A theatre festival was announced in Chennai by The Hindu, a leading English daily. Being interested in drama, I was naturally excited and did not waste time in booking tickets for the opening play - 'Antigone' staged by Motley, a theatre group started by Naseerudin Shah. But this post is not about the play. It is only inspired by it.
The English daily I mentioned before had decided to dispense with the usual critics review of the plays and instead announced a 'Citizens' Review'. I thought it was a clever way of getting art out of the clutches of the intellectual elite and democratizing it. Get it out to the lay person - let the people decide what they liked. Excellent going so far.
The play didn't really ring a bell with me to tell you the truth. So I looked forward to the Citizens' Reviews wondering if others felt the same way. Come Tuesday, I grabbed the supplement and poured over the reviews and was stumped. I couldn't make sense of what had been published as reviews! Did they like it or did they not? One particular reviewer - let us call her MS - had me flummoxed with words like:
"The blind prophet is ably replaced by an overarching prophetic vision of doom that hangs heavily over the play itself"
"...held the play together tautly, despite a tangled and prosaic discourse."
"Ratna Pathak Shah as Antigone is remarkable in her portrayal of an essentially ambiguous character. Antigone has confused readers for centuries with her tendency to be both gentle and violent, but Shah’s rendition bears a translucence that makes these shifts both forgivable and credible."
"Anouilh’s adaptation seeks to make Greek tragedy accessible and ends with a post-modern notion of resignation, disaffection and the pain of continuity,... "
What were all these high sounding words? I was bewildered. Call me stupid, but if I like a play, I say: " It was good! I loved it! Naseer was superb. He has a great presence etc" Simple ideas, simply put.
When I thought a bit more, I realised that this was no 'Citizens' Review'. It was a great con job. Of pretending it was a reviewed by lay persons when actually it was done by a professional. I mean just look at the writing - disaffection? translucence? prosaic? Do ordinary people speak and write like this?! As the Bard said, these were words full of sound of fury signifying nothing. Now I got mad. I had to do something about it.
So I wrote in to the newspaper via email and expressed my outrage at their blatant attempt to dupe me. And guess what? They got back to me! It came as a surprise and I suppose it goes to the credit of the newspaper for wanting to set the record straight (though I didn't really buy their explanation). They had been accused of writing only good reviews in the past since the festival was organised by them. So, to uphold their impartiality, they decided to hand over the stick (or pen) to their readers.
The editor was very professional in explaining that they took care to have a representative cross section of people among the reviews they published. Also, they could not disqualify a person for writing professionally. MS was not a professional critic, but a person who acted in plays. Everybody, even members of the theatre fraternity, was allowed to write their reviews and space allowing, the paper would carry it.
Well said indeed. Except that it was all humbug - ably demonstrated when MS reviewed the last play titled Citizen Josh and was featured in a separate box item. Excerpts from it include
"‘Citizen Josh’ is rife with interesting moments: there are moments of startling clarity that are surprisingly insightful; there are moments of genial good humour that provide bursts of relief and familiarity; there are moments of blunt straightforwardness that lull you into a warm sort of intimacy with the artiste on stage; most importantly, there are moments of poignancy that give you reassurance and disquiet simultaneously"
I learned a lesson from this. One: Do your own review. Read other reviews only for comic relief. Two: Never expect newspapers to admit having made a mistake or even attempt to take corrective measures based on feedback from readers.
If you're interested to read the Citizens' Reviews, try this link: http://www.hindu.com/thehindu/mp/2009/08/17/index.htm. Go to the Chennai edition and read the reviews published between 10th and 17th August.
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