Deepa Mehta’s celluloid adaptation of Shyam Selvadurai’s novel Funny Boy has had a truly rocky run: from pre-release controversy over its casting and language issues as well as its political moorings, to poor international reviews and now the loss of its status as a foreign language Oscar entry. In November, I had a negative experience as a token consultant on this movie, and wrote about it at length on Medium. While that experience made me disengage from the film and its attendant discourse, there was one aspect of the hullabaloo that I kept contemplating. How does an artistic project get made without anyone involved flagging its problems while it’s under process? Without condoning the bad choices made in the production and release of this movie, and in no way absolving those who made such choices, I felt that there were some lessons therein – from a creative angle.
When one of its actors posted an objectionable Tweet, likening the film’s critics to trolls who haven’t created anything of their own, I saw a glimmer of significance in that sentiment that made me pause. She was wrong, and in a racist way, about the detractors in this case being trolls. She was not wrong, on a more general level, about there being aspects to artistic creation that only those who have done it can understand.
For example: when I write about books now, as the author of six of them, I approach the texts quite differently than how I did much earlier in my career. Thinking back, I recognise that ignorance and inexperience made me unduly harsh then. It’s not that experience makes one’s standards lenient. Rather, the standards themselves become more thoughtful, realistic and worthy as one’s capability increases. Opinion is not the same as critical appreciation or analysis, and consumption alone does not translate to the ability to meaningfully engage, a nuance lost in a world of one-click ratings.
That’s on the criticism side; as creators, we can adjust our approaches too. Artists, across genres, are always at risk of not being able to see beyond our passion, self-belief (which may cross the line into egotism) and insecurity. This results in thin skin and defensiveness.
Here are some of the measures I’ve been using, to build shock absorption into my creation and release processes. They are a combination of professional due diligence and self-care practices: finding beta readers beyond known circles; requesting accuracy/sensitivity reviews of work-in-progress; avoiding checking post-publication reviews on shopping/books websites; not having notifications for my name or my titles; incorporating disclaimers and uncertainty into the work; getting better at discerning who comes in good faith and who doesn’t; and very importantly, trying to be conscious and self-forgiving (not self-justifying) about the choice to put something out there knowing it can either be skewed or that I could have been mistaken. These make the process more inconvenient, but letting go of the output becomes healthier.
Humility, not hubris, is the key – both for creators and for critics. We are all only working with the skills we have at any given point of time; this knowledge itself goes a long way towards gaining more.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 31st 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.