November 8, 2023
Good morning. In today’s either/view, we discuss whether film reviews should be regulated. We also look at the e-bike registrations in Maharashtra, among other news.
📰 FEATURE STORY
Should film reviews be regulated?
Opening weeks can make or break a film. As the reviews start rolling in after the first show, subsequent moviegoers decide whether to spend money watching a film or not. Several producers often hold special early screenings for reviewers to generate a positive trend for their films. A failure to get the initial reviews right might mean the failure of an entire multi-crore project, for not all have SRK’s prowess to deliver box office successes despite months of negative campaigning.
Pained by such ‘review-mafia’, an appellant in front of the Kerala High Court (Kerala HC) has asked for a ban on film reviews for the first seven days after a film’s release. Granted by the court, YouTubers have already been arrested in the state for ”review bombing” films. But does such a ban protect the film fraternity economically or should ‘free speech’ take precedence?
On October 6, Mubeen Rauf, the director of a film called Aromalinte Aadhyathe Pranayam (Aromal’s First Love), approached the court for a gag order against the publication of online reviews of his film, for the first seven days after its release. The request was also supported by the Producers’ Association which sought to highlight the practice of “review bombing”, whereby spam accounts negatively rate a film en masse, leading to a self-fulfilling cycle where a film’s rating drops, leading to a decline in viewership and popularity.
The Kerala state police chief informed the court that a protocol had been drafted to deal with “motivated and malicious reviews” and the practice of review bombing. The deputy solicitor general also appeared for the central government and promised to study the issue and make recommendations. The Kerala High Court has issued a directive to prevent online reviews of films by social media influencers, YouTube reviewers, and bloggers for seven days following the release of a film. The court also issued notice to the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) to establish clear and transparent guidelines for online film critics and bloggers.
Those advocating for the ban operate on the assumption that people are very easily swayed by negative reviews or ‘review bombing’, and as a result boycott a film, or refrain from watching it. Review Boming as a concept exists not merely in the context of films, but across the board – for hotels and places of lodging which are booked online, for restaurants, for doctors, for beauticians and barbers, and so on. While whether these reviews actually have an impact or not is a different question, it is also not easy to tell a “genuine negative review” from a “motivated (mala fide) review”.
This becomes problematic as the court has asked the authorities to take action under the Information Technology Act (IT Act) against these mala fide reviews. 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. The court’s order has already seen action. On October 26, the Kochi City Police arrested nine social media reviewers active on Facebook and YouTube for “extorting” a film producer.
The digital age, with its flexibility, invisibility, pervasiveness, and often anonymity, resists easy regulation. Its instantaneity, virality, and impatience make it challenging to control this public domain. Acts of review bombing are certainly distasteful and unethical with the potential to cause economic loss. But inviting government intervention in film reviews can also have a chilling effect on free speech.
VIEW: Protect producers and artists
The proliferation of online film critics and vloggers who engage in often uninformed and motivated ‘criticism’, poses a significant threat to the film industry’s creativity and financial stability. Negative criticism without due evaluation can adversely affect the economic prospects of a film. When films fail at the box office due to unwarranted negative reviews, it directly impacts the livelihood of those involved in the industry. Mubeen Rauf (the petitioner)’s film ‘Aromalinte Aadhyathe Pranayam’ which was released on October 6, gathered negative reviews within minutes of its release! The Indian Motion Pictures Producers Association claims that sections of the media on the payroll of big production houses today have started taking delight in writing the obituary of films immediately after their release, especially in the case of ‘not-so-reputed’ producers.
If a law is made, it won’t be inclined to simply punish mere negative reviewing or malicious review bombing, but only when such activities are linked to cognisable legal harm. Often times big-shot reviewers or review syndicates blackmail producers and extort money from them to revoke a negative review campaign or put in a good word for them. As the court has also demanded, the protocols in this regard will be very carefully thought of to ensure that honest and bona fide ‘reviews’ are distinguished from motivated and mala fide ones.
The order by Kerala HC is not a standalone case as legal precedence to punish reviewers exists internationally. A Chinese court in 2019 upheld a 2.21 million Yuan (~₹ 2 crore) lawsuit from a film producer against a popular film critic who was then helped by his fans in paying off the damages. Apart from issues of economic injury and defamation, film reviews, especially in the digital realm, also infringe copyright. ‘Film review vlogs’ often release a film’s content or part of it, distort it, and even mislead the artistic message. Such acts are driven by revenue generation which is linked to viewership on a vlogger’s distribution channel. Thus, to protect against such leaks in the garb of reviews and also to protect from broader economic injury, a blanket ban on reviews in the first few days of a film’s release is justified.
COUNTERVIEW: Freedom of speech
The right of the filmmaker or producer to create a film is as sacrosanct as the right of a film viewer to express their opinions about it. The petitioners 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, including reviewing films. Moreover, silencing critics is detrimental to art as they play an essential role in the survival and growth of any art form providing diverse perspectives and stimulating discussion.
A desire in producers to stifle reviewers is not new. As early as 2010, the Bombay HC had dismissed a petition seeking the framing of guidelines and a self-regulatory mechanism for writing and rating film reviews. Even the Manmohan Singh government had recognised film reviews as a part of freedom of the press and refused to infringe upon it.
However, the film industry’s attempt to silence critics threatens to stifle creativity and opens the door to state control over art. Unless reviews are weaponised to commit a criminal offence such as extortion or blackmail, the law should not have anything to say about it irrespective of whether the reasons for negatively reviewing a film are right or wrong, justifiable or unjustifiable. This is not merely a matter of principle, but also because, as a practical matter, it will be simply impossible to parse the true motivation for a negative review. This, in turn, risks overregulation where individuals will self-censor and inhibit themselves because the regulatory red line will be vague and susceptible to State misuse.
There is also the question of whether 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”. Moreover, many watch these reviews for the enjoyment and humour and not to decide whether to watch a film. Freedom of speech comes with the assumption that people are able to determine how to engage with different speech. Instead of stifling away this freedom, the film viewer’s cognition and intelligence must be respected.
- State regulation of film reviews is a risky business – Hindustan Times
- Kerala High Court directive on online film reviews sets a dangerous precedent – The Hindu
- Film reviewers booked in Kerala after director claims they ‘tarnished’ his movie – The Indian Express
- Negative film reviews: High Court seeks explanation from Central, state governments – Manorama
What is your opinion on this?
(Only subscribers can participate in polls)
a) Reviews should be banned for one week after a film’s release.
b) Reviews should not be banned for one week after a film’s release.
🕵️ BEYOND ECHO CHAMBERS
For the Right:
Bad Kharif, Worse Monsoon: Inside India’s Food Security Doubts
For the Left:
🇮🇳 STATE OF THE STATES
Farm fire incidents (Punjab) – In the past week, the state has recorded 63% of the stubble-burning cases in the region. Experts have warned that the next 10 days are critical to see if there’s a spike in more fires. The state recorded over 2,000 cases on Monday, taking the total to 19,463 this harvest season. Wheat sowing has already begun in many parts of the state with a short window for farmers.
Why it matters: While the total number of stubble-burning cases is lower compared to 2022 and 2021, the state agriculture department and Punjab Pollution Control Board are still concerned about a spike in cases. Last year, from November 6 to 16, 35% of the total cases were reported. Officials are hopeful that the number of cases will reduce after November 15.
Record number of international students (Kerala) – There has been an increase in the number of international students who secured admission to the Kerala University campus in Kariavattom. University records show 81 foreign students were admitted this academic year. The highest till now was 49 last year. The students are from several countries, including the UK, South Africa, Jordan, and Afghanistan.
Why it matters: The university received applications from 1,600 candidates from 45 countries. There has also been an increase in students from the state’s northern districts like Kozhikode, Malappuram, Wayanad, and Kannur. The university has also achieved the NAAX A++ ranking. With more students, there’s a shortage of hostel rooms for female students, and the university is looking at private facilities near campus.
Attracting investors (Bihar) – The state government has launched an initiative to rent industrial sheds for investors. This ‘plug and play’ scheme provides ready-to-use industrial sheds spanning 24 lakh square feet. The scheme has been designated for companies in the IT, leather, textile, and food processing sectors. The monthly rent will range from ₹4-8 per square foot.
Why it matters: The scheme will help companies save time and money in buying land for their own business. According to officials, the response from investors has been positive. The state government will organise the Bihar Business Connect global investment summit at Patna on December 13 and 14.
E-bike registrations (Maharashtra) – The state has over 3 lakh e-bikes. In the past 50 days, 40,000 new e-bikes were registered. There has been a 15% growth in e-bike purchases across the state, including in Mumbai, Pune, and Nagpur. In Mumbai, overall EV registrations have increased five-fold. The market has matured with more varieties and manufacturers. With Diwali and the festive season, dealers expect sales numbers to further increase across the state.
Why it matters: The state now has the highest number of e-bikes in India, followed by Karnataka with 2.4 lakh and Tamil Nadu with 1.7 lakh. Compared to previous years, the state’s EV sector could see at least a 50% growth. While there were concerns about fire safety for e-bikes, manufacturers have strengthened quality checks.
AAP leaders converge to campaign (Mizoram) – While the trend points to keeping a party in power for 10 years, the question remains on whether a smaller party like the AAP can make an impact. AAP leaders from Nagaland and Punjab have come to the state to woo the electorate. The party is contesting in four seats. Despite their small presence, members are confident of a surprise performance.
Why it matters: The Zoramthanga-led Mizo National Front (MNF) is favoured to return to power. The AAP and Zoram People’s Movement (ZPM) will have to fight it out for second place. The Congress has been relegated to third position in the state after it won only five seats in 2018. The party has been unable to attack the Zoramthanga and MNF.
🔢 KEY NUMBER
$2.9 billion – Once the most valuable US startup, WeWork filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy as it accumulated $2.9 billion in net long-term debt. The company’s share price declined by 98% this year.