Recently, the Kerala High Court issued a directive to the authorities to prevent online reviews of films by social media influencers, YouTube reviewers, and bloggers for seven days following the release of the film. The plea was primarily made by Mubeen Rauf, director of Aromalinte Adyathe Pranayam, and was supported by the Producers’ Association. Additionally, the court has also issued notice to the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and the Central Board of Film Certification to establish clear and transparent guidelines for online film critics and vloggers.
In their plea, the petitioners argued that negative reviews were adversely affecting the film’s box office response and, therefore, should be curbed. A new term, “review bombing”, has emerged to describe these negative reviews, along with allegations that some vloggers are blackmailing filmmakers and demanding payments to write favourable reviews or to refrain from publishing negative ones.
Shortly after the High Court’s directive, the Kerala police booked cases against a few online reviewers and social media platforms. While some producers and sections of the media have supported the move to “protect the industry” from malicious predators and unethical extortionists, many others have criticised the move as an infringement upon the right to free speech and freedom of expression.
This raises a host of disturbing questions about freedom of expression in general and film criticism in particular, with far-reaching consequences for art practices, censorship, surveillance, and opinion control in the digital era.
Firstly, one needs to ask whether reviews, whether negative or positive, can significantly impact a film’s success. How many viewers actually decide to watch a film based on a review? Do reviews hold such overwhelming influence over their readers? It is doubtful. In the past, many films have succeeded despite negative or no reviews at all, while others have failed at the box office despite significant spending on paid reviews, star endorsements, event promotions, and various modes of “PR bombing”.
One major shift that has happened in the digital age is the time gap between a film’s release and the availability of reviews. Reviews now appear live and instantaneously; online responses begin to appear even while the first show is in progress. Moreover, the followers of online reviews, especially on platforms like YouTube, are numerous, which can be unsettling for the film industry, as it assumes that all of them are potential viewers. Many online reviews are not just critiques but entertainers in themselves, attracting thousands of likes and followers. It would be absurd to assume that all of these social media fans or followers of the YouTubers and online reviewers are potential or actual film viewers. Many watch these reviews for the enjoyment and humour, not to decide whether to watch a film. In fact, some humorous critiques encourage review readers to watch the film to enjoy the fun even more deeply.
Secondly, the right of the filmmaker or producer to create a film is as sacrosanct as the right of the film viewer to express their opinions about it, whether offline or online, personally or publicly, as long as it is fair and open. Vloggers and reviewers have the same right to express themselves, subject to the same rules, conditions, restrictions, and freedoms as filmmakers. Arguing that the film industry deserves special protection simply because it involves a significant investment reduces the concept of “investment” to mere finance. Considerable time, energy, and talent are invested in every art form, and they all face similar consequences when they become public: they are subject to criticism, both negative and positive, instantly or over time. Should money be the sole qualification for ‘protection’ from criticism?
Thirdly, the question arises about what constitutes negative or positive criticism, whether mala fide or bona fide, and who gets to decide. The High Court directed the authorities that “a close watch on the online platforms shall be maintained to ensure that anonymous, mala fide content is not allowed to circulate, and necessary action under the IT Act shall be taken and implemented scrupulously without any delay”. What criteria will be used to distinguish mala fide from bona fide content?
New world, old gags
There is a sense of uncertainty in the legal deliberations, as is evident in the court’s oral remarks, “This is a new World, not one we grew up in. Freedom of speech and expression should not be used for justifying a crime. We are not covering a crime by Fundamental Rights. Suppose you go to a hotel and you didn’t like the food, you are entitled to your opinion. But you can’t use it to blackmail. There is a thin line between bona fide and mala fide acts..”. Even as the court acknowledges that we live in a “new world”, meaning the digital age, it does not hesitate to impose analog restrictions upon it.
This “thin line between bona fide and mala fide acts” in the domain of art criticism is something that has long baffled courts of law all over the world, provoking them to draw and redraw that line more clearly and thickly, and enabling the states to impose and legalise censorship of different kinds and intensities. Which is exactly what is happening in this instance too.
The judges themselves indicate that the controversy they are dealing with is dynamic and will evolve in the future. They acknowledge that any protocol or steps taken by competent authorities will be challenged by those acting with profit as their lure. The digital age, with its flexibility, invisibility, pervasiveness, and often anonymity, resists easy regulation. Its instantaneity, virality, and impatience make it challenging to control. Authorities fear its virality because it leaves few traces, and fixing accountability are difficult. Even when the “sources” are identified and checked, the content has already reached millions of viewers.
“This will have far-reaching consequences. When external authorities are asked to limit responses to a film, they can also control what filmmakers offer.”
This is the media atmosphere in which we live, and it cannot be wished away. Online writing, like any other area of activity, encompasses various interests, tastes, approaches, and attitudes. Some online critics are intent on destruction, while others offer praise and admiration. Some delve into filmmaking techniques, while others focus on storylines or content. What seems to irritate the film industry the most is when bloggers identify uncanny parallels with other films or point out crucial faults. Critics, whether online or offline, in print or online, play an essential role in the survival and growth of any art form. They provide diverse perspectives and stimulate discussion.
Don’t silence the critics
The film industry’s panic reaction invites state surveillance into the realm of art. It asks the court, state, and police to arbitrate in a space where art and its audience intersect. By introducing mechanisms of control into a domain founded on freedom and liberty, the industry jeopardises its own interests in the long run.
This will have far-reaching consequences. When external authorities are asked to limit responses to a film, they can also control what filmmakers offer. The industry’s attempt to silence critics and reviewers contradicts its historical struggles against state censorship and “hurt sentiments” calls for bans by certain sections of society. On all those occasions, critics and reviewers have been natural allies of filmmakers and the industry, and by seeking to impose silence on them, the industry risks the same fate for itself.
The solution is not to silence the critics but to find its own voice. Short-sighted panic reactions reveal a lack of confidence in the industry’s own product. History has shown that creative minds will always find a way out of such traps. Some YouTubers have already come up with very hilarious responses The question is whether the film industry is resourceful and creative enough to take on and thrive in the face of criticism. The industry should not seek to silence critics but to embrace their role in shaping the discourse surrounding their work.
C.S. Venkiteswaran is a film critic and documentary filmmaker based in Kochi.