Category: Editorials

Why I Don’t Use Zomato

Opinion on Zomato

Disclaimer: This is an opinion based on my personal experience with Zomato and facts sourced from online news publications. It is, in no way, intended as a form of attack on the subject party or its reputation.

Zomato used to be my go-to app for online food delivery and I used to love it. So much that my sister and I used it almost every week (and often more than two times a week even) to order food from random “ghost kitchens” across Navi Mumbai. When we ‘got bored’ with popular delivery-only kitchens like Faasos and Behrouz Biryani (owned by a single parent Rebel Foods) along with our favorites nearby from our apartment, we experimented with new ones. Suggestions that Zomato recommended would be a better choice based on our location, ordering habits, and perhaps order history too. Such an amazing piece of food tech; I thought it was one of the best things to come out of India’s startup boom. An app that ensures I never have a bad meal, makes me a better foodie, and never lets me sleep on an empty stomach.

But then after using it for nearly three years, it kicked me in my stomach. It took some time to hit me that under all that glam – zany ads still discussed in marketing circles and various LinkedIn posts, exciting features and discounts, talks about being a unicorn startup within just five years of inception, very deep pockets, international presence and associations, and a leader in the sector – it was still a business. An entity that aspires to become fully profitable (possible paywall) someday using the same model that it used to fondle my taste buds. It took me consecutive order gaffes, a few interactions with its customer support, some web research, and a visit to a hospital to realize that it was not really servicing me. But slowly turning me into a junkie who would soon become helpless without it, and worse, grow addicted to it.

I was not going to have it. So, I permanently deleted my Zomato account in January 2019, deleted the app, and wiped all its data from my smartphone to never look back. I haven’t yet tried my hands on other headline-grabbing restaurant and food delivery aggregators like Swiggy, Uber Eats, and Foodpanda, but I’m sure there is little difference between them and Zomato much like there’s no difference between all the telecom companies in the world. I use Vodafone’s cellular network and I cannot stand it. Not because it overprices its service but because it regards me as a milking cow. Which makes me note that my issue with Zomato is part of my larger issue with corporatism, a problem that I am very well a part of, and to an extent, even have benefited from.

It is also the reason why I recently turned down a close friend’s request to join his new business. I just do not agree with the idea of a business that exists only for the purpose of profit-making. And sooner or later, in these harrowing times, every business does stand the risk of turning into one. Most young entrepreneurs incubate their startups with “good monies” in mind. Only a very few don’t make that transition and that is why you never hear about them.

Let’s not digress. Here are a few personal reasons why I don’t use Zomato anymore and perhaps never will.

One Too Many Menus

Ordering food through Zomato is easy and it hardly takes a minute to do so after you have selected the items off the menu. It’s absolutely fantastic, and the only other app that comes close to the same convenience is that of Oyo Rooms. Ola’s Android app is the worst.

Once my sister and I began experimenting with different outlets, ordering items that sounded international enough to give them a try, we started experiencing the real issue at hand. Because a lot of these “ghost kitchens” (also known as dark kitchens or cloud kitchens) – outlets that only deliver food; no seating arrangement, only online ordering – vie to get more orders every day of the week so that they can sustain in the long run, they maintain multiple versions of their food menu. One for food delivery aggregators, one to be added in the flyers that would be disseminated locally through newspapers and whatnot, and one for their own website which would eventually be used to attract customers before they can say goodbye to Zomato. The prices in all these versions are different, some tweaked to bear the extra costs that the restaurant has to spend as overhead. This approach makes sense because there has to be some incentive if your target user takes interest, registers, and buys from your own website rather than through third-party apps. The concept of multiple versions of a food menu works until it doesn’t.

Zomato prefers its restaurants to add the menu items through its backend system rather than upload screenshots of the actual menu. Although, I should add, it does allow them to upload the screenshots for users who may want to call and order. What this sometimes results in is errors in the prices as well as the menu items. There can be duplicates, erroneously inflated prices, and even mismatch in the name of the dish and the actual dish that gets wrapped and sent out with the help of law-breaking delivery boys on decrepit scooters.[1]Zomato has been in the news for a variety of wrong reasons including ridiculous work conditions for its delivery boys who have often been caught stealing from the orders they are fulfilling. (“Zomato delivery boy seen consuming food from sealed orders in a video” – ETtech, 11 December 2018)

Although Zomato, India’s largest restaurant search portal, has guidelines to ensure that menus are uploaded with proper price tags and itemization, I have experienced discrepancies in their prices several times. The eateries that do not allow ordering through the app but require you to call and order often charged me extra. Because you don’t know what the total bill will be after listing your items and because you sometimes forget to ask and because most people assigned the job of taking telephonic orders in these low-cost dark kitchens do not have basic hospitality etiquette, you sometimes wait for the order to arrive and along with it the bill with a total cost that’s nowhere near what you expected. One plate of Vegetable Pulao for 350 rupees? The menu said 220!

The aggregator may not have anything to do with such incidents, but it does play a major role when you order through the app. Take, for example, the time when I saw two instances of the same dish: Chicken Tandoori and Tandoori Chicken. A food vlogger or critic may try to distinguish between them simply because they feel it’s expected of them, but for someone like me who only knows that chicken and tandoor go and taste well together, it makes no difference. Both are the same to me, yet the price mentioned against them were not. There was a difference of over 80 rupees between the two. I ended up ordering the costlier one (one full plate) just because I thought this would actually be the first time I order Chicken Tandoori and rejoice at the quantity. I was wrong. I tried contacting the customer support but they were busy structuring a social media-worthy conversation with me. I went offline.

All of these minor issues that came between me and my food ordering journey irritated me but I still kept ordering because you crave for things that you cannot yourself make. And dining out is a massive attack to one’s anxiety meter these days.

Ease of Listing

I used to receive (and still do) so many flyers at my house sent out by new eateries in and around my location, inviting me to order food from their kitchens through one of the aggregator apps, that it became difficult to not take a look at their menus offering delectable food and exciting discounts that would put a smile on my wallet’s face. No foodie can ignore an offer that lets you enjoy four different appetizers in less than the cost of a six-month second-class suburban local railway pass from Thane to CST.

I, along with a lot of my friends and relatives, wondered how so many dark kitchens were mushrooming by the day. I have been staying in a Navi Mumbai node for more than a decade now and it is only in the past year (since mid-2017) that I have observed so many new restaurants and delivery-only entities coming up. A quick search on the Zomato website for restaurants that would deliver to my place gave me 464 different listings to choose from. That’s roughly one restaurant per 10,000 square meters of area if I include all of Kopar Khairane and parts of Ghansoli, Bonkode, Turbhe, and Vashi.[2]Because this does not necessarily mean that the outlets are in Kopar Khairane only. The list contains ALL the outlets that are willing to deliver to my address, which is why these places were also considered. My apartment is just less than the tenth of that.

Zomato restaurants in Kopar Khairane
A search result showing the number of food outlets delivering to my address / © Zomato

There’s only one reason for that: ease of doing business. In other words, ease of listing online.

Had it suddenly become so easy to get certificates and licenses from the local authorities to run such outlets? What with so many of them coming up in every block and nook and corner in Kopar Khairane itself, I would believe so. Was it so easy to get an entry into the Zomato database? Well, not if you just go by what’s on the surface.

According to its website, it is easier to create a listing for a new eatery than it is to achieve a verified user profile, a possible gimmick to attest their hard work in creating an unbiased platform with genuine user-generated content (UGC). For a listing, just supply basic details like address and contact numbers, and you are ready to go. However, India Filings reports that you will need a lot more than that. Along with the eatery registration and shop act license, you will also need a Food Safety and Standards Act (FSSAI) license (the most important) and a Goods and Services Tax (GST) registration certificate. Zomato then collects and verifies these documents and the information in them before making your outlet’s listing live on the platform.[3]According to a Medium article by The Indian Restaurateur (cited elsewhere in this editorial), Zomato also engages in surveying and addition of restaurants at its own will without the solicitation of the restaurant owners. While the listing goes live without the knowledge or approval of the owner, the owner cannot control it unless he ‘claims’ it. This has been seen as coercion by the author. (The Zomato Story – 26 March 2018)

Recently, two more things have been added to this list of requisites: fire safety license (especially if it’s a restaurant with proper seating) and food hygiene ratings. Earlier in 2018, founder Deepinder Goyal himself penned an article titled “Responsibility” on the Zomato blog announcing their move to put up scanned copies of safety licenses on listings, where he also mentions that at the time of publishing that information was available only for a handful of restaurants. What number might that be among its over 1.2 million listings across 24 countries is a mystery to me, but Goyal seems optimistic about the “complex, deep, and systemic” problem of the increasing number of life-threatening fire hazards in restaurants (the Kamala Mills tragedy of December 2017 has been cited). Two months before that deadly incident in 2017, Zomato had also claimed that it rolled out food hygiene ratings for restaurants by tying up with third-party auditors who would provide a detailed assessment of establishments, which could then be presented as a badge on their listings.

But I have my doubts. Despite the long list of requisites and so many fancy terms and gimmicks to ensure that I never have a bad meal, never end up in a place that violates fire safety rules, and never sleep on an empty stomach, it is difficult for me to trust Zomato. Especially when Goyal again claimed to have delisted non-compliant restaurants for not furnishing the FSSAI license. My question is then: how did the listings go live in the first place?

It is in my imaginative power to connect the dots and assume that Zomato closed its eyes far too many times to let a massive wave of profit-making businesses use its model to market and sell food to unsuspecting customers like me. It knows that there are no users without merchants. Which would justify the uptick in demand and investment activity that food aggregators received from 2017 as reported by Salman S H in Livemint. The report further says that Zomato was lucky enough to get good backers as early as 2016 when it first started grappling with issues such as fake reviews, spurious listings, and listing discrepancies. To quell this and to continue showcasing its worth well to its investors, Zomato was forced to welcome the wave without a flinch. Result? Ill-aimed restaurants going hostile on their innocent, hungry audience.

Fake Reviews and Some More

It is perhaps the biggest, unsolvable menace for Zomato. It has been trying with all its might to fight fake reviews through various operations that are described and named in a way they somehow reminded me of Uber’s transgressing Greyball tool. I am referring to its Project Fairplay.

When I removed Zomato from my phone, I had a basic account with a handful of reviews, zero photographs, and some personal information in my profile. Although its concept of “foodie levels” had pushed me to post more reviews and updates so that I could become an “expert” in Kopar Khairane (especially after seeing that the expert in Vashi was a teenage kid), and eventually receive free food offers from new restaurants looking to market themselves in exchange for a clean 5-star rating, I stopped spending my time to create content for the aggregator and used it only to order meals and book tables, and in a few rare cases, pay for food online using its partner in crime, Paytm. I stopped reviewing after an online wellwisher pointed out that I was only helping Zomato get more free UGC.

Much like Google’s Local Guide and Amazon’s Vine programs, Zomato depends on its end customers to produce unique content. The incentive here is a badge on your profile that you can boast about on Instagram. Perfect for its primary target audience.

Although Zomato does not permit restaurants soliciting reviews (which it calls ‘bribery’) in return for free food and an Instagrammable experience, it does happen, rather blatantly. And the aggregator conveniently closes its eyes again. It’s a straightforward process and one that also helps Zomato register new users into its system whom it promises to never let go. (Days after deleting my account and hours after blocking Zomato from sending me promotional text messages, I still received them. To this day I see messages asking me to order through the app to get a certain discount. I like to believe Zomato still has my phone number.) Top users who have been solicited pass the “free food” message to their friends and followers and eventually the website becomes a haven of free food grabbers. While that helps it gain unique users, the side effects are life-threatening. Fake reviews, fake ratings, fake comments, leading to an overall artificial experience for the end user.

A restaurant with huge financial backing without proper operating licenses can easily get inside the Zomato database, ‘game the system’ through planted reviews, run a few ad campaigns on the app (to titillate the ‘moderator’ so that it can close eyes a couple more times), and then begin its onslaught on hungry customers.

Although it claims that it has been trying to weed out the menace of false reviews from violating customers or fake users, there hasn’t been much impact. In October 2017, Zomato’s then Chief of Staff Surobhi Das introduced the concepts of ‘blackmail’ and ‘bribery’ and also suggested a basic feature to help obliterate them. While blackmail means customers asking for a free meal in return for a positive review, bribery, as we just saw, sees the roles reversing. She continues: “These are nascent but growing problems at Zomato, and while our machines and neutrality team do a stupendous job at identifying and mitigating the menace, we decided to create a larger systemic fix for the issue.” And then ends up suggesting the fix: a “Report Abuse” button which restaurants can use to report reviews that they think are non-genuine. Four months later, then Associate Vice President of Product Marketing Tanvi Duggal followed up and wrote about the aggregator’s anti-bias and anti-spam algorithms which would help them get rid of and prevent fake reviews. If they caught a restaurant indulging in such an activity, they claimed they would put up a ‘shame banner’ on top of their listing. In the one year since I used the app since the announcement, not once did I see an instance of a shame banner. Zomato knows better than punishing its restaurants.

Zomato has been around for over a decade now and still hasn’t been able to find a proper solution for fake reviews. In its defense, I would agree that it’s an unachievable goal. As someone who has professionally handled brand reputation for different brands, I can attest to the burgeoning menace of fake reviews online. It is just a sibling of the larger menace of “fake news” that we have been dealing with lately. Amazon has tweaked its product reviews system countless times to tackle the issue in vain. There are millions of products across its regional websites that bear artificial reviews posted by genuine customers who just said yes to certain merchants getting in touch with them on private email for a modern barter deal. This is a part of an actual email I received on 2 February 2018 from an Amazon dealer selling fitness bands and Bluetooth speakers: “I would like you to help me in the promotion of my products online by posting a positive review about the products…” Even as Amazon advertises and asks local businesses to shake hands with it, fake reviews enter the system through media that’s always one step ahead of its algorithms. Notably, Zomato’s acquisition of US-based review platform and Yelp!’s competitor Urbanspoon in January 2015 did not yield results either, which is why it shut it down five months later.

For a tech-savvy Internet user who does not blindly follow and believe in everything written online, especially on such sites including the leader of the lot, Quora, detecting a fake review is easy. For example, an obvious red flag is a 100% positive review. Sometimes the tone itself can help you understand if the user is being genuine or if money exchanged hands in the back. Detecting a fake account is easier: a history of only positive reviews on a profile with the possible use of emojis?

As long as there is competition, there will be fake reviews and there’s nothing that Zomato can do about it. Such reviews deceive the end user and do not provide an original opinion about the service that is being sold. Service that goes directly into the user’s body, which is where and why things start looking grim. This malpractice is one of the primary reasons why I don’t use Zomato.

Interactions with a Careless Lot

If Zomato’s indifference in subjects important convinced me about its wickedness then a few interactions with their customer support is what made me hit the deactivate button. The incident with the support trying to play funny with me above is a real story. Because there was nothing they could do about it, they instead engaged in banter. I chose to not continue.

But I detected the peak indifference in Zomato’s overall brand when I once interacted with them to complain about a mouldy dish. Other than the fact that it takes a good 10-15 minutes to make the support personnel understand the issue, there is a serious lack of connection. Most of the responses you get from them (over the chat function) are rigid templates that sound like they were churned out by a robot. Moreover, they deliver it in a tone and language that implies that they are written in stone and there’s no way you can circumvent them. That is both a good and a bad thing.

Of course, as a business, they have to stick to their policies, but I doubt their customer support has ever resolved an issue, and if they did, resulted in satisfaction to either party. The problem is with their substandard chat program and a sheer unwillingness to be fluid. For instance, you cannot cancel an order once placed through Zomato. Even if it has just been five seconds. There’s no option to do so. The best way, therefore, is to contact customer care, engage in banter with them, and hope to get your chat screenshot featured on ScoopWhoop, and then boast about it on Instagram, because you just lost the chance of boasting about your lunch order because something just went wrong with it, didn’t it?

My Visit to the Hospital

There’s no evidence that my Typhoid diagnosis was related to my food-ordering habits through Zomato. So I will refrain from hinting at it. The consulting doctor only told me that the root cause of my ailment was ‘consumption of uncooked, undercooked, or stale food’. This was the period when I was ordering a lot of food from delivery-only outlets. I am accusing them. My point here is about the lack of food quality standards in restaurants that deliver through Zomato.

In August 2018, after it found that licences and registrations of around 40% of all restaurants listed online across various channels were not verified, FSSAI underlined its order (possible paywall) to Zomato and other food delivery apps to delist unlicensed entities. While most of them responded in the positive, suggesting that they were trying very hard for the ‘greater good’ and ‘the larger benefit of food safety in India’, they were very possibly unperturbed by the order. In its Terms and Conditions as of 5 July 2019 (updated on 31 January 2019), Zomato states that “…the liability of any violation of the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 and applicable rules and regulations made thereunder shall solely rest with the sellers/brand owners, vendors, restaurants, importers or manufacturers…” and goes on to reiterate that it won’t be liable if the food that you order is not up to your dietary requirements.

Swiggy and Foodpanda have this condition phrased slightly differently but the meaning is just the same, which excuses them from any issue or litigation that may arise from an unsuspecting user who gets diagnosed with a disease because of consumption of ‘bad food’. (Unfortunately, there’s no way to put two and two together and prove that a person got ill because he consumed so and so from a dark kitchen which he ordered through an aggregator app.) This is the reason why I assume they don’t care about restaurants checking off all the items in the health and safety list. The idea of such an enterprise is mind-boggling. Uber can confirm too.

The problem of unscrupulous food outlets delivering unhygienic food to clueless users is not novel. Such restaurants have existed before and people have ordered from them even before Zomato entered the scene in 2008. The change after the arrival of delivery apps can be described as two-fold: one, the birth of and subsequent rise in delivery-only food outlets (which were nonexistent before and which, unfortunately, have pushed many diners to death due to increasing losses and competition), and two, unpunished continuation of businesses or ‘bad actors’ who provide low-quality service.

Let’s take an example: You order from a new restaurant, and when the food arrives you are not happy with it or the service or some other aspect of it. So, you retort through the only ways available to you (rant on social media or rate the restaurant negatively or contact customer support), and then you forget about it. If the restaurant already has a good reputation – which it may have through fake ratings and reviews – your review is a black dot on a white paper, and the effect it will have on the business or its operation continuation is zero. There’s even the possibility of your review being flagged down through the use of tools facilitated by Project Fairplay. And that rant you posted on the Facebook page? Well, it does not take much time for a few lines of text to get buried when the platform you are using generates millions of such media by the hour.

There are many customers who have reported such cases, as Rajitha Menon writes in Deccan Herald. “Until a customer personally knows the place from where he or she is ordering food, one cannot trust the place,” she ends the article citing an expert on the matter. At the time of publishing, Zomato had 170 unique reviews on TrustPilot with an average overall rating of ‘bad’ (72% users gave it a negative rating against the 17% who thought it was between ‘good’ and ‘excellent’)[4]It has a TrustScore of 1.5 out of 10. Foodpanda 1.1 out of 10 with 81 reviews. UberEats 0.3 out of 10 with 5200+ reviews. . It figures because TrustPilot allows companies to only respond to the reviews. Then again, even the Danish review platform is not immune to bogus content.

When you order from a delivery-only food outlet, you don’t see the place where the food will be prepared or the front desk from which you can grasp a good enough idea about its cleanliness standards. You only see the food menu and the images of food posted by the outlet’s employee and fellow users, some of whom may have been paid to do so. Here you are depending on two entities: the food outlet and the aggregator app, both of which exist to turn their businesses into profit, one way or the other. While the outlet not maintaining safety and health standards is a topic for discussion for some other time, the point that I wanted to focus on here is the lax attitude of Zomato. It does not help create trust.

As a counterpoint, when you visit a restaurant for lunch or dinner, the onus of ensuring that you are not walking into a death trap and that you will be served healthy and fresh food is on you. When you are ordering food online through an app, it falls on the mediator. But, as we have seen above, Zomato and other apps exist only as a medium for you to order food. It gives you plenty of options to choose from, gives you the ability to pay online, and then throws you under the bus if anything goes wrong with the food. The responsibility of ensuring you don’t end up in a hospital remains with you, rendering the existence of an aggregator useless to some extent.

Zomato has always been a business, but has only turned into an unfriendly one recently, as planned or otherwise. Unfriendly at least in my eyes. (And I recently found out also in the eyes of restaurateurs.) And I use that word carefully not because it takes its customers as hostages to raise more money, but rather because it has a direct impact on people’s eating habits, and more importantly, their health.

Conclusively, I like to believe Zomato has all the resources to fight its demons and bounce back as a people’s service, correcting what went wrong for it and aiming at doing what’s right. People in India seemed to notice when it recently disrupted the system, but if it somehow also manages to shift the gaze at the things that really matter, it will enjoy a better time serving its customers who would turn into loyalists. That is why I am not entirely dismissing the possibility of using it in the future. I can’t say when that will happen or if it ever will, especially considering there are reports about it getting nearer to its profit-making position. All I can say right now is that I do not agree with the brand in its current form. TN.

footnotes   [ + ]

1. Zomato has been in the news for a variety of wrong reasons including ridiculous work conditions for its delivery boys who have often been caught stealing from the orders they are fulfilling. (“Zomato delivery boy seen consuming food from sealed orders in a video” – ETtech, 11 December 2018)
2. Because this does not necessarily mean that the outlets are in Kopar Khairane only. The list contains ALL the outlets that are willing to deliver to my address, which is why these places were also considered.
3. According to a Medium article by The Indian Restaurateur (cited elsewhere in this editorial), Zomato also engages in surveying and addition of restaurants at its own will without the solicitation of the restaurant owners. While the listing goes live without the knowledge or approval of the owner, the owner cannot control it unless he ‘claims’ it. This has been seen as coercion by the author. (The Zomato Story – 26 March 2018)
4. It has a TrustScore of 1.5 out of 10. Foodpanda 1.1 out of 10 with 81 reviews. UberEats 0.3 out of 10 with 5200+ reviews.

Bombay and Alienation: Interview with Island City’s Ruchika Oberoi

Disclaimer: I talked to Ms. Oberoi in 2016 on phone soon after the premiere of her film Island City at the 2015 Mumbai Film Festival. This was originally written for The Review Monk but never published due to last minute edits. I am publishing this today without her approval.


Island City is the dazzling debut feature by Ruchika Oberoi who has already collected accolades for writing from various major film festivals around the world.

Her anthology film consists of three stories that sample themes of alienation and vapidity in the city of Bombay (Mumbai). Oberoi’s characters are ordinary people, whose tragic narratives have been carved from her own experiences as an outsider. She came to Bombay after graduation. Island City, starring Vinay Pathak, Tannishtha Chatterjee, and Amruta Subhash, which won the FEDEORA prize at the Venice International Film Festival in 2015, is about people trying to find hope and meaning in a life without substance. Excerpts from the interview with director Ruchika Oberoi:

Island City is about three stories – three short stories that talk, in some way or the other, about the chilling solitude of living a fast-paced life in Mumbai. What was the inspiration behind these stories?

Being a Bombay-ite and living here for so many years definitely did help. But most importantly, not being born in Bombay, and experiencing the city as an outsider really was the starting point for these stories. I have lived in so many places in India including Bihar and Darjeeling, and then I came to Bombay only after my college. At that time, a lot of things affected me, and many years later, when I began to write the script for Island City, the vivid experiences of Bombay came back to me. I wanted to write about the arrival and adherence of Western culture in the city’s work ethics – the corporate culture – which is now an integral part of the system.

Island City still
Vinay Pathak in a scene from Island City / © NFDC

Overall, my aim was to capture the tragedy of the working class – the middle class – especially where women find themselves circumscribed within the household with no scope of chasing their dreams and aspirations. I was working on these stories separately, and in the case of the third short, “Contact”, it was based on a story written by my husband. But, while the original idea was for a TV serial, I worked upon it and created a story within the working class milieu. The characters, played by Tannishtha Chatterjee and Chandan Roy Sanyal, are both working people and are trying to figure out life through romance and matrimony, respectively. Later, at some point of time, I decided to bring these stories together and furnish it as an anthology. However, these stories are not about any one thing, but about many things at once. In terms of plot, they have more to do with the city of Bombay and alienation.

The first story, “Fun Committee”, starring Vinay Pathak was inspired by an incident involving your spouse. Can you tell us more about that?

My husband was working with a bank and was not really happy with the job. He was contemplating moving on, and finally when he did, the bank asked him to join back. Although, even after joining he was not very happy with the projects. One day, after coming home from work, he was emptying his pockets when some bright-coloured coupons fell out. So, when I asked him about them, he told me that those coupons were part of his bank’s ‘fun committee’ department which distributes such freebies and vouchers to employees to keep their spirit up. I found this idea very interesting and decided to carve it into a story.

That’s how “Fun Committee” was born, which is indicative of the present corporate culture, where you have jobs that suck out all the fun from your life. Everything that you do is decided by the committee who also has the final say in your happiness quotient. A sense of black comic story is what it is.

(Note – I wrote about this company culture on my LinkedIn.)

So, do you have a favorite? From your three stories?

No. No favorites, because all three talk about diverse things that are primarily only related by the city in which they are based in. They have different tones, but similar culminations. Also, after watching the film, a lot of people came to me during festival screenings and told me that they could connect with the first story or the third one. Even in Venice, lots of people were vocal about their connections with the second story, “Ghost in the Machine”. So, it is evident that obsession with the idiot box is not local, but universal. While some could connect with the first one, some found the second one more relatable, with others finding the third short more interesting. So, basically, since the stories talk about ordinary people,
they were perceived well.

Tannishtha Chatterjee, Chandan Sanyal in Island City
Tannishtha Chatterjee and Chandan Sanyal in a scene from Island City / © NFDC

The underlying theme of the stories is slightly offbeat. For example, in “Fun Committee” we have Vinay Pathak’s character going on an impromptu fun ride organized by his employer. How did you market this to your artists and producers?

Vinay was one of the first to read the script and he instantly liked it. Similarly, the producers actually went for the quirkiness of the stories – the offbeat nature of the stories that you mention – that’s what worked for me. I didn’t have to market it in anyway. The stories are black and slightly oblique, which is the USP of the film. That was the thing that everybody liked and connected with the film as a whole.

The Hollywood Reporter compares “Fun Committee” with the Orwellian concept of Big Brother. What do you think? Is the semblance real?

Sure. George Orwell’s 1984 was there in my mind when I was crafting the story, although it is not overtly thick as the novel. When you have read these books about dystopia and the idea of Big Brother, they are always present in your subconscious. That is why you connect with these stories in the first place. That is why when my husband described the coupons he had got from his office, I could connect the dots and create what is “Fun Committee”. So, yes, definitely there are Orwellian elements in the story – as in the voice that Vinay’s character follows, in the short. The voice is totally disconnected from the activities that are happening. For a moment, we wonder if it’s really of a real person, is it really a fun committee, or is it a machine, or a program which has no idea what’s going on. What if this program goes wrong and it won’t be able to deal with it or fix it? Something of this nature is currently happening around us, wouldn’t you say?

What genre would you collectively place this anthology in? Black comedy? Tragedy? Or is it genre- neutral?

They have diverse tones. So, collectively, I would put them in the tragic-comedy genre with traces of black humor. And the final story with Tannishtha – it does have bit of a romance in it. But, for me, it is not very important to set the stories in a single tone. All of them are interesting, per se, and together they have a voice that communicates the city’s core as it currently stands.

Could Island City be based on another city in the world and still be similar?

Absolutely! I can’t say any particular city, but like I said, in Venice, the audience could relate with the second story where people sometimes forget their own life owing to their habit of TV-watching. Talking about the first story, the entire concept is about a Western culture, so it connects with a universal audience. Of course, the working class conditions will be different, but in general, the essence remains the same. Island City has played in different countries like Colombia and in the States, and the fact is that people have managed to connect with the stories.

How was it to win the FEDEORA prize at Venice?

Totally unexpected. To even get selected was a big thing for us. I personally thought it was difficult to get selected mostly because it’s not that serious a film. Although it does deal with serious issues, it is narrated in a dark humorous way. But, the selectors were unanimous in their praise for the film and they promoted it very well from their side. It was screened at a huge hall with 500 occupants, and it was jam-packed. At the end, we even received a standing ovation. Overall, it was a wonderful experience for the whole crew, and afterwards when we won the prize, we were sort of ecstatic. At the end of the day, festival selections and awards are what build credibility for you as a filmmaker and your independent films. Such treats provide hope to us that, yes, films like this are worth people’s time.

Ruchika Oberoi
Ruchika Oberoi / © Loudspeaker Media

What do you think about independent films in India? How are they perceived? Will the trend change?

As in, have people started accepting independent films which convey strong messages? I know that more and more are being made here in India, but the artists are not making much money. I think, with the digital media coming in, it has been easier than ever to get a film out there; at least the publicity part. Great films are definitely happening in India and are competing at major film festivals around the world. However, I am not sure whether the public is watching it or not. There are certain people – the youth – who are interested in watching a different kind of cinema, but I don’t know why it snaps there. The interest and content are not connecting with each other.

I also don’t know if filmmakers even recover the costs. But, we have to keep doing what we do and hope that somewhere down the line, things will change for us. The audience also does complain about a lack of quality films, but at a time, when there are films which are also easily available to watch, why don’t they give it a try? I can sense that producers are trying to bring content and relevant audiences together through digital and social media. And that’s a good thing for this part of the industry.

Last year when we talked, you told me you were trying to find a distributor for the film in India. Can you share the experience? What challenges did you face?

I was not involved much in the distribution side of things. Sure, we had NFDC with us which gave us all the support we needed. As you know, NFDC is of great help to independent cinema filmmakers, and they were sure that they were going to give it a wide release. We were happy with the press the film was getting and we wanted to get good distributors. Moreover, it was our decision to let the film travel for a year and let it make a name for itself before getting a theatrical release. So, that’s why it premiered last year (2015) in September at Venice and now 12 months later, it is releasing nationwide on September 2nd (2016). We are lucky to have NFDC and Drishyam Films supporting us.

Trailer of Island City

What was the budget of Island City like? Do you plan to do big-budget films?

The budget was pretty low, but the film was not based on a budget. The actors definitely helped by cutting down their fees; otherwise, it would not have been possible to complete the film. Plus, I cannot outline a script on a budget. It has to interest me and help in my own understanding of the medium and of myself – only then will I write it. For me, filmmaking is not really about the budget.

Do you have anything in the pipeline?

Nothing right now. I do have an idea in mind, but I think I am going to take a brief break for a couple of months, get some rest, and then get back to writing.

One last for the audience: why should people go and watch the film starting this weekend?

I think people should go and watch it just to be entertained and to dive into a series of poignant stories. No other reason at all.

Island City, directed by Ruchika Oberoi and produced by NFDC in association with Drishyam Films released September 2, 2016 across India and is available to watch on Hotstar.

My Experience at IMDb’s First-Ever Contributor Meet-Up

IMDb 2018 merchandise

2018 has been very special for me. Especially for my passive association with cinema. I wrote for Little India Directory; I completed 1000 movie reviews (of which over 125 were written this year) on IMDb; and for the first time in four years, I attended all the seven days of the (20th edition of the) Mumbai Film Festival in October this year and caught a record 13 films including the opening and closing films. The fest was perhaps the most exhilarating experience I had all year, which I would compare with my time at the fabulous Young Critics Lab in 2017. 

And then – to top everything – on 11 December I attended IMDb’s first-ever contributor meet-up here in Mumbai. It was unusual of me to go considering I often get cold feet as the day of such events approaches and eventually back out because of a passive case of social anxiety. But that would have meant going against the promise I made to myself earlier in 2018: to invest on experiences. And not on materialistic stuff like wristwatches and jackets and coffee mugs and pens. It is for the same reason why I often forcibly find myself going to soirees and catch-up parties organized by the overzealous HR at work including the one planned for Christmas next week. Gosh, I can’t wait for the Secret Santa activity as I hope to receive either a watch or a jacket. Fingers crossed!

Since I had no idea what the agenda was for the day or even what to expect at the event, I was unsure about going till even the previous day. I emailed one of the staff overseeing content at IMDb to get some idea about it, but all they said was that it was going to be a casual tête-à-tête with other contributors as well as the Founder and CEO Col Needham. I was curious to know more so I finally decided to go. And I did. Unbeknownst to the fact that it would take me by surprise.

This is my personal account of the day-long activities that happened at the casual meet-up at Sofitel in BKC, Mumbai. 

Who Attended?

A total of 19 contributors from different parts of the country were invited for the event. People from different walks of life who have been submitting kilobytes and megabytes of data for years (and even decades) were contacted and their presence ensured by the lovely and relentless Prachi Salgia, Program Manager of Digital Video at Amazon. She also played host for the entire day along with her colleagues – Vandana Pillai (with whom I exchanged the traditional question, “Where are you from in Kerala?), Sneha Shukla, and Neha Gureja, who had come all the way down from Seattle for the session.

The session’s attendance stood at 100%, a fact that I believe made the IMDb folks very happy. (Neha even suggested that there could be a second one soon.) But what was more exciting to me was to meet Anoop Varghese, a fellow contributor on IMDb and one of its top 250 worldwide contributors in 2016 and 2017, who focuses on Malayalam cinema. In fact, Anoop and I have been working together on lists about upcoming Malayalam films at least since 2016 and have only exchanged a few messages when the platform’s Message Boards was still alive. Seeing him at the event was a good enough start for me, helping me keep aside the anxiety I was trying to ignore.

Other than Anoop, I had previously interacted with Dibyayan Chakravorty over at Get Satisfaction. And because of him, I have my first-ever poll live now. (Vote if you can.) We also had Zachary Coffin, a professional actor, amongst us. I knew that I had seen him somewhere and it was only after the first few hours that I realized who he was. For the uninitiated, he was last seen in the Zee5 Original starring, Tigers (2018).

We were also lucky to interact with Col for close to an hour when he took us through the birth and history of IMDb, and quite animatedly, I should say. It was interesting to hear the history from the person who had created it, especially when he attached shoots of trivia and personal anecdotes with it, including the fact about who was the first film person to have their biography published on the platform. (Any guesses?)

Towards the end, we also interacted with Hindi screenwriter Mayur Puri, best known for his award-winning dialogues for Farah Khan’s Om Shanti Om (2007). Competing with Col’s animated antics was Mayur who talked about the essence of Hindi cinema, again garnishing it with interesting trivia of his own.

All in all, it was supposed to be a day full of interactive discussions about Indian cinema and IMDb. And having experienced it first-hand, while at the comfort of some delicious food by Sofitel, I would say it was a 100% success. (I hope this acts as a cue for Prachi and Neha).

Here’s a bit more about the meet-up so that you know what to expect if it is organized in your country next. 

IMDb and Me

I have been on IMDb since 12 July 2012. Yet it was only in October 2012 that I posted my first review (for a film that released in the same year – Anwar Rasheed’s Malayalam-language drama Ustad Hotel). From then on, I have been continuously publishing reviews (1078 write-ups as of 19 December 2018), making edits to titles and biographies, creating lists (mostly focusing on Malayalam cinema), and lastly, simply being amazed at all the data that the platform houses.

One of the major reasons why I transitioned from a basic user – just rating and reviewing films – to a data contributor was because of my obsession with filling up incomplete data. When I started out – sometime in 2015 – a lot of titles I was interested in was either missing or had incomplete information. This triggered a sort of passive OCD in me to begin adding data that I know was true and verifiable, much like how Col first began adding data to his database on an email access system.

While I contributed and still do so as to help people learn more about their favorite movie or film person, I never thought something would come back to me years later in this form of a national meet-up. Which makes this event all the more cherishable to me.

What Happened at the Meet-Up?

The contributor meet-up started with all the 19 contributors and IMDb staff interacting with each other post breakfast, chiefly talking about Indian cinema and content. Once we were seated in a conference room, the hosts asked everyone to introduce themselves. That was the moment I first looked at the door, gauging the possibility of sneaking out. But I didn’t.

Prachi made it simple for us by asking us to mention our favorite film in our intros. When you talk about a topic that you are passionate about, (stage) fear goes out the window. Not so surprising to learn that Rajkumar Hirani’s comedy drama 3 Idiots (2009) was a common favorite. I said mine were Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010), Farhan Akhtar’s Dil Chahta Hai (2001), and Sathyan Anthikkad’s Nadodikattu (1987) in the reverse order. But most of you knew that already.

It is during this introduction that the hosts added some insider tidbits about some of the contributors’ contributions. I am choosing to not write about those because I consider that as a privilege of having attended the event. 😉

Little Bit More About the Contributors

I really loved the diversity in the room. Some – like me – were passive contributors unrelated to the film industry, who added information to titles and biographies on IMDb out of sheer fun. Some were working on films (or aspiring to be) who used IMDb as a starting platform. The age spectrum was between 19 and 50s (I guess) because we had college-going twins coming all the way from Indore as well as a senior businessman (Vinod) who flew down from Dubai.

IMDb India Contributors
The 19 contributors who attended the meet-up

As I have mentioned above, Dibyayan is a seasoned contributor who focuses on old film and TV show titles. He’s also an IMDb champion and a poll expert (with over 400 polls to his credit). Anoop, on the other hand, has added so much information to Malayalam film titles that Prachi did mention – not once but twice – how relentless he was about certain content features and errors on the platform. I also became friends with M Srinivasan (lovingly called Sri) from Chennai who is a professional filmmaker and adman (his portfolio here) and a Kamal Hassan fan. He’s raked up quite a lot of credits as a video producer over the past few years and has his own biography on IMDb.

In addition to these two, we had a casting director, Zachary Coffin the actor, aspiring filmmakers, a Wikipedian, some film crew, and Marathi film enthusiasts amidst us. Everyone had vivid stories to share about their time with IMDb and we could all relate with them. Had an outsider entered the room and tried to make sense of the things we were discussing, they would have not much understood it. They may even have shrugged it off as ‘geeky’ stuff. And that is exactly what it is, only fueled by the love for cinema and information.

Three IMDb contributor friends
(l-r) Anoop, me, and Sri

This type of craze – sheer passion – to add content without expecting anything in return is what I believe got us here. 

There were folks from Kolkata, Chennai, Pune, and Bhopal who had taken the overnight flight to make it to the event. Special nod to the IMDb staff as well as Roshni Rai from Wizcraft World for taking care of the logistics. I wouldn’t deny that it felt really good to one, have been invited to an exclusive meet-up, and two, get a cab ride from my apartment and back. The event was already showing its worth, and then Col entered the room.

Although I have interacted with him a few times at IMDb’s Get Satisfaction community, it is only after meeting him that I took him as more of a nerd who takes fun in coding and technology and cinema and less of an entrepreneur (which is how he comes off as online).

Here’s the story of IMDb as narrated by Col in possibly the best way possible.

History of IMDb by Col Needham

I have told this before and I’ll tell this again: Col talks animatedly and passionately about everything and it automatically makes talking to him amusing. Although, I did find that when I finally got to interact with him, while receiving the Top Contributor award, the anxiety kicked in and it was the opposite of amusing.

Col started his story with a short anecdote from his childhood when he was around seven. How his grandmother had encouraged him to participate in a coloring contest and how he had won the top prize (a ticket to a movie theater). Col found the movie-in-a-theater experience enthralling, which led to his appetite and increased interest in movies. And, with movies, came the need to create a personal database of those that he had watched and that are pending.

IMDb Sizzle Reel (A bit cringe-worthy!)

Initially, Col, the software engineer, started creating an offline database of movies and their associated information about directors and actors. Which then subsequently became a passion project involving a dozen more people from around the world who contacted each other through the first version of email (it took more than 24 hours for the one-way communication to execute itself in the late 1980s). Most of these “volunteers” – who are IMDb’s first contributors – hailed from the United States. If Col was interested in documenting the directors’ and actors’ names, a chap from a US state was interested in the actresses, and another from Italy was interested in the crew members. And thus began the evolution of a rough database that would germinate into the IMDb of today.

Col’s database soon went live on Usenet with information about over 10,000 movies. A direct comparison with the Movie Guide of the early 1990s (popular in the West among Christians) would make this database a strong competitor.

IMDb.com was registered sometime in 1995, followed by the acquisition by Amazon.com in 1998. And then Col finally spoke about how his grandmother had helped him to win that contest fraudulently. Since Col was not good at coloring, it was his grandmother who had taken the unfinished piece of paper that night before the submission and colored it to perfection. Which ultimately led to Col’s win.

So, you can say that a little cheating had a role to play behind IMDb’s birth. But, more than that, it shows how little things can transform into big, awesome inventions. So, next time you see that your (or a) kid is doing badly at something associated with a contest, you know what to do. Just don’t mess it up.

Of course, more about the story and history can be found on Wikipedia. But, hearing the backstory directly from the man was a treat, and probably the best element of the meet-up if you don’t consider the food. In that case, it’s food for me, any day.

After the discussion with Col, we were all given out mementos for our valuable contribution on the platform. And post that, we all took photographs with him. Even I took a selfie as a souvenir but it’s blurred, so I’ll rather share the group photo (see below).

IMDb Contributor Meet-Up
All 19 contributors with Col Needham and other IMDb staff at Sofitel, BKC

Post lunch, we discussed about IMDb’s growth in India over the past few years and how it is competing with the US for the number one spot. Neha took us through a small PowerPoint presentation (although those are a strict no-no at Amazon) about how contribution helps IMDb grow, but it soon turned into a Q&A session. So, we zapped the presentation and went and had some good food that I earlier told you about.

Assessing Indian Cinema (with Mayur Puri)

Screenwriter Mayur Puri made an appearance at the event where he talked a bit about the evolution of Indian cinema and film writing. Apart from a few self-congratulatory messages, he did have some valuable points to make about how Hindi films are constructed, what goes into all the writing, film censorship, and how attention to details is an important factor for certain Indian filmmakers. A very cheerful guy.

Mayur Puri with IMDb contributors
That’s us with Mayur Puri (extreme right)

Two of the best film trivia that he shared with us are listed below. I know that this article is showing no sign of ending so I will keep it short.

  • Director Rajkumar Santoshi once finalized a movie location in Hyderabad in the month of June (some year). After the pre-production, he took the cast and crew to the location sometime that November only to find that the location – which was selected for its abundant greenery and scenic landscape – had turned into a picture taken in grey-scale. How the crew had to paint the location later validated Puri’s argument about filmmakers’ extra attention to details. The film is China Gate (1998)
  • Producer Gulshan Rai, in the 1970s, asked his team of writer and director to make a film for him on any subject. He promised no intervention or micromanagement from his side except for a small recommendation. The movie should be titled “Teesri Aank” based on his undying devotion for Lord Shiva, which he also claimed was lucky for him. The team dismissed it as a joke and went on to write and shoot the film. Before the release is when they found out that Rai was serious about the title. It was eventually named Trishul (1978), validating Puri’s another point about how certain movies are named not by taking their content into consideration but through one, abstract randomness, and two, producers’ whim.

Before meeting and interacting with him, I had heard about Puri a couple of times. But I never knew that he had won awards for his dialogue writing in the Farah Khan film or that he has writing credits for some of the top Bollywood songs of recent times. Which makes me – a small-time film reviewer – slightly uncomfortable and this admission embarrassing. Although I make a point – at least these days – to sit through the opening (and ending) credits of movies, talking to him gave me this renewed interest in knowing more about the invisible faces of cinema.

I would readily call it a 2019 resolution but I don’t want to jinx it because I never come around to completing these resolutions. Don’t even ask me what my 2018 resolutions were.

Miscellaneous Stuff We Did

Apart from the sessions with Col and Mayur Puri, we also had a good time with a fun quiz at the end. The IMDb staff had prepared a series of questions that would assess our knowledge of Indian cinema. It’s safe to say that our group came third. (Don’t believe in anyone who tells you how many groups were there in total.)

At the end of the contributor meet-up, each one of us got a nice little surprise. A bag of goodies with IMDb merchandise – something that made me jump up.

A Treat for a Merchandise Fanatic

I think a picture is worth more than I can possibly write about this. Have a look.

IMDb 2018 merchandise
IMDb merchandise and goodies

Here’s a better photo by Dibyayan:

IMDb merchandise
IMDb merch – mug, pillow, pen, and trophy among others

And I’ve been showing off some of them at work. Here’s one, keeping a watch while I write.

IMDb coffee mug
That’s the IMDb mug at my work desk

People who know me even as an acquaintance know how much of a merchandise fanatic and stationery lover I am. Which makes this idea of giving out goodies by IMDb an instant classic and lovable move. It shows how much it cares about contributors, and for all I know, I will be continuing the contribution. (Also, I don’t think I’m ever going to throw that pen away.)

It was obvious why the event was organized, and without stating it here, I can say that it worked 100% on me and the other 18 contributors.

Tips for Aspiring IMDb Contributors

One last section for the aspiring contributors out there. This is because a lot of people have reached out to me when I shared these photos on social media.

If you are someone who likes cinema and would love to contribute information (names, titles, trivia, anything), then here are few tips to help you:

  • Start with this: read the contributor’s charter and create an account
  • Then explore the contributor zone
    • Start with rating and reviewing films; creating lists
    • Add any missing information that you may find while browsing the site
    • Then move to areas where IMDb editors need help (called Data Gaps)
  • While adding information, try to make sure you can back it up with a reference. Because no one likes factually incorrect information
  • Join the small contributors’ community on Facebook
  • Join the IMDb community on Reddit and ask questions
  • Develop a niche of your own (e.g.: Anoop and I focus on Malayalam cinema where we create new titles, lists of upcoming films, etc.)
  • Make sure your contributions are consistent
  • Head over to IMDb’s Get Satisfaction portal and engage yourself

Lastly, if everything seems difficult as you start, reach out to me and we’ll discuss over email. (Requests for goodies will be turned down rudely.)

Top 20 contributors on IMDb India
Some of us after the session decided to take a selfie on Anoop’s iPhone.

Conclusion

I think I have covered almost everything that happened at the first-ever meet-up for IMDb (India) contributors. I would easily nominate this experience as one of the top 10 in 2018 for me because when I came back home that day, I was happy. Just plain happiness without any other emotion taking space in my heart or face. My mom even thought that I had found the one. I’m sorry to have disappointed her.

For the past six years, it was just me and my computer adding all these information into the database. But, today, we have a WhatsApp group where we share tips and tricks, some of us have been exchanging movie and TV show recommendations, I know more about how IMDb works, and last day I published my first-ever poll on IMDb. I don’t remember one single event having such a great impact on me all at once. And I’m just happy that I didn’t skip it. Gosh, that would have been a lifelong regret. TN.

My Experience at MAMI’s Young Critics Lab

young critics lab 2019 edition

This is a long-form take on Young Critics Lab, the annual workshop on film criticism for youngsters organized by MAMI which is the organization behind the Mumbai Film Festival. I attended all the three rounds of the lab in 2017 between August and October, which typically ends with the finalists attending the week-long festival in various venues across Mumbai and selecting a film for the Young Critics Choice Award.

Yashwardhan Singh won the Best Young Critic Award that year, with the lab again having a successful bout in 2018. I’m a bit late with this editorial but I think that guy from Kerala who pinged me on Twitter back in July with some questions about the lab would find this helpful. I hope he (and countless others) make it to the lab in the future years because it’s one hell of an experience.

A Bit of Personal History

I have been a fan of cinema for the better part of my adult life. As a young boy, I was least interested in any form of art. I didn’t read books nor was I exposed to any kind of screen-based entertainment. That’s because I was brought up in an environment that didn’t encourage much blending with the arts. Poverty may have something to do with it, but that was a long time ago. As a child, I remember going to one or two circus shows that I immediately grew to despise. And the fondest memory I have of watching a film on the big screen was when we went for Jijo Punnoose’s 1998 fantasy drama, Chhota Chetan, which is also known as India’s first 3D film. I don’t remember the specifics or even the details of the plot because I haven’t seen it again after that day, but the idea of sitting in a dark room with people having similar interests, wearing a contraption over my eyes, and watching motion picture unfold in front of me taking me beyond reality really stayed with me.

Although it took me some time to actively pursue this interest, I wanted to do more than just watch and analyze films in my head. My interests in cinema then grew exponentially in 2012 when I created an account on IMDb and started reviewing films in my free time. Rating films (out of 10 stars) and reviewing them on the platform gave me an instant rush, but I soon began to realize that instead of appreciating them, I was ranting, finding faults, and spreading negative opinions. And fellow IMDb users seemed to love it. Today, some of my most popular (or useful) reviews on IMDb are those where I have given the films a negative rating (mostly one or two stars).

Instead of appreciating cinema the right way, I was belittling it. Breaking people’s hard work up into pieces and describing them using negative adjectives to gain personal gratification and a few likes/upvotes. And that’s perhaps the biggest issue today with film criticism, and that is where originates from, that phrase: everybody is a critic today!

I had no formal education in the arts or any experience in the department of filmmaking, which showed in my reviews. I was calling films good, average, and bad without even analyzing their aesthetic, technical, or artistic qualities. I was what you would call “the self-proclaimed film critic” and the web is brimming with people like that.

The Why

In May 2016, I watched and hated Rajeev Ravi’s crime thriller, Kammattipaadam, starring Dulquer Salmaan and Vinayakan. Everybody else seemed to love it. (I would later come to know that Baradwaj Rangan, our chief mentor for the 2017 edition of the lab, was one of this everybody.) And so started my quest to know more about cinema and do film criticism the right way. The problem was that I was very passive about it.

So, when in June 2017, I found out that the Mumbai Academy of Moving Image (MAMI) was organizing an informal crash course on film writing and criticism, I didn’t think twice before applying myself. The Young Film Critics Lab required its applicants (aged between 18 and 25 years) to submit a short test, which I enthusiastically did. In the third week of July, I was confirmed as one of the students for the lab which would have its first round in August at J W Marriott, Juhu in Mumbai.

The Young Critics Lab (sometimes abbreviated as YCL) was going to take me by surprise.

Walking into the Young Critics Lab

I was one of the 60+ students who attended the first round of the workshop in August 2017. Before it even started, we were given a list of 50 essential films to watch. Films that Baradwaj Rangan, a National Film Award winner (for Best Film Critic; c. 2006), and a renowned critic currently with Film Companion, wanted us to see before we entered the hall that day.

Young Critics Lab
The watchlist for the Young Critics Lab 2017 (click to enlarge) / © MAMI

I had seen a mere eight films out of that list then and I am ashamed to say that the number has risen to nine as of today. Ironically or not, I watched Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) a few weeks ago, and let’s just say, I’m not a fan. I am not allowing you to judge my takeaways from the lab because there’s more to it than my relationship with this list.

Round One – August 2017

The first round, like the other two rounds, was a two-day workshop. It began at 9 in the morning with a scheduled wrap-up at around 5 in the evening. Lavish breakfast and lunch, and unlimited coffee were served by Marriott so that we could entirely focus on the learning. Boys and girls from different parts of the country (but mostly Mumbai) were present, with a majority of them still studying. Most were from an Arts background, which was evident throughout the workshop. I also met and talked to a bunch of guys who had quit their jobs to pursue full-time careers in film, and this was their first active participation at a cinema-based “discussion platform”. Which made me jump a little because I had never thought of reviewing films as a full-time job. And I never will. (Maybe that calls for another article, but not today.)

I had registered for the Young Critics Lab purely for the experience and to learn a few more things from reputed critics who have been in the know for years. In that way, the first day of the workshop was overwhelming.

Lessons from Baradwaj Rangan

Baradwaj Rangan, who also maintains a blog, talked about a lot of things in the first round. My notes for those days tell me that we discussed what a review is and how it should look like, what all it should consist of, and the duties of a film critic before, while, and after watching a film. Apart from the general list of takeaways that I have listed below, the first round taught me this, in my own words:

A review of a film is a write-up about what you feel about it, first-hand while and after watching it. It’s an opinion directed chiefly at the reader. Criticism, which is a subset/variation of a review, is describing why you feel what you feel.

We also talked about filmmakers (Imtiaz Ali, Richard Linklater, and David Dhawan), film theory, basic-level cinema interpretation and analysis techniques, the process of reviewing and writing it, and the mythical concept of the perfect review. According to Baradwaj Rangan, the perfect film review – if it exists – is a mix of two approaches, reviewing and critiquing. How you differentiate between them is up to you and that will shape your reviews.

Baradwaj Rangan mentoring the 2019 batch of YCL
Baradwaj Rangan mentoring the 2019 batch of the critics lab / © MAMI

From Maxim Gorky to Pauline Kael

The Young Critics Lab took us on a route to the history of film criticism. We discussed the personalities and works of writers and notable film critics such as Maxim Gorky, WG Faulkner, Otis Ferguson, James Agee, Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, Chidananda Dasgupta, and many others. Compared to the times when these greats were most active in, the landscape of cinema and film criticism has changed drastically. Because everyone is a critic today, film criticism has turned into a beginning of a never-ending conversation.

With TV and web shows being consumed like water in the middle of a summer night across the globe, film criticism is no longer a concept that was considered niche between the 1940s and late twentieth century. So many films are released to the public that today it is up to you to choose what films you want to watch and review. A privilege that we both enjoy and are cursed with. Because there are so many films and shows and so little time.

Qualities of Good Film Criticism

The most memorable takeaway from the first round was finding out the essential elements of a “good review”. Mastering some or all of these qualities can ensure that the review does not stray away from its main purpose: delivering an outlook or a perspective about the film to the reader. According to Rangan (with respect; apologies for calling him by his last name), everything from bibliographic information to spoiler-less plot description to the identification of theme/s to the overall feel of the film is important.

I do have the detailed notes for these qualities but I do not want to share it publicly here. That would make future editions of the lab redundant. Therefore, I take this opportunity to highlight the importance of being physically present at the lab – which is free – if you want to experience what I did. (If you insist, however, I can share all the notes with individuals. Ping me here (beware; opens on the same tab).)

Rangan also feels that an able critic will know where the film is going in the first 15 minutes itself. If you don’t then you were not paying enough attention. Reviewing a film is an art as it is a process, which is why there is no designated length for a review. It can be a few lines or more than 2000 words – there’s no limit. But, then again, it depends on the medium of your review, publication limitations, and actual content. (Note: This is something that I have been experimenting with since the lab. I try writing short, shorter, long, and one-line reviews of films. You can check them out here.)

Conversation with Raja Sen and Anupama Chopra

On the second day of the first round, we also got a chance to hear eminent film critics and writers Anupama Chopra and Raja Sen talk about criticism. A lot of interesting points were made – mostly about reviewing Bollywood films. Two of the biggest takeaways from this conversation:

  • It is more difficult to review average films than good or bad films (Chopra and Sen)
  • There can never be a film that’s 10/10 because there’s always something that’s lacking (Sen)

We also had the lovely Smriti Kiran briefly talk about MAMI and the festival over the years. And that’s the photo below that we clicked to end round one a very high and eclectic note.

Young Critics Lab - Round 1
Coffee on me if you can spot me / © MAMI

Major Highlight of Round One

One of the main highlights of the workshop is that it not a monologue but a conversation between the mentor and the students. Although I was too shy to ask, during my time at the lab, I found satisfactory answers to these questions:

  • Should a reviewer avoid reading other reviews?
  • Is hating a classic film blasphemy?
  • Should I base a review on first viewing only? Or can I watch it one (or a few) more time?
  • Should I worry about hurting the cast and crew of a film while reviewing?
  • Is film reviewing a sustainable profession?
  • Is it okay to publish a review on a blog and a publication at the same time?
  • How do I assign a rating? And what rating convention should I follow?

If this is the type of questions you have about film criticism, you can be sure that the Young Critics Lab is made just for you. Here’s an active thread about it on Twitter.

Concluding Round One

Round one ended with two things:

  • Reading and analyzing reviews of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) written by Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael
  • Watching a short clip of Satyajit Ray’s romantic drama Charulatha (1964) and reviewing it.

We had to write a 500-word review of the clip considering it as an independent short film. The qualification for the second round depended on this review’s merit. I hadn’t watched the film before, which I think was helpful that day. Here’s an excerpt from my review:

There is relevance all over the place in this film, as is with any other Satyajit Ray film, but it’s the theme that makes Charulatha worthwhile and elevates the overall experience despite being a monochromatic film in a digital age known for its maelstrom of colors. It’s about a lonely wife who does not expect an acknowledgment of her situation, but instead a solution, which does not seem to show itself, not even in the politics that her husband brings into form.

A fortnight later, I received a mail telling me that I had passed the first round. I was elated as I saw the qualification to both the second and third rounds as a sort of validation to my writing and perspective on films. The Young Critics Lab had already crossed its worth. Here’s a take on YCL by The Hindu.

Pro Tips for Off-Station Folks

Most of the people I met who had traveled from afar stayed in local lodgings and hostels around the area (Juhu) to attend the workshop. This was both affordable and convenient because the festival also takes place in venues in a 30-kilometer radius from the usual venue (J W Marriott) of YCL.

Venkat Ramanan (who is a video editor by profession), a friend from Chennai, stayed at the low-cost Urbanpod. He used to fly to Mumbai the night or two before the workshop, stay there for the weekend, and fly back the next week after exploring the city. He repeated this all the three months and I think he pre-planned this at work sometime in June/July. You may also get discounted rates on OYO rooms (partners of MAMI), so do check with the organizers before booking anything.

So, if you are not in Mumbai, you are looking at staying in Mumbai for at least 5 days each for the first two months and then taking a longer break (of around 12 days) for the final month. Because you also have to mandatorily attend the festival (a glimpse here of the 2018 edition) and review all the films in a certain section (in 2017, it was India Gold) to be eligible for the Best Young Critic Award.

I understand that the question of affordability arises for people who are not in Mumbai, but trust me, the Young Critics Lab is totally worth it if you really are an enthusiast. Plus, YCL finalists are given free passes for the entire festival. Which means they can catch all the screenings (4 per day, if they book online through BookMyShow) all the 7 days. You are anyway not gonna be working or studying when you are here, so why not make the most of it?

Round Two – September 2017

I did not expect it but the two days of round two mostly entailed watching and discussing in vivid details two films – Rene Clément’s Purple Noon (Plein soleil) (1960) and its American remake, Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999).

It was one of the most scintillating experiences for me, being in the midst of English Literature students and film enthusiasts who quoted Descartes and Homer and Oedipus while finding references in the films. A popular topic amongst debaters around the world, the workshop witnessed high-intensity comparison between the two films (each and everyone was going gaga for Alain Delon), with Rangan shooting points to discuss and us students breaking them into more points that even the two filmmakers would gasp at hearing. I think the 1960 French-Italian classic won the debate by a hairline margin but I think a majority of the folks present would agree that a tie would be the best way to end that debate. Once and forever.

What I loved and would like to point out about these workshop rounds is that most of the discussions had natural humor in them. For instance, I remember a fellow attendee referring to a chef and his Italian pizza and comparing it with the anti-heroic character in the two films. It was a lively discussion which was elevated by an active participation by the students. Which is generally rare in such workshops.

The 30 or something of us then proceeded to round three, which was scheduled on days adjacent to the start of the film festival. This way we could continue our discussions about films while experiencing the festival first-hand with newfound knowledge on film criticism.

Round Three and Festival – October 2017

If there is one international magazine that I fervently follow then it is TIME. So when I received the mail about the third round informing me that TIME magazine critic Stephanie Zacharek would be mentoring us, I jumped up and down on my seat. I still remember going numb reading her reviews online and updating my watchlist on IMDb. Meeting her was not exactly a dream come true but heck! I thought it called for a selfie.

A selfie
A precious souvenir, a selfie with (l-r) Rangan, Anurag Kashyap, Zacharek, and me

Under Zacharek, we chiefly dug into international film criticism. Since Darren Aronofsky’s mother! (2017) had released in the US just then, 2 out of 4 topics that we discussed in round three included a reference to that. Which automatically made it a not-to-be-missed film at the festival for all the attendees.

We read and studied reviews written by James Verniere and A O Scott, and other critical works written by other popular writers. Unfortunately, I don’t remember a lot of the discussion because I was so enchanted by the discussion I forgot to take notes. (And, guys, that is why you always take notes. Always.)

However, here is a list of the top takeaways from round three:

  • Every film is two films – one that you see and one that you remember
  • A review can be written in a way so that it encompasses everything you know and everything you are when you think about the film (because you should never compose while watching a film)
  • Reviewing films during a festival is probably the most challenging task for a film critic. You are looking at at least four films a day and you are supposed to write at least 1500 words of content per film and send them to the publishers because web publishing is nasty and time-sensitive.

At the end of the first day, we watched a short clip from Jerry Lewis’s comedy, The Bellboy (1960). The task – which would partially help in adjudging the Young Best Critic – was to review that sequence and send it to Zacharek for review. The second day, we discussed some of the most interesting reviews. Mine did not make it, but it was exciting to see how others had perceived the scene (it was irritating).

End of the Workshop

The workshop ended on a merrier note as I had made one friend (Venkat Ramanan) and racked in lots of great opinions and perspectives on cinema and its criticism. All finalists were handed a participation certificate as well as a coffee mug with the phrase ‘Where Literature Meets Cinema’ inscribed on it, probably describing what Mumbai Film Festival aspires to be or already is.

Then we were given a bunch of guidelines as to what we were supposed to do during the week-long festival. Unfortunately, I had to cut short my experience on the second day of the festival due to an urgent surgery. I watched a couple films in the India Gold section and enjoyed the festival wholeheartedly while it lasted for me.

Looking back, I would have done a couple things differently when the lab was in session. I would have also rescheduled my surgery, but for all that it’s worth, I had a hell of a time with everyone that I met and talked in the lab. And that definitely called for a photograph. To show to my grandchildren if they are ever born.

Young Critics Lab 2017 finalists
The finalists of Young Critics Lab with Baradwaj Rangan – 2017 edition / © MAMI

In the above photo, that’s me (checkered green shirt) on the extreme left on the bottom row. Behind me in a red shirt is Yashwardhan, the Young Best Critic of 2017. Behind him, standing in a purple and blue checkered shirt is Venkat Ramanan, my friend from Chennai.

Concluding the Young Critics Lab

I would be lying if I said all the three rounds were equally interesting and informative. Round one would take the pie for me as I learned a lot of things I didn’t know from Baradwaj Rangan. Watching the films and comparing them in the second round was exciting and a level-above experience. Stephanie Zacharek helped us see beyond India, as she also talked about film criticism as a profession in the West. But, out of everything, if I had to choose one great takeaway from the Young Critics Lab, then I would choose Rangan’s commandments on film writing and criticism. I believe every aspiring cinema writer should stand by these rules from day one. Only then can they make a difference.

Baradwaj Rangan’s Critical Commandments for Aspiring Film Critics

There are 20 commandments in total and it’s not easy. I would like to apologize to both Rangan and MAMI for publishing these without permission.

  1. Learn/know cinema
  2. Watch movies; read reviews after
  3. Make a note of what you feel (while viewing)
  4. Be detailed (while writing)
  5. Entertain/engage the reader
  6. Don’t worry about authorial intent
  7. Don’t go along with the hype (compare with #10)
  8. Understand ratings
  9. Be confident
  10. Don’t let the editorial desk influence you
  11. See the classics
  12. See Indian films
  13. See both popular and art-house cinema
  14. Try not to do reviews for films you don’t have a feel for
  15. Don’t mock directors
  16. Watch one slow film a week
  17. Give films one more chance
  18. Know your audience
  19. Keep writing
  20. Keep reading

Further Reading

If you somehow do not qualify for the lab or are above 25 years of age, you can still use this editorial as reference material. Plus, if you took the 20th commandment seriously, here are some book suggestions by Rangan and Zacharek for further reading:

  • All books of Walter Murch
  • Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1992) (Man Booker winner)
  • Ralph Rosenblum’s When the Shooting Stops, the Cutting Begins: A Film Editor’s Story (with Robert Karen) (1979)
  • All books of Sidney Lumet
  • Works of Australian film critic Robert Hughes
  • All works of Kenneth Tynan

That’s it about one of the most interesting and fruitful products by MAMI other than the festival itself, the Year Round Programme, and the Movie Mela (more details here). I can confidently say that my knowledge of cinema and its criticism has improved considerably over the past year. I cannot say that I follow all of Rangan’s commandments, but I am on my way. I caught Blade Runner, didn’t I? And that definitely counts for #16.

The Young Critics Lab will essentially give you some actionable tips and show you the direction. How you take it and what you make of it depends totally on you.

Participating certificate for YCL
I broke the mug last week but here are the certificates I got.

I know I have talked a lot in this editorial and I’m not sure if I should have. But I had been meaning to do it ever since I prematurely ended my lab experience in 2017. (But since I wrote this, I have received dozens of emails and pings on Twitter from aspiring young critics looking for more information. Looks like the decision to write this was right.)

Then when a guy named Cyril Samuel pinged me on Twitter to share my experience at Young Critics Lab, I just had to do it. I hope he makes it to the lab next year. If he does then I think my job is done here. TN.

You can register for the lab by visiting this webpage.

Featured image courtesy: MAMI

Update: copyedited; added images, a few lines, and new URLs. (16 September 2019)


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The Lost Feeling of Graduation

I have been ceremoniously conferred an academic qualification twice; a diploma in 2012 and most recently a degree, both in the same sphere of Engineering. The feeling was great, of course, but there wasn’t much difference between the feelings when I walked out of my last board exam back in June and when I walked out last Tuesday with a degree certificate in my hand. Further, that walk out of the classroom after the exam was much more delightful than my graduation day, and there’s a reason behind that. Reasons, actually.

I do not know how graduation ceremonies unfold elsewhere in the world, so this is not a comparison quip from my part. This is just a first-hand experience of having graduated from an Indian varsity, Mumbai University, in 2016. However, this is definitely an article taking potshots at Mumbai’s various degree colleges which handed out degrees to their most valuable and loyal customers last week, on and around the 67th Republic Day of India. Having said that, this article is not exclusively about my college unless wherever remarked.

For starters, an amount ranging from INR 100 to INR 500 was collected from students for the graduation gown as rent. Other than the gaggle of people (who are the same students who were going to graduate in the first place, and some of whom are my now former classmates) who scrambled to cash in on this opportunity by urging the college administration to tie up with their known garment dealer so they could get a cut out of it, bad management at my college’s part was the biggest highlight. Some students, who were connected with the college’s administration, urged us students to fill a Google form while others suggested we call some random guy and register our names for the gown. While in my college we were asked to pay INR 300 for the gown as deposit with a promise of getting back half the amount on returning the dress, at colleges like K J Somaiya and Vidyalankar, students were charged a strict INR 200 without the give-and-take nonsense. Most of us paid the amount because we are sentimental people, we Indians. Wearing a graduation gown and photographing ourselves so that we can joke about framing it later during the dinner that night and eventually posting it on social media is a custom we have been unofficially following for years. So, yes, we paid the amount reluctantly and registered our names. I am assuming this had something to do (at least partially) with the people who chose to remain at home. But of course, I believed them when they said that their employers wouldn’t approve leave, in spite of the convocation being on a Republic Day or a weekend, or when they said they were holidaying at a hill station. Now that I have experienced the ceremony, I guess they are the smarter lot.

There was also some chatter about the colour of hoods (violet), which didn’t look that good. At the end, however, everyone thanked goodness that the management at least hadn’t selected that grotesque red-coloured gowns like the Nerul-based college RAIT had.

Moving forward, now this is focusing only on my college because commenting on something that I haven’t seen or experienced goes against the policies of this blog. I have only so much info about the ceremonies that took place in other colleges, and most of my friends tend to exaggerate without even realizing. The reporting time set by my college was 11 AM, and at around that time, the main verandah in front of the office was an example of total chaos. Students from different Engineering streams stood there with no discipline at all. Not that discipline was something to be expected from them, but the thought that these misbehaving people, all in their early twenties, were going to be awarded one of the world’s popular degrees was somewhat disturbing. Moments later I joined my group of friends, and soon I was one of them, chatting and shaking hands with my classmates and other colleagues like we had gathered for a party where people with jobs threw their weight about around people without them. Of course, people pursuing Masters were not going to jump into a flight for this mockery of an event. Even the jet lag from that flight wouldn’t be worth of attending the ceremony.

The second biggest highlight of that day was the unavailability of a large auditorium which could seat all of those who were going to graduate (sans the smarter people who chose to stay at home). My college has a tiny seminar hall with a capacity of hundred or so people, and to everyone’s dismay, the convocation ceremony took place in it. This is how it worked: Because there are only so few students in the rare Engineering stream of Printing and Packaging Technology (PPT), they were sent inside first. The group of students bought their academicals and marched into the tiny room. After the ceremony, these students were asked to expedite their actions of clicking photos and selfies and returning the gowns because it was the time of the IT stream to go inside, and there are only a limited number of gowns available. Since the PPT students were few in number, IT and Computer stream students didn’t have much problem. Things took an ugly turn when the beasts – Mechanical and EXTC stream students – entered the scene, and unfortunately, I was from one of them.

While me and my friends were lucky to get our regalia soon as we arrived, some of our classmates had to wait. But since there was another version of chaos brewing at the tiny room, only 10 students were allowed to enter its lobby at a time, which was exactly the point when I crossed my ‘graduation day’ threshold.

I wanted to see my friends and classmates and the people whom I care for receiving their degrees. I wanted to click pictures of them receiving their degrees. I wanted to be snapped sitting with hundreds of students in arranged rows by the college-appointed photographer. I wanted to listen to candid speeches by college toppers, wanted to see them posing with their overjoyed parents. I wanted to bring my parents, wanted to click pictures with them. I wanted to feel those moments, and what I really got was a certificate stashed into my hands by some aged guy (probably a professor) wearing a red robe whom I didn’t know and whom I (or any one of the rest of the nine people) wasn’t introduced to before (the PPT guys might know who he was), and clicked by a lazy photographer who was in a rush. The only good thing that happened in the tiny auditorium was the compering, which was carried out by a student who thankfully remarked the achievements of certain meritorious students as they stepped onto the dais.

Between receiving the degree and walking towards the exit door, I was sought and requested to leave the room right away by, at last count, three people. Like it would take me a trek to get out of that tiny, non-air-conditioned auditorium! Anyways, after leaving the room, I was stopped by a volunteer and requested to snap as many photos of mine as soon as possible so that I could return my gown because the Mechanical stream guys were waiting and you don’t want to mess with them. There was also a rumour doing the rounds that someone had taken their gown home. The humour! The humour!

There was no proper dress code, and neither were the parents invited to the ceremony. My goodness, I would have needed cylinders of oxygen if that were to happen. Still, some students came in with their happy parents and probably went back home with horror in their eyes. River of tea flowing in front of the office, stamps of shoes on this river as it got thinner and thinner and wider and wider as time and more feet passed, students roaming around here and there because someone lost their hood, someone lost their mortarboard, someone misplaced their lakh-worth degree certificate, people complaining about mismanagement, etcetera.

The whole ceremony was nowhere near to what I had imagined. A graduation ceremony for what it’s really worth should be dealt with finesse and at least a dot of respect; that’s why in popular culture these ceremonies are regarded with reverence. Because it takes a person years to get a Bachelor’s or a Master’s degree, the conferring committee should at least take the pains to organize a blasting ceremony that will be remembered by its passing-out students for years and who will share the stories that happen during this ceremony in the future alumni meets.

It has been hardly a week since I smiled into a camera wearing a rented graduation robe and holding my degree certificate, and I have no good memory of that day. Except that of the river of tea.

But who are we kidding!? An institution that cannot afford to rent few hundred gowns for the most happiest day of a part of their students’ academic lives is a testament to the fact that education in India is, sadly, only a business, nothing else.

What have been your experiences?