Shoma A Chatterji pays tribute to Derek Malcolm, film critic at The Guardian for many years, and a special favourite with the Indian film world because of his special love for the cinema of this country
A senior critic of the UK media and ardent lover of Indian cinema, Derek Malcolm, passed away at the age of 91 in England in July after a brief illness. He was a regular at many film festivals across India and loved the films of Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak among others. Derek was also a respected attendee at all prominent film festivals such as Cannes, Venice, Antalya and Berlin, and a much-loved presence in the screening rooms of Soho, where national film critics would gather each week to preview upcoming releases.
NRI filmmaker Asif Kapadia said, “Derek Malcolm was a legend of film criticism, his Guardian reviews played a huge part in my cinema education while I was a student. If Derek gave a French or Polish film a good review, I went out to see it, and the film was always amazing in some way or another. I trusted him and his taste.”
Derek held sway as the film critic of The Guardian at a time when the Internet and social media fragmentation of critical consensus did not exist. He belonged to an age of journalism when there was no high-powered public relations and marketing and few loud and lavish press parties, a time when film journalism was honest, fearless and committed. Born in 1932, Derek was educated at Eton, considered one of the classiest institutes of Great Britain, but he hated it there. He went on to Oxford and then spent two years as a national hunt jockey, but got fed up with that and decided to become an actor instead. As an actor too, he hit a wall and turned to writing on films. His first stint was at the Daily Sketch and the Gloucestershire Echo, then The Guardian in Manchester.
“The laconic Derek wasn’t swayed by younger film-makers or new trends. He was steely-eyed and he couldn’t be bought, but conversely, he did not enjoy lambasting films. Derek was a giant among critics and he wielded his undoubted power with the same delicacy and sense of justice that he admired in the great film-makers – and he never swayed from his responsibility to protect cinema as an art form,” writes producer and distributor Stephen Woolley.
Some time before he quit The Guardian, Derek brought out a series of articles under the column A Century of Film. He wrote critical reviews of 100 films, going through the works of Cocteau, Bergman, Bunuel, Ozu and Dreyer. In 2003, he published his memoirs titled Family Secrets. Till recently, he watched almost every Indian film at the IFFI (International Film Festival of India) every year though he sometimes fell asleep mid-way, until age stopped him from travelling so far.
Derek was always very simply dressed in shirt and trousers and moved about quite freely at the IFFI fest grounds and at the Filmotsavs in India. He was friendly, smiling, and had twinkling eyes. He was happy to chat, and ready with a cutting remark about someone or something he had just seen. I met him a couple of times, when he was the president of the International FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics) and I was the founder-secretary of the Indian branch around the time it was founded. At our annual meetings at the IFFI, he would just walk over and make his comments, rather than preside formally over the meet.
Derek’s close friend, Bombay-based producer Jeremy Thomas, said, “I was lucky enough to sit on juries where Derek was the jury president. Derek loved cricket and horse racing nearly as much as he loved films. We would talk long into the nights, sitting facing the Gateway of India. Many beers and Silk Cuts were consumed.” Following his demise, Peter Bradshaw wrote, “Derek Malcolm was a brilliantly funny, convivial, professional film critic and memoirist, the last survivor of that great Guardian generation of arts journalism titans that also included Neville Cardus and W.L. Webb. Derek was simply a legend and an international treasure on the film festival circuit. He was a passionate champion of Indian and south Asian cinema.”
Derek became a legend in his field even when he was alive, and was specially loved by the Indian cinema fans, producers, directors and critics.
(The writer is a senior journalist and film historian based in Kolkata.)