Once on my way to school, a friend of mine , a year older than myself, asked a kid in 3rd standard from a rather affluent family what his favorite song in Alaipayuthey was. Pat came the answer " september maadham". Slightly taken aback my friend decided to ask just one more question, "have you seen the video?". The reply was not only an emphatic yes but also a naughty smile.
Give and take some exaggeration from the above story it still makes quite a .. story. No this is not a lecture on depreciating moral values in our society. This is about a term cinema critics use: the front benchers. Should a song with suggestive moves or shady lyrics appear in a movie these critics are ready to label it as an effort to please the front benchers. Do they mean to say that the people who sit in the 2nd row of the theatre have any different emotions and reactions to such a song from someone who has paid Rs. 150 and sits in cushioned chairs with his arms wrapped, protectively or otherwise, around his girlfriend. Isn't the baser emotions what the name suggests, something basic. Despite the rather negative connotation to it, its still the same for everyone, independent of the strata he/she belongs to.
To derogate the taste of those sitting in the front rows or to claim that the "back benchers" have a liking only for quality cinema reeks of arrogance and classist tendencies. One would like to ask those who pay in excess of 100 rupees for the movies they watch if they have seen movies from Iran, Korea or Mexico where some of the best and most wonderfully crafted movies are made. I haven't seen them but that doesn't mean I look down upon a Sandai or a Arasangam. If you don't like it, then no issues. But then to claim that one's taste is poor just because he/she finds the movie entertaining is to be judgmental without being practical. After all one man's liking can very well be the other person's dislike.
Another of the prejudices that these critics carry is to judge an "item number" by the director or the star cast. A Mani Ratnam movie item number will be described as tastefully done and providing refreshing change (remember the song in Bombay,? Any other director would have been lambasted while Mani Ratnam draws cheers). I have nothing against Mani Ratnam, in fact I would claim to be his ardent fan, but what irks me is the attitude of the critics and their elitist friends to item numbers. I am pretty sure that parents in posh Mumbai locals wouldn't mind their kids watching Mallika Sherawat belly dance in Guru but would have an issue with her item number, or any song rather, in another movie.
My understanding of the situation, and I would love to hear views, contradicting or otherwise, is that what you watch and appreciate depends on what the people around you would allow you to. In other words, while the tastes of individuals is independent of the strata of society, the appreciation, and I mean the open kind, is very much a reflection of the peer group. What decides whether you are impressed by something is whether it impresses the people you want to impress that you were impressed by that something. Too confusing? This is nothing compared to the tribulations of the guy sitting next to you in the theatre wondering whether he should clap and enjoy an item number or whether it'll reflect badly on him and therefore try and give the impression he's squirming in his seat. By the time he makes up his mind on either choice, the song would have been long over and all the time spent mulling over the options is a waste. Maybe now I understand why they say these songs are meant for the front benchers. They are the ones who derive maximum enjoyment from these songs. They are free of any inhibitions and all those considerations of what the person next to him/her feels. If only the critics would climb down from the false high pedestal they are sitting on and be more open minded in their evaluation of an item number.
3 weeks ago