Rahel Makan Kora, which translates to Kora Son of Rahel, is one of the approximately 190 Malayalam films that have been released in 2023, and it had a minimal impact on the box office. The movie, directed by first-time director Ubaini Ebrahim and featuring emerging actors Anson Paul and Merin Philip in lead roles, was a commercial disaster in terms of its earnings.

The movie received extremely negative critique from online reviewers, and many of them gave it unfavourable treatment. According to the film’s behind-the-scenes team, it was the negative word-of-mouth, triggered by the online reviews, that undermined their endeavour to create a quality family-oriented entertainment.

Rahel Makan Kora is not the only film that has got terrible first-day reviews and subsequently tanked at the box office. Despite a handful of movies receiving critical acclaim, the majority of Malayalam films have faced a similar fate. This includes big-budget productions such as like King of Kotha starring renowned actors such as Dulquer Salman and Ramachandra Boss and Co featuring Nivin Pauly, among others.

“I haven’t come across a film that turned into a spoof while attempting to present itself as an action-packed mass film. Dulquer is a talented actor, but he lacks the presence, style, and mass appeal required for such a larger-than-life character. Certain characters even brought to mind comic strip characters like Vikraman from Mayavi (a 2007 Malayalam graphic comic for children published serially in Balarama) or Jaggu (the exaggerated villain) portrayed by yester year’s actor Jose Prakash in the 1960s’ films,” said Aswanth Kok in his review of the King of Kotha, directed by Abhilash Joshiy, son of veteran director Joshiy and produced by Dulquer Salman’s film company. The YouTube video which has more than 8.15 lakh viewers simply rips apart the film that has nosedived at the box office for obvious reasons.

Legal recourse

After facing a barrage of criticism on social media platforms, E Ubaini, the director of Rahel Makan Kora, went on to file a complaint. Another director Mubeen Rauf, sought the court’s intervention, requesting directions to the information and broadcasting ministry and the state information technology department. His plea aims to ensure that social media influencers and film review vloggers refrain from posting any reviews of his film, Aromalinte Aadhyathe Pranayam, on social media for a period of at least seven days from its release date.

Ubaini’s complaint targeted a particular film promotion agency, six online reviewers, and the social media platforms YouTube and Facebook. Hains B, the managing director of Snake Plant, a limited liability partnership firm involved in film promotional marketing, was designated as the primary accused. The complaint alleged that Hains was involved in blackmail and extortion and held him responsible for the negative movie reviews.

According to Hains, Ubaini requested him to join him at the police station to file a complaint against the online reviewers who had criticised the movie. “Since this was not within the scope of our promotional contract, I refused to do so. The director had also sought the personal information of those critics, but I was trying to dissuade him, as I felt focusing on criticism would be more detrimental than beneficial to the movie.”

“Despite offering our advice, it was not positively received by the director and producer, leading to a police complaint claiming that we were the cause behind the negative reviews. We firmly deny these allegations. Even in the days leading up to these accusations, we were actively involved in generating promotional content and organising on-the-ground initiatives to enhance the film’s visibility. Interestingly, the director himself had commended our efforts at an event held in Thiruvananthapuram,” added Hains in a news conference held at Kochi.

“The director of Rahel Makan Kora has lodged a complaint against both Hainz and myself. He has accused Hainz of blackmailing and me of defamation. This appears to be nothing more than an attempt to garner attention,” alleges Aswanth Kok, who runs a YouTube channel that reviews films regularly. “A film is a commodity created for the purpose of being sold. If an ordinary person like me pays Rs 150 to watch a film and is dissatisfied, I have every right to express my opinion. Why are these individuals so intolerant? Why can’t they accept it as a matter of personal perspective? If films fail to impress, it is the content that should be held responsible, not those who voice their opinions.”

Aswanth Kok reviews films for his YouTube channel 'Aswanth Kok'. He has been accused of defamation over his review of Rahel Makan Kora.

“If they have concerns about blackmail, there are legal avenues to address that. I have never engaged in extortion activities. The responsibility for allowing online channels into the theatre lies with the film producers who seek to promote their work. They are the ones responsible for the first-day-first-show (FDFS) reviews. Their objective is clearly promotion; thus, it's not fair to blame reviewers for this,” Aswanth said about one of his videos posted on the internet. He, however, declined comment when approached by The Federal.

The issue did not settle down there with the filing of an FIR or furthering the criminal case, but the producers’ association approached the High Court of Kerala seeking protection from ‘review bombing’ of their works.

During the hearing of the case which is still underway, the court had come up with several observations that could have serious impact on the industry and reviewing or critiquing movies or any other work of art for that matter.

The court has adopted a firm position against the rising trend of ‘review bombing’ in the film industry. It emphasised that ‘movie reviews are intended to inform and enlighten people and not destroy and extort individuals.

Justice Devan Ramachandran underscored the importance of safeguarding an individual’s reputation in connection with a film, cautioning against the compromise brought about by “unbridled freedom of expression”. He pointed out that those who believe they are immune from regulations or standards, especially in the absence of evidence indicating their registration is comparable to journalists or similar service providers, are mistaken.

The high court directed the state police chief to adhere to its earlier order regarding addressing anonymous posts with harmful content. Emphasising that reviews should serve the purpose of informing and enlightening without causing harm or extortion, the court reiterated this principle. The police authorities were instructed to conscientiously apply this guideline when dealing with such instances.

Minting money

Out of nearly 200 Malayalam films have released so far in 2023, only a handful managed to achieve box-office success. The filmmakers’ bodies assert that a continuous string of film failures is primarily because of what they label as ‘review bombing’. This practice involves orchestrating a semi-organised campaign of online negative reviews to manipulate the rating system.

“There’s a Kochi-based group raking in big bucks through review bombing, and they've turned it into a professional business. When a producer kicks off a project, these folks approach them, offering a promotion package for a hefty sum. If the producer declines, they resort to threatening with mass negative reviews,” claims Saji Nanthyat, a Malayalam film producer. He states that they’re not against film reviews, recalling a time before the internet and social media when it was more like constructive criticism that actually benefited the film. “Back then, reviewers respected filmmakers as artists. Nowadays, they use demeaning and derogatory language, degrading films and even personally targeting the creators,” Saji says.

“This accusation by the producers does not have any substance. No films have tanked or succeeded merely because of reviews. These are merely explanations from disillusioned producers who lack understanding of the Malayalam film market,” states an industry insider who prefers to remain anonymous. “But there are genuine issues regarding the digital marketing fraud, that’s rampant in the industry,” adds the journalist-turned-film-professional.

“Take Aswath Kok, for example. He trashed Bheeshmaparvam, (Amal Neerad’s Mammootty – starrer), a massive hit last year. But get this, he gave a five-star review to Corona Jawan — a low budget flick — and it flopped in theaters. These filmmakers — producers, and directors — use his stuff for promotion when it suits them. They’re the ones propelling him into to the ‘big reviewers’ club.

According to a film marketing professional based in Kochi, it is the inexperience of the producers that cost them dearly.

“If you consider the 200 films produced in a year, fewer than 30 per cent of the producers and production companies continue in the business after their initial project. This lack of experience becomes an opportunity for unscrupulous individuals in the industry,” says the marketing professional who owns a company since 2015.

“I’ve encountered producers who invested over Rs 5 crore in a film destined to flop, featuring relatively new artists, hoping to turn a profit through OTT platforms, which is clearly an impractical idea. Unfortunately, many of them are unaware of the issues with their product. I am not naming the names but you do know who I am talking about,” he said.

The flip side

There is another side to the story of ‘motivated reviews’, where producers purchase tickets and distribute it free of cost to eyewash the OTT platforms.

“For a recent film with a big player, who has been off colour after a controversy for some years, in the lead spent Rs 2 crore to buy tickets on booking apps and creating reviews on it. This is sheer manipulation and the same guys are lamenting about ‘review bombing’ now,” a film professional told The Federal.

Review bombing is not confined to India or film industry, but is an international phenomenon. According to academics, it takes place when a large number of internet users with similar opinions converge on aggregator sites, such as Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic, intentionally giving low ratings and posting negative reviews. These attacks are frequently organised, and an individual might employ multiple accounts to manipulate the overall numbers.

But in the context of Kerala, the term is used in a slightly different way; applying to YouTube video reviewers and online critics.

“I don't endorse the term ‘review bombing’ in this situation. I believe a film’s fate shouldn't solely rely on reviews. The Malayalam film industry is struggling due to an excessive production of films, with the market unable to support 200 releases annually. It’s natural that many films face box-office failure. However, theatre reviews are a different matter, as they can impact a film’s box office earnings,” says Maneesh Narayanan, noted film critic and Malayalam journalist. “Legal action is a recourse against social media influencers, reviewers or whoever engages in derogatory language, body shaming, or personal attacks,” adds Maneesh.

The film industry’s own strategy to leverage online platforms for mass promotion has had unintended consequences. While it initially served as a powerful tool for marketing, it’s now become a double-edged sword, exposing filmmakers to both positive and negative aspects of online feedback.

The high court’s observations, have shifted the dynamics of the situation, bringing the matter of freedom of expression into focus. In an order pronounced on October 25, the court had directed, “A close watch on the online platforms shall be maintained, to ensure that anonymous mala fide content is not allowed to circulate; and necessary action under the provisions of the IT Act shall be taken and implemented scrupulously without delay.”

The Hindu in its editorial has cautioned that “the court’s observation in its latest order that the freedom of those involved in making a film should not be sacrificed at the altar of the ‘unbridled freedom of expression’ of those acting under the impression that they are not governed by any parameters or regulations should not lead to a verdict either curbing the freedom to critically analyse a film or an attempt to restrict the art of criticism.”

After all, making and reviewing a film are both two aspects of the same right to free speech.

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