will eventually learn of their relationship. Meanwhile, time is running out for Auro, who is approaching 13, an age beyond which few with his condition live. Bachchan’s Auro is fairly convincing; his costars are as effective as the genre permits. The film abounds with lush music, scenery and fancy editing flourishes in the elaborate Bollywood tradition.”

Mr. Thomas seems to think that it is appropriate to criticize a film for being made in a style that he doesn’t understand. Rather than critique Paa on its own terms, he decides to air his grievances against Bollywood in general.

Mr. Thomas gives a bare bones narration of the story but it doesn’t seem like he was paying attention at all, except to nitpick the location shooting. Did it occur to him that perhaps the target audience of this film – and, indeed, many Americans for that matter – probably wouldn’t know nor care that locations from Oxford and Cambridge had been combined during the editing process? When was the last time you read a review of an American film and heard the reviewer say something like – “Oh, it would have been a genius film except that they combined exteriors filmed in Vancouver with some from New York City. How unrealistic.” Never, right? And yet Hollywood films do it all the time. Mr. Thomas’ dig at Paa for the Oxford/Cambridge mashup is not only irrelevant, it’s an underhanded way to show his disdain for a style of filmmaking that he feels is beneath proper criticism. In other words, Mr. Thomas is very unprofessional.

Mr. Masand brought up very interesting points about the pacing of the narrative and the relevance of Amol’s career to the central point of the film. Mr. Thomas whines that everything was too long.

Mr. Masand has the cultural knowledge to understand the significance of the transformation of the legendary Amitabh Bachchan to a squeaky-voiced 13 year old. Mr. Thomas says that he is “fairly convincing.”

Mr. Masand can accurately compare Vidya Balan’s performance with her past performances, seeing that he has seen films like Parineeta. Mr. Thomas lumps her in with every other actor in the film and says they were “as effective as the genre permits.”

All of this makes me wonder if Mr. Thomas even watched Paa or if he sat in the theatre alternately writing notes and playing solitare on his iPhone.

Shame on the Los Angeles Times for publishing such an unprofessional review. If American papers are going to start reviewing Bollywood films, they need to either hire people who can review them properly or syndicate reviews from somebody like Mr. Masand, who knows what he is talking about.

Now for the final review from the New York Times and by my old nemesis Rachel Saltz. You can read it here.

Ms. Saltz goes in the opposite direction from Mr. Thomas and instead of ripping it to shreds because of things like the use of songs and a different style of acting than we are used to in the West, Ms. Saltz decides to fawn over Amitabh Bachchan instead of reviewing things properly.

Enjoy a sample of her pretentious “review”:

“An American movie would probably make much of Auro’s disease, its progression and social stigma. Not “Paa.” Mr. Balakrishnan focuses on fathers and sons, and on the great project that is India, itself simultaneously young and ancient.”

“Of course Amol comes to learn that Auro is his son (Bollywood loves a tale of parentage found), but he also battles corruption (“the biggest disease facing the nation”), helps slum dwellers and finds ways to triumph over the cynical media.”

First of all, what does “simultaneously young and ancient” mean? And did she really need to title her piece: Paa: A Tale of India?

So, where most of the Indian film reviewers found Paa to be a heart-warming film about a mother and her son, with some clunky sections featuring Abhishek as a hand-wringing politician, Ms. Saltz thinks that Paa is about Amitabh Bachchan representing what India means to her and Abhishek Bachchan triumping over the cynical media. She does not mention Vidya Balan’s performance.

It’s an unprofessional review from the other side of the aisle and I know I’ve said this before but The New York Times needs to reconsider its policy of reviewing Bollywood films if Ms. Saltz is the best they can do. She is a fangirl, not a reviewer.

Okay, I lied. I found a review from an American publication that manages a good critical tone. Read Variety‘s review here.

On the tone of Paa: “Pic’s light, non-maudlin tone is refreshing, and gains much from Bachchan’s ability to create a believable half-child, half-adult character — who’s much smarter than many of his acquaintances — simply through a nasal, brattish voice, eye movements and lanky gesticulations.”

On Vidya’s performance: “As the rather spoiled, idealistic pol with a wealthy, connected father (Paresh Rawal), Bachchan Jr. is simply OK, largely coasting on the running joke of playing his dad’s father. Balan, one of Hindi cinema’s classiest actresses, is good as Auro’s unapologetic mom, but isn’t given much of a role. Ditto Arundhati Naag as Auro’s grandmother.”

Thank you, Variety, for actually telling me what I want to know rather than ranting about Bollywood conventions or asking Abhishek Bachchan to sign your autograph book.

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