Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The movie star as auteur

[From my Business Standard column]

Anyone who studies cinema – or reads film literature at a level beyond magazine gossip – must sooner or later stub his toes on the Auteur Theory. The debates around it are too many to properly discuss in this space, but here’s a condensation: in the 1950s, a group of French critics – who championed popular American cinema and drew attention to the high levels of artistry in many genre films – proposed that some directors brought a unified artistic vision to their movies, even while working within the constraints of the studio system or under the watchful eye of a money-minded producer. Thus, though filmmaking is a messy, collaborative process – with specialists in different fields working with and against each other – certain movies could be seen as bearing the stamp of a single distinct personality. Cinema, even commercial cinema, could be a deeply personal art form.

Though the theory initially helped reassess the worth of popular films, it has seeped into the tradition of academic criticism, with the result that it seems almost intimidating today. In movie-related discussions with friends, I sometimes try to imagine how it might be applied to popular Hindi cinema. For instance, can it be used to understand the themes of role-playing and subterfuge that ran through Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s large body of work? (Or the startling similarities between the protagonists of two of his most austere films, Satyakam and Alaap, which are on the face of it based on very different types of stories.) How about Vijay Anand’s interest in elegant long takes? Or the oeuvre of a full-blown mainstream director like Manmohan Desai, whose best work was built around rosy ideas about national integration? More importantly, does the theory help us to meaningfully assess the work of these directors and their creative development over a period of time? (As that famously self-positioned anti-auteurist Pauline Kael suggested in her snarky essay “Circles and Squares”, obsessively searching for motifs in a director’s body of work can sometimes amount to a parlour game, an exercise in self-indulgence that doesn’t necessarily tell you much about the quality of a particular film.)

In a commercial movie culture founded on the star system, actors can sometimes be the real auteurs – their personalities shaping not just a film but in some cases an entire filmic movement. A classic example is Amitabh Bachchan as Vijay, the outsider-vigilante of the 1970s. In Deewaar and Trishul (to name just two key films that are closely related), Bachchan played a Vijay constantly haunted by an injustice-ridden past. Both narratives are built on the theme of a son trying to erase his mother’s sufferings by rising in the world, even literally (to the extent that he can sign deed papers for new skyscrapers, the sort of constructions she might have once worked on as a labourer). Both were directed by Yash Chopra, but few people I know would think of Chopra as their chief creative force. Their mood – which also became the dominant mood of mainstream Hindi cinema in that decade – was created by the writing of Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar in conjunction with the many tangible and intangible aspects of Bachchan’s personality; the two things came together in a way that became a fine expression for the societal and political frustrations of the time, proving cathartic for lakhs of viewers. ***

Equally, there are cases where a forceful star personality can work against a writer’s vision. Take Salim Khan’s son Salman as the policeman Chulbul Pandey in the hugely popular Dabangg last year. Dabangg is a startlingly dual-natured film: Chulbul is a super-hero out of a cartoon and his action scenes are like parodies of the dhishoom-dhishoom cinema of an earlier time, revamped for an age of computer effects (scenes like the one where he casually shoots a fellow cop in the shoulder are played for laughs, but I cringed, because my mind hadn’t yet made the full switch to the Tom and Jerry viewing mode). But in its quieter scenes, and especially the moments where Salman isn’t winking at the camera, it comes across as a grounded, character-driven movie – the sort that might have been categorised as “Middle Cinema” in the 1970s - with a real understanding of its milieu and people.

I wasn’t at all surprised to learn (from sources who must remain unnamed) that writer Abhinav Kashyap’s screenplay was originally darker and more consistently understated: it involved the policeman committing an underhanded murder to get the hand of the girl he loves, and having to face the repercussions. A residue of that vision has survived in the final work, as in the scene where Chulbul quietly tells Rabbo that he hopes, for her sake, that her wastrel father dies soon. But when Khan and his brother Arbaaz – who co-produced the film – became involved with the project, Chulbul became the latest in a line of indestructible, wisecracking heroes played by Salman in recent years, and this altered the very texture of the character and the movie. It’s the sort of back-story that helps explain why unified visions – and evenness of tone – are sometimes hard to find in our mainstream films.


*** Susmita Dasgupta’s book Amitabh: The Making of a Superstar has some interesting thoughts on Bachchan as the “author” of his roles, and on the complex ways in which the star system functions. Also see this post by Vinay Lal – author of the Harper Collins Deewaar book – on “the dialectic of the footpath and the skyscraper” in that film.

[Notes on auteurism and on the star system are scattered throughout the archives of this blog, but here are some related posts: Izz all well; two David Fincher films; story and storytelling]


  1. I had a slightly less appreciative take on auteurism, and that incidentally happened after I met you and Vinay at IHC. Here's the link:

  2. Rantings: I think I did see that piece when you first put it up. It's an interesting perspective, but I think you should take some time out to acquaint yourself with the many discussions around auteurism - starting, of course, with the Sarris-Kael debates and with some of the other seminal essays, like Robin Wood's "To Have (Writen) and Have Not (Directed)". It's a theory that is often oversimplified or misrepresented, and more indepth knowledge would add to the level of your analysis (and it can be only beneficial for you as a film writer overall). Also see the Jim Emerson link I provided in this post (with the Pauline Kael reference).

    W.r.t. this bit:

    The ‘holier-than-thou’ auteurs, it seems, are more interested in appealing to their own misplaced sense of artistic efflorescence than to the needs of the viewer. Why else would you have furtive nuances which aren’t even noticed by viewers?

    As you read more and better film literature (and I assume you will make this effort, since you're interested in writing about cinema), I think you'll come to see how simple-mindedly populist the above paragraph is. People who have been described as auteurs include many self-deprecating mainstream directors who can by no stretch of the imagination be called "holier than thou". As for nuances that aren't noticed by most viewers, well, all professional criticism/indepth engagement with art is founded on giving it closer, more detailed and analytical readings than the "casual" viewer (or reader) will. So I'm unsure what your point is here - is this a "the majority is right" thing?

  3. Hi Jai, You're making a compelling point, and while a part of me would have to agree, especially with reference to Bachchan and even most of SRK's work, I wonder if auteur is the right word. There is a creative vision that is behind the making of an auteur, which comes from author. This is not to suggest that the actor is only a vehicle, because he does bring life to a character, but whether than makes him an auteur is still an open question. I think you have this doubt as well, as it is indicated by your emphasis on Salim-Javed as the force behind Amitabh's characters. The changes made by Salman and Arbaaz to Dabangg, I would say, they were acting more as producers (and thereby parts of the industry) than as actors.
    Also, I would be interested in knowing your take on the actress as auteur, given that they are known to wield less power especially in our industry. I think, thinking through this question might clear things up a little more.

  4. Kuhu: of course there is much, much more to this discussion than what I've been able to cover in this small space - and I didn't intend to suggest that any performer, even Amitabh in the mid-70s, could be the author of his films in an all-encompassing sense. (I'd also point out here that it can be problematic to make a very direct association between auteur and "author", even when one is talking about powerful directors or screenwriters. In fact, many of the misunderstandings/straw-man debates around the theory happened in response to the idea that any one person could be a film's auteur to the same degree as an author controlling his book.)

    But thanks for the comment, and especially that point about actresses not having the same power. Definitely worth thinking about. I can think offhand of a few actresses over the decades whose personalities dominated the films they were in, but it's true that male stars have consistently been in a more controlling position.

  5. Movie star as an auteur is a nice way of putting across gross meddling by actors to satisfy their misplaced ideas about how the character, and how the cinema should be.

    Unless the Director is the Producer or has Producers who will back him/her, the actor will find ways to meddle and influence.

    But I do agree some of the films even without the meddling would be it does not matter in the end.

  6. Movie star as an auteur is a nice way of putting across gross meddling by actors to satisfy their misplaced ideas about how the character, and how the cinema should be.

    Not necessarily - it often works in much more subtle ways. All major star-actors through film history have, to some degree or the other, imposed their personalities on the films they have done (not by consciously bullying the other people on the set but simply by virtue of having established that screen persona and a direct connect with their audience) - and in many of these cases, it has not been to the detriment of the work in question.

    Plus there is always the phenomenon of strong star-personalities working in conjunction with individualistic directors or writers, where it might be said that different varieties of auteurism mix with highly complex results - look at the ways in which Ingrid Bergman, James Stewart and Cary Grant (all of whom had distinct screen personas) were used by Hitchcock, for example. Like I said in the post and the earlier comments, this is a far more complicated subject to be comprehensively discussed in a single post or essay.

  7. All major star-actors through film history have, to some degree or the other, imposed their personalities on the films they have done...

    I have to disagree. An actor bringing in his/her established persona cannot be considered as "auteuring". At best it can be an influence.

    Silk Smitha was bringing a certain image to her characters...where is the "auteurship"? Same with any other star!

  8. I think I would disagree with bollywood filmstars being auteurs as well. Their influence over creative decisions appears to be a perpetuation of their cult of personality. Film production in India is anyway blunted by the tyranny of tact and flexibility especially when it comes to creative decisions. The bubble or in other words the invention of the "image" needs in it's own way, recruits to play supporting roles to sustain this make-believe. It is a simulacrum of an auteur, anything but the thing in itself. See that huge invention become the actuality in the body of work of south indian superstars. The personality becomes a world in itself - with cities, public institutions, villages and legislatures swept into the cult's version of what's real.

  9. I doubt it very much if a movie star can be an auteur all by himself. There are two types of star-driven films we ought to distinguish -

    1) The director leverages the personality of a movie star effectively to put forth his own personal vision. Eg: Capra leveraging Jimmy Stewart's everyman persona in some very fine films. Or Chaplin the director leveraging the talent of Chaplin the actor to make his statements.
    In these cases, the actor assists the director who is the real auteur as opposed to being an auteur all by himself.

    2) There are also films where the star's personality literally drives the films to the extent that it becomes essentially an ego trip. Eg: Aamir Khan's TZP, 3 Idiots or SRK's OSO. I wouldn't use the term "auteur" to dignify these films.

    The star vehicles that the French critics admired very invariably of the first variety - films where the auteur remained the director who was buoyed and not burdened by the persona of the star!

  10. Shrikanth: Was hoping you would weigh in, given the many discussions we've had on this subject.

    I doubt it very much if a movie star can be an auteur all by himself.

    Exactly what I've been trying to say in the post and the comments. That said, there are plenty of films where a star-actor's personality (and the existing associations of his screen persona) play a big part in determining a viewer's responses to the work.

    As V F Perkins (I think) pointed out somewhere, Vertigo would have been a very different type of film, irrespective of Hitchcock's own rigour and personal vision, if the lead had been played by Cary Grant instead of Jimmy Stewart - because Grant's persona is built around locating the humour in even a dark and dramatic situation. (In this case, it might be argued that part of Hitchcock's auteurship was his control over the casting.)

  11. Jai: Agree. So invariably the actor's influence on the film is mostly unintended (though it is intended by the director) which is probably a good thing.

    Also more broadly on auteur theory, reading Sarris' original essay on the same, it is evident that he was quite ambivalent about the idea himself. He is thinking aloud by trying to come up with a framework (three concentric circles and all that). It's strange that what was probably originally intended to spark a good-spirited debate ended up becoming gospel of sorts.

    For eg: Sarris talks about three circles that an "auteur" should ideally belong to -
    1) Technical competence
    2) A distinctive visual style
    3) A personal vision or "message" conveyed overtly or covertly.

    Now an actor can at best help a director realize the last circle, but not the first two. If auteurship is all about making personal statements, then even Stanley Kramer would be regarded as one!

  12. "So invariably the actor's influence on the film is mostly unintended"

    That depends on the industry, or it doesn't? I am not sure but at least in India, Bollywood and the other regional mainstream films, big stars have (or had?) tremendous influence on common tropes(that is not much different from the auteur theory) in their films. Like some unambitious but mass pulling actor like Vijay - that name again - in Tamil is known to give DVDs of his earlier films to directors to employ some of his trademark character traits. Can it be ruled out that something like this was employed by the Bachchan Vijay of 70s. I understand where a Stewart or Grant would come from, but I am just thinking if the industry based dynamics distinguish how it works. Also, I am not sure if time can be considered. Something that just worked at a particular time, say a decade, could have been reused for those reasons. Say, Yash Chopra of 70s and the 90s. Depends on what (themes, subjects) you qualify to be under auteur theory and what not I think.

  13. Taking off from where Gradwolf has left off, I think the trend is far stronger in the southern states. Vijay is an obvious example, so are Vijaykanth or Chiranjeevi. Or Rajinikanth in "Baba" (which, to be fair to him, he co-wrote).

    Another example is how the serious "Manichitratazhu" in Malayalam became the quintessential Rajini movie in "Chandramukhi" - the seriousness was replaced with camp, hero-worship...

    That said, the Tamil industry has always had its share of auteur directors - Balachander, Balu Mahendra, Bharathiraaja, Mani Ratnam...

  14. If the lead had been played by Cary Grant instead of Jimmy Stewart - because Grant's persona is built around locating the humour in even a dark and dramatic situation.

    I saw Vertigo for the first time when I had no idea about Cary Grant or James Stewart. And I do not think any of the established screen persona of James Stewart colored my perception of the film.

    Even if Scottie was played by Cary Grant, Hitchcock would have easily made him play against his type.

    If Stewart was replaced by Grant will not make a big difference to Vertigo.

    The golden rule we have to remember is "a good actor can play any character."

    Also there is no difference between Chaplin the Director and Chaplin the Actor. So the theory of a star who can be an auteur cannot be applied to Chaplin.

  15. Interesting post Jai. I'd love to see what the original/darker script of Dabangg would have turned out like... The protagonist's name would certainly not have been Chulbul, for one :)

    Bimal Roy and Ray are two towering auteurs of Indian cinema. Even Manoj Kumar is an interesting auteur, albeit hat ke.

  16. The golden rule we have to remember is "a good actor can play any character."

    Anon: again, this is a simplistic idea. While discussing it, one has to keep in mind the relationship that forms between a prominent star-personality and his audience. Amitabh made brave attempts at playing against type in films like Alaap and later Main Azaad Hoon (and for what it's worth, I don't think there was anything wrong with those performances), but for many viewers the existing persona was simply too strong to permit the required suspension of disbelief. (Even at age 14, I couldn't buy the idea of Amitabh playing Everyman in Main Azaad Hoon.) Actors (especially star-actors) who play a number of roles in widely seen films don't operate in a vacuum each time they play a new character.

    That said, I take your point about seeing Vertigo without having any past associations with Stewart or Grant. At any rate, it makes your experience significantly different from that of a viewer who comes to these films already knowing a lot about these actors.

  17. Amitabh made brave attempts at playing against type in films like Alaap and later Main Azaad Hoon (and for what it's worth, I don't think there was anything wrong with those performances), but for many viewers the existing persona was simply too strong to permit the required suspension of disbelief.

    So what happened to Alaap and Main Azaad Hoon (I have not seen either, and not too many films of AB, so I have no idea.)

    Were Alaap and Main Azaad Hoon commercial failures because the suspension of disbelief did not occur? Or were they simply bad films without the simplistic & formulaic devices - villains, item numbers, "meri paas maa hein" dialogs etc. which will give a better box office collection irrespective of the quality of the film?

    When I saw North By Northwest as a kid I had no idea about Cary Grant. I saw it a few weeks back after knowing Cary Grant. The effect was the same. A beautiful film. Somehow Cary Grant did not matter...because it was Hitchcock.

  18. @ anon - Alaap is a beautiful film, slightly dated though. But I loved it. Really good performance by AB. I love seeing him in Hrishikesh Mukherjee's films. He just looks normal and more human. Om Prakash as his father is also very good. Rekha is dull as she was in many films I think. Asrani did his due. Look at the pain such directors took. AB plays a character who wants to learn singing. So his teacher's voice is actually of a classical singer's. And whenever she sings, at least I felt this is something else. Can't even imagine what this movie would have been in the hands of a lesser director and that pretty much explains why it was a flop. Apologies, you asked Jai and I jumped in...

  19. @ Pessimist Fool...

    Thank you.

    If Alaap is a decent film and Bachachan was convincing as the lead while playing against the type, then what "auteur" contribution did Bachachan bring to the film?

    Why is Anand considered successful? One can argue Anand had Rajesh Khanna...still Amitabh was very convincing as the doctor and we saw the actor, not the star.

    Auteur theory makes sense only for a Director - more than a Director, we should use Filmmaker. The three points Andrew Sarris describes are outdated. They need to be reworked. Technical competence is available to anyone. Visual style does not make sense in a world saturated with every imaginable visual style, cinema is not for message - Western Union, Google and Post Office is for message.

    The identifiers for the signs of an auteur in the 21st century follows -
    1. A particular style - it could be a markedly unique way the story is told. Priyadarshan and Michael Bay are not auteurs though they have a style. (If Priyadarhan is an author then my cow is an author for how she shits.)
    2. Use of leitmotifs. We should be able to identify the leitmotifs - it could be locations, actors, dialogues etc.
    3. Adherence to certain themes.

    To an extent only Writer-Directors can be considered as true auteurs. I do not know how important this creteria was in Andrew Sarris definition...but for me it makes sense.

    This is an important forum...I hope film theorists, critics or PhD wannabees take a further look at my opinion.

  20. If Alaap is a decent film and Bachchan was convincing as the lead while playing against the type, then what "auteur" contribution did Bachachan bring to the film?

    Anon: part of my point was that Amitabh's playing against type (at a time when his basic star persona had been established and fixed in the audience's mind) was part of the reason the film didn't work for most viewers. (I think it may have had a better chance of finding a small, interested audience today, in the age of multiplexes and DVDs.) Anand was a different matter - it was made before that star persona was created.

    You make some good points in your comment (especially that bit about visual style being less relevant today than it was during the great debates of the 1960s), but like I've already said a tedious number of times in this thread, this is a much longer and more complex subject than can be dealt with in this space. And because the post itself was an only slightly extended version of a 600-word column I write, it's likely that I haven't been able to convey most of my thoughts on this subject (or even convey what I think "auteur" or "semi-auteur" might mean in various contexts - the word has too often been misused or abused anyway).

    But of course, it's very stimulating to discuss this subject - and hopefully supplement that discussion with readings of more indepth essays such as the ones by Wood and Perkins.

  21. Anon: The more things change the more they remain the same.

    You talk of Sarris' circles not being relevant anymore. I beg to differ. I think they do provide a useful framework for evaluating creative talents in filmmaking.

    Regarding your points:
    Technical competence : I disagree with the view that it is "available to everyone" today. There is no shortage of badly made movies and television with poor production values around us. If anything, production values are less revered in this age than they were during the studio era's zenith.

    Visual style: Let's not succumb to the tendency of inverse snobs to claim that anything and everything can constitute a visual style. Economy of expression is always an artistic virtue, be it DW Griffith's day or the new millenium. Ofcourse there are philosophical debates on the suitability of different visual styles - be it the montage-driven style of a Hitchcock or the long-take approach of a Renoir or a Hawks.

    While one mustn't be dogmatic in this regard, one must also guard against the "anything goes" culture that attempts to legitimize badly made films as art.

    Sensibility: No matter how good a technician you are, you cannot call yourself an artist if you are bereft of sensibilities. You talked disparagingly of "messages". But the whole purpose of art is to say something. It doesn't have to be a grotesquely overt statement in the style of an Aamir Khan. But any great film ought to make intelligent viewing. In the absence of ideas, films cease to be serious stuff.

    So each of Sarris' circles are very much relevant. Also the interactions between the circles is very important. A passage of a certain film may be visually enthralling yet difficult to endure if the sensibility associated with it is bereft of mature intelligence! Eg - Some of the sequences of Slumdog Millionaire are technically very good but unendurable as the film does not appeal to mature adult sensibilities.

  22. @ Shrikanth

    Questions to Shrikanth:

    What is a "badly made film"?

    There are hundreds of examples in cinema and television where the production values were shoddy but the film/television content was brilliant, great or beautiful. Some of the best works of auteurs have zero production value in the traditional sense. What matters is "what the story is", and "how the story is told". PATHER PANCHALI is the prime example.

    Lets not include technical proficiency in the conventional sense as a sign of auteur - if Andrew Sarris made such a requisite, then Andrew Sarris is wrong. And he has to be corrected.

    What is a unique "visual style" which can denote an auteur at work?

    A hyperkinetic montage of a good action sequence is a unique visual style. What Ozu has done is at the other extreme. Both are unique. "Economy of expression" depends on the context - an opposite is also art.

    An intelligent filmmaker will know how to use the style to his advantage...very good example are the action sequences of "Carlos" - Oliver Assayas easily beats specialist action directors.

    Hence the visual style as a sign of auteur is dicey at best.

    Sensibility and messages are two different entities. A good film does not need a message. I understand Andrew Sarris was not meaning "message" in the traditional sense, but an overall vision about life, society, solar system, animals or universe.

    But a filmmaker definitely needs a sensibility.

    Overall the way we classify and understand cinema needs to be reworked. Many of the old masters are not that great when compared to some of the modern masters - I would put Korean Director Chang-dong Lee above many of the older greats. This is not to say the older greats were bad...but to say the modern ones are going a few steps ahead.

    And this can happen only in other art form can accomodate such a contradiction.

    Which takes us to the one hundred rupee cinema really art?

    I would like to belive so. But it is indeed a serious question.

    @ Jabberwock

    I agree...this is a topic which needs a thread of its own. But we may not find such a lets use what we have.

    If today a young Amitabh Bachachan fan watches Anand for the first time, he/her will have a different perception about the film because Bachachan is a big film star. Am I right?

  23. Anon: All I said was that Sarris' circles provide a useful framework. Those circles are not necessarily concentric as many people imagine. In my view they are overlapping circles!

    So a director could be a part of the "Sensibility" circle without necessarily being someone who is particularly proficient or versatile technically. Satyajit Ray and Ingmar Bergman immediately come to mind.

    There are others like George Stevens and George Cukor - thoroughbred professionals with a versatile proven record across genres but without the sophisticated sensibility you associate with the likes of Ray or Bergman.

    And then you've that rare breed - directors who fit into each of the circles comfortably. This stratified zone includes the veritable giants - Hitchcock, Scorsese, Welles, Altman among others.

    By the way, you simplified my take on "Economy of expression" being an unqualified virtue. It does not necessarily always imply the spare visual style of an Ozu. Hitchcock's intense montage in Rear Window when Raymond Burr has a tussle with Stewart is also quite economical in its own way!

  24. Which takes us to the one hundred rupee cinema really art?

    The answer to that is an unqualified yes. People have been ambivalent about regarding cinema as art because it happens to be the most commercial and the most accessible of all art forms. That doesn't sit well with the intellectuals you see, as many of them believe commerce and art are unlikely bedfellows.

    Even the critics in the film establishment are ambivalent about cinema's status. David Thomson wondered in his book whether the unsophisticated and arriviste Chaplin and Griffith are indeed worthy of comparison with their contemporaries - Henry James and Theodore Drieser!

    Hence there's this tendency to associate high art in the cinema with directors who are commercially not as successful - like Welles or Keaton, while being condescending towards their more successful colleagues.

    Citizen Kane is no doubt a great film. But to my mind, the Oscar winner of that year - How Green was my Valley is just as special in its own way! Sadly it's forgotten today. Why? Possibly because it was a creation of the commercially successful "establishment" and not an artistic eccentric like Welles.

  25. @ Shrikanth

    The circles need to be concentric. Else Priyadarshan and Subhash Ghai and even Ramsay Brothers will be auteurs. Then the "auteur" theory does not make sense.

    "Thoroughbred Professional" - what does that term denote? Is it someone who comes to the sets dot on time, well dressed, not drunk and has a commanding voice while bellowing "start", "action" and "cut"?

    George Cukor and George Stevens are already forgotten. They might have made good films...thats it. We are talking about great films. The best way to judge a great film maker is to look at their worst films...Hrikesh Mukherjee is a great example...the throughbred professional from India...the one who is kind, liberal to a fault, does not attack kitten, does not molest girls or boys etc. A through gentleman. The Chetan Bhagat of cinema.

    Kurosawa is great...take a look at "High and Low" - one of his unheralded films. The reason "High and Low" is unheralded is simple - that man made far greater films in his career. So a very good film like "High and Low" is not remembered.

    I agree with your definition of "Economy of expression".

  26. George Cukor and George Stevens are already forgotten. They might have made good films...thats it. We are talking about great films

    We are made to have this opinion by the critical establishment that looks down upon "commercial culture".

    George Stevens and Cukor even in their weaker films exhibit a command over mise en scene that is missing in many of Bergman's films. Cary Grant's pleading in front of the judge in Penny Serenade or Katherine Hepburn hosting her beau to a dinner in Alice Adams are equal to anything I've seen in the art classics of a Ray or a Bergman!

    Kurosawa's Rashomon in my book is a rather clumsy film whose reputation precedes it thus preventing fans from evaluating it in more objective light.

    The idea here is not to disparage the holy cows that are worshipped in film schools. Nevertheless it's important that we develop a more inclusive understanding of art and refuse to get swayed by the critics' jaudinced view of what constitutes "high art".

  27. Please take a look at the state of novel...

    I guess a similar argument can be made about films and filmmakers. Most of what we herald is mediocre.

    I am not talking about mediocre in the conventional sense - Raj Kumar Hirani will be great/good for Hindi the population of Hindi cinema watchers.

    I am not talking about mediocre in the George Cukor, George Stevens, Hrishikesh Mukherjee sense.

  28. Minor correction to my preceding post - "I am talking about mediocre in the George Cukor, George Stevens sense..."

    I agree with the critical disdain for commercial culture. But it is changing. Even mainstream critics are much more aware of non-mainstream films and vice versa. A good sign are Oscars - the films which are winning now are not traditionally box office hits.

    Every feature film is commercial...a golden rule which critics do not understand.

    I agree with your take on Rashoman...a film I never warmed up to. But filmschool graduates salivate over Tarkovsky, not Kurosawa.

    In the 21st century, a command over faculties like mis-en-scene or montage is a given for any competent director. The guy who made "Tera Naal Love Ho Gaya" can do a competent mis-en-scene". "Shootout at Ghatkopar" will have a competent montage sequence.

    What matters is only what goes in.

    Cinema is at a crossroads. The filmmakers chances of re-inventing in the two hour duration are over. Whatever you think of was already done.

    What a filmmaker can do is "explore themes". And tweak the existing styles making sure you hide the influences of the original.

    Otherwise make the film deeply personal. Then it will be unique. But to make the film deeply personal you need to contemplate, travel, fall in love, kill someone, start or stop a war etc.

    The Israeli film "Lebanon" is the second type - the personal war film. Unique. "Bullhead" - the film which should have won the Best Foreign Picture at Oscars is another example.

  29. Shrikanth, Anon: this is a most interesting discussion, thanks. I'd prefer to stay out of it for now since I'm tremendously pressed for time these days (which also partly explains the sketchiness of the original post). I'll say this though: while I've had several differences of opinion with Shrikanth over the years, on the whole I'm a little more with him on this particular side of the discussion. (Which is not to pick sides or to say that we are even 1 percent of the way to having had a comprehensive discussion on this subject.)

    Btw, completely disagree with the idea that Cukor and Stevens didn't make any great films, or that the modern masters can in some overriding way be rated higher than the older masters. (This isn't a fair or meaningful comparison to begin with. In cinema, as in any other form, what has happened before provides a necessary foundation for subsequent developments, as do of course advances in technology. It's a little like saying that today's tennis players are automatically superior to Bill Tilden, Pancho Gonzales etc.)

    Also, why is "the best way to judge a great filmmaker to look at their worst films"? And even if it was, why would High and Low (a pretty good Kurosawa film) fit in this debate? Try judging Kurosawa by the standards of, say, his adaptation of Dostoevsky's The Idiot and you'd probably have to conclude that he was a mediocre director!

    Speaking of idiots, did I say a few paras up that I was going to stay out of this discussion? Stupid me!

  30. By the way this discussion prompted me to check out this Cukor movie on youtube.

    It Should Happen to you is nobody's idea of great art as far as I know. But it should be. This isn't even one of Cukor's better known movies. Yet it's a remarkably perceptive film full of throwaway insights into human nature. Cukor is magnificent. He elicits one of the great performances of all time from a ridiculously underrated starlet. Never does his style detract from the film's narrative. To my mind, this is one of the great accomplishments of 50s Hollywood. Yet very few have heard of this film. Not even several Hollywood enthusiasts.

    A pity.

  31. In cinema, as in any other form, what has happened before provides a necessary foundation for subsequent developments, as do of course advances in technology. It's a little like saying that today's tennis players are automatically superior to Bill Tilden, Pancho Gonzales etc

    Jai: Very much agree. You're essentially echoing Newton's famous "We all stand on the shoulders of giants" line. But even going beyond that line of argument, it is possible to argue that the best works of Cukor (a supposed journeyman director of yesteryear) stand up well with anything in mainstream modern cinema even without making any allowances for the differences in eras.

    If one has to make allowances then it would mean the director hasn't aged very well. But that definitely isn't the case with the best work of the old masters.

  32. @ Shrikant and Jabberwock...

    A quick addition and lets conclude...

    George Cukor is Hollywood. Thats why we know of him. (I am not implying Hollywood is good or bad - but only as a cultural signifier with a great marketing machine.)

    There are versions of "It could happen to you" in every cinema culture. If you take the last hundred years of Hong Kong films, we will find similar films with perceptions into human nature - here is the brochure to find the Hong Kong versions of Cukor and Stevens -

    About Kurosawa - any filmmaker making 20 or more films will have some real stinkers. Still the stinkers will have a stamp of originality. I have not seen his version of "The Idiot" - so I cannot comment on the film.

    In cinema, as in any other form, what has happened before provides a necessary foundation for subsequent developments, as do of course advances in technology. It's a little like saying that today's tennis players are automatically superior to Bill Tilden, Pancho Gonzales etc.

    I have to disagree with the analogy. If you are considering cinema as an art form, then you have to use painting or music and look at how cinema evolved. Not Tennis.

    Look at Van Gogh and Jackson Pollack, I do not see any difference (I am not talking about their style, but their originality.) For me both belong to the does not matter the former was in 1800's and the later in the recent past.

    But when I look at some of the older greats in cinema and the new masters, I feel many of the older generation is outdated. I feel the modern masters are "way ahead" in every way.

    Cinema is only 100 or more years old - as an art form it is a very young medium. Second, the modern masters I mentioned are not taking the craft further by technological developments or by modern devices - a good example are the films of Chang-dong Lee you will not find any cinematic device which was unavailable to a filmmaker in the 1950's. I do not even remember a "dissolve" in his films.

    More important...consider some of the beautiful Iranian films from the 80's onwards. From a personal experience of interacting with some of the filmmakers, I know they do not "watch films", as it may corrupt their vision. This list includes many of the modern Iranian greats.

    I would consider this as a silly idea as you are missing a lot of beautiful films. But I can see the point.

    How would a "foundation laid by previous films" apply in their case?

    Take the latest Abbas Kiorastami film "Certified Copy" - far more perceptive than anything I have seen till date.

  33. But when I look at some of the older greats in cinema and the new masters, I feel many of the older generation is outdated. I feel the modern masters are "way ahead" in every way

    Don't want to drag on this debate. But one last comment. I haven't watched enough of modern cinema to counter your extremely categorical statement. Nor am I sure if you've watched enough of the "old masters" to say the same.

    But even if I were to assume that you're right about the modern masters being "better", the fact remains -

    The Old masters were commercial film makers. The finest artists in Hollywood between the 20s and 70s enjoyed a mass following (many of them were international icons). So their art was universal in appeal and tangibly influenced many lives. People discuss Psycho and Rebel without a Cause all around the world over 50 years after their release.

    The Modern masters in contrast are practically unknown! The best cinema of today is created outside the commercial establishment. The finest artists no longer have access to the star power which can universalise the appeal of their art. This brings us back to the original subject of the post. By shunning the movie star, the serious "artists" of today have imposed limits on their accessibility.

    You can create the finest art in the world. But it's not going to last if there's no one to behold and remember it.

  34. I haven't watched enough of modern cinema to counter your extremely categorical statement. Nor am I sure if you've watched enough of the "old masters" to say the same.

    I say/write only what I know. I will not make a similar statement about poetry, painting or music. My statement looking "categorical"...any new idea will have the same problem. Plus we need to look beyond the "old is good" nostalgia which clouds the judgment of many.

    The Old masters were commercial film makers.

    I have to disagree. I do not know what is "commercial" or "not commercial". And I don't know how this criteria is valid for a filmmaker other than a direct correlation with his/her bank statement?

    If Hitchcock is remembered, thats not because he was "more commercial" than Cukor or Stevens. 'La Dolce Vita' was a box office hit because of the controversy with Catholic church. I don't think Fellini is a popular name anywhere.

    The general populace will not know the filmmakers. They may know the films. And they will always remember the stars or actors. People remember a Cary Grant...but who remembers who Directed his films? Does anyone remember Terence Young? He was very "commercial"!

    How many fans of "Transformers" will know the name of the Director?

    The Modern masters in contrast are practically unknown!

    This is a very sweeping statement which does not make sense in any form of art. Van Gogh sold only one of his paintings in his life time. That does not diminish his worth.

    The modern masters will remain unknown as long as you shut your eyes and ears to anything other than the black and white world.

    And we are living in an age where a Chang-dong Lee is available at our fingertips...but the onus is on us to look.

    You can create the finest art in the world. But it's not going to last if there's no one to behold and remember it.

    I agree wholeheartedly.

  35. Anon: Not sure if I'm understood right.

    When I talked about the Old masters being commercial film makers, I was referring to them being a part of the Hollywood establishment often working under severe constraints imposed by the producers, financiers and the moral police. They inhabited the real world of commerce.

    An Abbas Kiarostami is not nearly subject to as many commercial pressures.

    Also when I talked about the "modern masters being unknown", I was making a relative statement. The best cinema of today no longer comes out of Hollywood. The commercial establishment today targets the teen market and the average output is largely forgettable. Cinema of artistic worth emanates from places like Iran or East Asia, many of whose directors are followed mainly by film buffs outside their respective countries and NOT by the mass audience. Therein lies the difference between old masters like Ford and Hawks and the "modern masters" with more limited appeal.

  36. I had that nagging doubt about Dabangg. The scene where the Dad kills himself was really off key.

    While watching it on TV at home, one of the family members who is usually not a critical viewer claimed 'Ye samajh mein nahi aya'. Why the heck did he have to kill himself in order to get his daughter married. There was a veneer of logic but it was really flimsy.