Several developments reported from the state in the October-November period have implications for free speech nationwide. First, Mubeen Rouf, director of the Malayalam film Aaromalinde Adhyathe Pranayam (Aaromal’s First Love), petitioned the Kerala High Court to prevent influencers and vloggers from publishing reviews on social media for at least seven days after his film’s release. Then, Ubaini Ebrahim, the director of Rahel Makan Kora (Rahel’s Son Kora), filed a police complaint against the head of a promotions company, alleging blackmail and accusing him of being responsible for negative reviews of the film.
Cases were registered against the latter and some online reviewers. The Kerala Film Producers Association (KFPA) has since called for a ban on reviews being issued within theatre premises. Several producers and directors have also been vocal against interviews of audience members being conducted at theatres.
While these moves have ignited a conversation in Kerala about freedom of expression, another equally important issue must also be highlighted: the double standards of filmmakers carping about negative feedback.
With the television boom at the turn of the century, Indian news channels began sending reporters to theatres to get viewers’ reactions as they emerged from early shows of a film. These ‘vox pops’ are an innocuous exercise. With the advent of social media, however, came the bizarre trend of news websites assigning journalists to do what are called ‘live reviews’ from movie halls.
This involves writing a series of social media posts analysing a film while watching it on the morning of its release. These are separate from the more well-considered reviews authored by a website’s designated film critic. It is ironic that producers have themselves adopted the idea of vox pops and live reviews to publicise their films with the help of nameless, faceless social media armies and recognisable influencers, but are now crying foul of methods they have encouraged and the Frankenstein’s monsters their industry has created. Take the keenness to bar audience interviews right after a show. News organisations are not the only ones indulging in this practice. PR agencies of producers also send teams to theatres to interview the public. These sound bites – always positive – are uploaded on the social media accounts of the cast and crew of films.
Producers and publicists never provide proof that the viewers they present are authentic, drawn from the paying public, and not stationed there by the makers. KFPA now says that digital marketing teams of films, too, will henceforth face restrictions. But the dubious promotional technique used by their industry cannot be equated with genuine mediapersons interviewing genuine viewers, however non-serious this opening-day ritual may seem.
It appears that what the industry wants is to pre-empt the likelihood of journalists encountering actual viewers who did not like a film. This amounts to an attack on media freedom and on the public’s freedom of expression.
Allegations made by filmmakers against social media influencers should also generate a discussion about who is responsible for building up these entities in the first place. Over the years, film marketers across India have played up gushing praise that their films have received from little-known individuals, thus raising the profile of these persons who have consequently garnered large online followings and become forces to reckon with.
Insiders from various Indian film industries admit off-the-record that they offer financial and other incentives to influencers to air positive comments. When they crib about influencers, therefore, many are not objecting to corruption. They are lamenting their loss of control.
Considering these circumstances, it is hypocritical of producers and directors, in the Malayalam industry and elsewhere, to claim victimhood without acknowledging their own role in muddying these waters.