Gaurab pushed the theatre entrance door. His hands could instantly feel the cold air inside the theatre.
Designed to seat only twenty people, this theatre was not known to many. Only the inner circles of Bollywood could get access, that too through invitation. Only the core movie crew – including the directors, editors and important actors were invited by the producer to be here.
The spot boys, the second and third assistant directors, the production crew, actors’ staff, were all kept out of this small, private theatre. AZB Production House was particular about the kind of people who were allowed in.
They had a good reason – all the movie screenings here were pre-release, during the movie’s post-production phase.
Gaurab Mistry, a critic whose name was associated with the potential success or failure of a film in Bollywood, was invited by the director to see his film before release, assess the potential business of the film and suggest if they needed any improvements to the film. A lot was at stake, with the production budget crossing a hundred crore rupees.
Never a man to see a movie before release and give inputs about it, Gaurab had gone against his rules this time. He never did paid reviews, he freely wrote in newspapers what he thought of the film, but tonight was different. The producer was offering him fifteen lakhs just for sitting here for two hours. He had got involved in some trouble from gangsters after his bad reviews of their films. He was troubled.
His throat was heavy because of the guilt while entering the theatre, but at least he was providing inputs to good friends. They had agreed to let him publish a pre-release review of the film in tomorrow’s newspaper, as long as he didn’t disclose the plot.
Gaurab took a seat in the front row with his tablet computer resting on his lap. A peon brought samosas and chai on a tray and placed it beside Gaurab’s chair. The director asked everyone to turn their phones silent and concentrate on the movie.
The music system went live and the screen showed AZB Productions written in green on a black screen. Gaurab started scribbling on his tablet with a digital pen. With each passing frame, his hand moved rapidly on the tablet while his eyes rotated between the big screen and the tablet.
His face remained expressionless for around an hour until a Tch came out of his mouth. The director turned towards him expecting a comment or a rebuke, but there was none.
After the small display of emotion, Gaurab’s face was once again as emotionless as a stone. He didn’t turn his eyes away for even a moment, observing the smallest details on the screen. When some leaves on the screen were dry or wilted while the scene showed rain showers, or when the sunlight was too bright, his hand scribbled extensive notes. There was no sign of strain on his forehead, even though the movie touched on several sensitive topics such as poverty and hunger.
Whenever the director expected him to laugh or scream, he would look at the critic’s face from the corner of his eyes. But he was disappointed each time. The effort the director had put into editing the movie had not had any effect on Gaurab’s face.
As the one hundred and thirty-eight-minute movie reached the ending credits, people in the room stretched their eyebrows. Everyone was curious to see if the eleven months of rigorous work had made a positive effect. When Gaurab stood up from his seat, everyone expected him to turn around and start making commentary. Instead, he stretched his arms and his neck before sitting down in his seat once again. He took several minutes to finish making notes on his tablet before looking towards the exit.
This time, it was the bathroom that called him. People looked at each other once he stepped out of the theatre. The suspense was killing them. There were twelve people in the theatre, all veterans of the film industry.
“It is not working, he is going to thrash us,” the first assistant director spoke up.
“No, I think it is just his working style. He didn’t seem to have any bad impressions on his face, so I imagine it is going to be good. Let’s not worry. Congrats, sir,” the editor said to the director, “your vision has finally come to life, with a very good chance of acceptance from the public.”
The director was not convinced. He wanted to hear the critic’s opinions in his own words. A lot was at stake for him. He had taken a lot of money from the producers. The movie had gathered immense hype as his last one was a blockbuster. He had not made a movie in the last three years, so the pressure was showing in his eyes.
Gaurab returned to the theatre a few minutes later. Nobody could tell if he had formed his opinion of the movie yet.
He walked up to his seat with fast-paced short steps, picked up his tablet and unlocked it, and saw around the room to see everyone in their eyes.
“Do you want all these people here?” he asked the director before beginning.
“Yeah, this is my core team.” The director replied. “What did you think, Gaurab?”
“Want me to get started?” Gaurab asked.
“Yes, we are ready whenever you are.”
“I would suggest someone take notes,” Gaurab said. The editor flipped her laptop open and started typing.
“First of all, I felt like I needed to replay a lot of scenes!” He looked at the director while turning to his tablet.
After a few taps on the screen, he was looking at the first point he wanted to make.
“The movie is edited well, the transitions from scene to scene are seamless.” He paused and took a look at everyone in the theatre. Faces turned from blank to gentle smiles within a fraction of a second. Gaurab’s face, on the other hand, turned from blank to mildly irritated.
“Next, the movie is too long. Many scenes feel stretched. Want me to run through each one of them?”
“Once we are done with all your points, maybe?”
“Sure. Next,” Gaurab cleared his throat and looked at the editor, “What was the formative idea for this movie? Whose idea was this?”
“Mine,” the director replied. This was his dream project. “I wrote the first draft before running it through other writers.”
“And were they allowed to make changes?”
“Well, they didn’t have to make many changes.” Gaurab realized that the director had imposed his writing on the others. None of them were allowed to make changes to the story, even though the end credits showed three writers of the movie. Perhaps the director was too attached to his story, resulting in a narrow perspective on the movie.
“Okay. There were three sections of the story that seemed completely irrelevant to the story. I am sure if you had allowed any of the other writers a free hand, they would have removed them. They’re good.” He paused, waiting for the editor to take notes.
Next, the movie is pertaining to an interesting topic, but you fail to identify your audience and connect with them. Throughout the movie, I was also thinking who the target audience is. Is it a high-class society that appreciates change and is willing to see movies which show big, sensitive changes?” Hearing no replies, he began once again. “Or, is it a low-class society that appreciates grounded characters? The lead characters in the movie seem hollow? Who is the audience?” Gaurab looked at the director.
The director turned to his co-writer and then towards Gaurab, “I think it is both of them.”
“Movies earn money only when you know your target audience. You have failed there. Moving to the casting, the main side character, Bagga, should have had a better actor. I am sure Arun or Prakash would have done well here.”
“We couldn’t get them on our schedules, unfortunately,” the director replied.
“In that case, you should have looked for similar talent. A side character is a core piece of the story. The audience sees this character as their friend. Someone who has a weakness for the protagonist.” He continued. The director had no reply.
“About the leads characters – we can see that they have worked very hard on this project, but I am afraid to say they are capable of doing much better. It is your job, as a director, to bring out the best in them. I couldn’t see their best .”
“Okay.” The director gulped.
“Coming to the songs. The Delhi rap song doesn’t belong in this film. Is it there for bringing the audience to the theatre?”
“Assuming it is a yes. That song is not powerful or unique enough. You could have gone with a traditional Masala song. In this case, even the music is bad, forget the lyrics. People won’t like it.”
The director’s eyes narrowed.
“Next. The only sad song, Nirbal, doesn’t have good lyrics. I agree audiences fall for beautiful music but you need to provide them with at least contemporary lyrics. Right now, it looks like the lyrics are copied from multiple songs from the 1980s.”
He looked at the editor – “Are you making a note of all these points?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Good. The other songs are okay, I would say. None of them will stick with the audience for more than a couple of years, so expect average income from the album. Let’s talk about the locations now. At times, the setting gets a little irrelevant to the story. For example, the one song you shot in Hungary- why is that necessary? If there is a reason for that, you should bind that into the story.”
The director looked down. The criticism was too hard to bear. Despite the twelve years of experience in the industry as a director, he was relatively inexperienced for a movie of this grandeur. None of the people in the room were looking at Gaurab anymore.
“I have many more points. Want me to continue?” Gaurab realized that the crowd was done getting their dose of criticism.
“Well, if you think you are so good at pointing out mistakes, why don’t you make a movie yourself? You think you can do a better job, is it? Do you know what it is like to manage a crew of seven hundred people working with you? We have to make compromises in every department.” The director was furious. “Compromises, you see…” Bringing Gaurab to see the movie seemed to be a big mistake. “I am not going to edit the movie anymore. This is it.” The director said, looking at the editor.
The critic stood silent. Though he had never produced or directed any movie himself, he had viewed almost all the Bollywood movies in the last eleven years. Gaurab was known for his accurate ratings – people used to watch his reviews before deciding to spend money on a movie. When he gave a movie good rating, it meant that the movie was going to earn at least a hundred crores. His average ratings were between two and three out of five, which explained his harsh comments on films.
“Well, I am not a filmmaker. And I surely know I cannot be one. My job is to criticize. To take it or not is your choice.”
The director left the hall.
The critic was not a filmmaker, but a representative of the audience to the film community. And to the audience, he was a representative of the film community.
If he was neither here nor there, why did he matter?
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