Spoilers Ahead by Rajeev Masand: Previews and the art of the feel-good fib

Filing out of a preview theatre as the lights come back on at the end of a screening, it’s hard to miss the air of anxiety, and occasionally desperation, that hangs over the reception area where director, producer, and lead actors have gathered. Expectant faces trying to make eye contact, so it’s hard for you to be anything but effusive in your response to their labour of love.

Here’s a pro-tip to keep in mind anytime you’re invited to attend a preview of a film just days before its release—resist the temptation to say anything critical. Even if the folks who made it urge you to speak candidly, “because we can handle it”.

The truth is, they can’t handle it. In fact, 99 out of a 100 people cannot handle it. Four days before release, a filmmaker or an actor does not want to hear what’s wrong with his movie. Also, frankly, there’s not much they can do with that feedback at this stage, even if there may be some merit in it.

Dodging bullets

Having spent over 20 years reviewing films for a living, I can safely say there are few things more awkward than trying to dodge the director or actor on one’s way out at the end of a film. You look for the exact moment that he’s preoccupied with other guests and try to sneak away without being noticed. Or you smile, offer a meek: “All the best”, and slink away, knowing well that he’s read your face.

Vidya Balan likes to remind me how she could tell from my pained expression that I hadn’t enjoyed Kismat Konnection, when I ran straight into her after the screening. She laughs about it now, but admits it wasn’t an encouraging sign at the time. Subhash Ghai followed me to the car park at the Adlabs Film City preview theatre when he noticed that I had slipped away without meeting him after attending a screening of Black & White, his first and only attempt at making a ‘serious’ film. It was an excruciatingly difficult conversation because Ghai insisted on knowing what didn’t work for me.

Now here’s another pro-tip—never go into details. If you absolutely must offer critical feedback, refrain from getting into nitty-gritties. Say it didn’t work for you but do not get into a post-mortem. A preview screening is just not the place for that. Also, a filmmaker is still too close to the movie at this point to be able to consider your feedback objectively. Try suggesting that the pace was a problem and you’ll get a long explanation for why the screenplay needed to unfold unhurriedly in order to establish something or the other. Point out that a key character’s motivation seemed unconvincing and be prepared for a rambling justification. Just know that there will always be a defense.

Anil Kapoor in Subhash Ghai’s serious film, Black & White, 2008 (top); Vidya Balan and Shahid Kapoor in Kismat Konnection, 2008 (above)
Anil Kapoor in Subhash Ghai’s serious film, Black & White, 2008 (top); Vidya Balan and Shahid Kapoor in Kismat Konnection, 2008 (above)

Vague’s the word

I remember Gadar director Anil Sharma flipping out when a member of his team reported back to him that guests attending a preview of Veer were cracking up in emotional scenes. Sharma, who stationed himself right outside the door as guests were leaving at the end of the screening, confronted a producer who had evidently forgotten to wipe off the bemused expression from his face. Bravely (or perhaps naively) the producer referred to an unintentionally comical action scene in which Salman Khan yanks out the entrails of a bad guy with his bare hands. Sharma proceeded to respond with a convoluted explanation, completely disregarding his guest’s opinion, or even acknowledging that his guest was allowed to have one.

Sunny Deol, who practically cornered critics after a preview of Chamku, didn’t really care for feedback. He impressed upon us that the film was intended as a sort of ‘relaunch’ for his brother Bobby, “so how many stars will you give it?” he asked repeatedly, making it one of the strangest experiences one has had with a movie star.

Preview screenings or ‘trial shows’ as they have come to be known, are essentially vanity exercises. They’re hosted so actors and filmmakers can be made to feel good about themselves; so they can be hailed by their friends and peers on Twitter and Instagram (often insincerely) before the ‘real audience’ inevitably shatters all illusions of grandeur literally four days later.

Through trial and much error, I’ve learnt that the best way out of a potentially sticky situation after a preview screening is by being vague without being dishonest. So, when cornered by a director on my way out of a film that I didn’t love, I’ll say something like: “The cinematography was breathtaking”, or “You got the period details just right”. This is faint (but genuine) praise for what is likely the one thing that didn’t suck in the film. The puzzled look on the director’s face in response is, honestly, the best outcome you can hope for.

Formerly a film journalist, Rajeev Masand currently heads a talent management agency in Mumbai

Spoilers Ahead is a new fortnightly column for, by and of lovers of films and film stars. Catch the next column on August 20, 2022.

From HT Brunch, August 6, 2022

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