I finally found out how to spell “coup d’etat”! Thanks to a comment, because spellcheck and google certainly weren’t going to help me. As my German teacher used to tell me, French is a silly language where nothing is spelled the way it sounds. To the degree that I can’t even get close enough to google it.
Usual Disclaimer: I have no special knowledge or connection to the Indian film industries, this is just how it appears to me from the outside based on publicly available information.
Years ago, before I found Indian film, I was really into American popular music history. I later realized it was the same thing that drove me to film, I was interested in how multiple artists came together to create an artwork that resonated with the people. So, the hidden political messages in songs, the way artists worked to bring them out or hide them, the way different artists interpreted different things. Part of this interest was related to thinking about massive social/political movements and how they moved through society. Part of it was interest in watching how people interact with each other on a one to one basis. I am still interested in both those things, and the information I learned from liner notes of CDs helps me interpret the information I learn from blind items in magazines.
One of the things that interested me then and which I am thinking about now was the difference between singers who would be treated as equals with the musicians and even the composers, versus one’s who weren’t. Sarah Vaughan, for instance, would slightly change the lyrics as she chose while recording, and also add in harmonics that weren’t in the arrangement using her voice. And no one ever complained about it or objected, because her talent gave her that right. But most other singers, if they had tried that, the producer of the album would have come down on them, forced them to sing the arrangement as written.
It wasn’t something in Vaughan’s contract, it wasn’t something she announced she was going to do one day, it was just that the way she thought about music and thought about her voice was like another musician using an instrument. She spoke up and people respected her, because that is how jazz works, the basic arrangement is developed and improved through collaboration and improvisation. She didn’t have to fight for that right, when she was working with equally talented musicians they recognized that she was improving what they did and let her go. But other singers would have been stopped and forced back, their voice was simply the instrument the composer and/or arranger was using, they were there to do their job as best they could and not step outside those bounds.
Arguably, Vaughan didn’t even have the best instrument, there were other singers with purer voices, perfectly able to stay on key, more practiced and trained, and so on and so forth. But it was what Vaughan did with her voice that made her the best. The intelligence guiding it, not just the voice itself. That’s what made her an equal to the others in the room, that they saw and recognizer her mind and understanding of the music, not just the sounds she could make.
And there was a flipside to this. Sarah Vaughan was the celebrity in the room, but she respected her session musicians, knowing they had as much a right to join this discussion as she did. She didn’t force herself in, but she also didn’t force anyone else out. They were all equals together, working to create the best possible piece of art.
(Obviously, this isn’t Sarah Vaughan, this is Judy Garland. But it’s the same thing I’m talking about, the musicians are all equals, working together, and the way she is using her voice gives her a right to be there, more than just as a singer but as a fellow musician. Also, I love this sequence. George Cukor, also known for respecting and working with his stars, from Katherine Hepburn to Judy Garland)
The same thing seems true, to me, about actors in the Indian film industries. There are two kinds, those who have the pure raw talent that allows them to perfectly perform the visions of others. And those who have less talent, but a greater intellectual understanding which allows them to work as equals on refining the visions of others. And that second kind, behind closed doors, they respected the opinions of others, and listened to them, even if they were more famous and powerful outside of this world.
Let me back up and look at where this came from historically. In the very early years, it was so hard to get a film off the ground (because of the colonial authorities), that it was easiest if the producer/director was also the star. Devika Rani, PC Barua, they would fit in this category. After those early years, it switched to the producer/director and star being in two people, but ideally two closely connected people. Stardom had become valuable and coveted, the star needed someone who’s intelligence would guide them into how to stay on top, and the producer still needed a star to help make sure their film was made. And the system worked best if the star knew enough to know what they didn’t know. That is, knew enough about the whole filmmaking process to understand that the money person was doing financial hijinks they couldn’t possibly follow, the director had a grand vision for the story that they couldn’t conceive of, and so on.
Dilip Kumar, for instance, talked about how he was put on an apprenticeship at Bombay Talkies by Devika Rani before he ever stepped in front of the camera. He saw what the writers did and the directors, and he understood how he fit in. In later films, he would suggest an idea or help with the dialogue for a particular love scene he was playing. He would do his own massive research to get into the mind of his character. And directors accepted and expected that, it was a rare director who objected to his interference. Meanwhile Dilip himself was painfully clear in every interview through today that he was merely an actor in those films, he may have contributed an idea or a line here and there, but that was merely part of his job as an actor.
(Dilip felt K. Asif had a weak grasp of his characters. So he researched Prince Salim, the historical figure, all on his own, came up with his own particular walk and mannerisms for the role, and generally created the character. But that was his job as an actor, he never would have broken out of his borders and taken the camera away from Asif and tried to direct the film)
Dilip and other stars are far more likely to transition from actor to producer, than to director. “Producer” means they are aware their talent lies within a particular area, but also aware that their intelligence gives them a sense of the broader challenges of a film and this is a status that allows them to contribute to the discussion. It puts them in the room where artistic collaboration is happening before the cameras turn on, let’s them make sure the movie they are acting in has the funding it needs and the director’s vision is honed to the fine point so that they can act as best they can. Until they finally reach the point of being so sophisticated in their understanding that they can help produce movies that don’t even involve them, Shahrukh and Ittfaq, Aamir and Peepli Live.
It’s not a perfect translation industry to industry and person to person. For instance, in Malayalam films it might be directors or writers like Lal Jose, who went from writing and directing to producing and distributing as he more fully came to understand the system and what films he should be supporting. In Tamil, there’s K Balachander who produced dozens of movies, some he directed and some he didn’t.
But what I find interesting is that it is rare to find an artist fully shifting art forms. Especially later in their career. Balachander and Lal moved between writing and directing early on (and those are two complimentary passions anyway). Dilip Kumar and Savitri both had minimal careers as directors, but their primary identity remained as an actor.
There are few shining stars who excelled equally in all fields. Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt leap to mind. But their talents are rare and not to be expected. Far more common is an artist who fully understands one particular area where their own talents lie, and prefers to work in collaboration and support of other artists in crafting a shared vision. Going back to my original analogy, it’s like jazz. The great artists are the ones who enjoy working with others, honing their talents as a group in conversation with each other. Or there are some who prefer to work alone, and that is fine too, accept your place in the scheme of things and remove yourself from those discussions, be ready to provide your talents where they are needed and leave the rest to others.
(Amitabh tends to prefer to focus on acting on set, according to most accounts. He will turn in a perfect brilliant performance every time, but he won’t necessarily try to participate in the planning discussions or alter the direction of the film)
So, why is it that I, and others, are so upset by Kangana taking control of her films? First the writing of Simran, and then the directing of Manikarnika? There are really two categories of reasons, the first is the practical social grouping way, and the other is the end result, the art that is created.
If you talk about how social groups work, and people and so on, there is a difference between collaboration and taking control. In Hollywood and other industries, for instance, there are powerful unions that clearly state in their union rules who has what position within a film, what are their rights and responsibilities. If a star is given a writing credit (like Ethan Hawke on the Before Sunrise films for instance) it is something that happens with the approval of all involved and based on very clear frameworks for the various roles that go into making a film. If a star becomes a director, it is because they proved their ability to a degree that allowed them to become a member of the directors guild, and for a studio to agree to sign a contract with them as director for the film that the studio would fund.
(Affleck was brought in to direct Argo after the producers had already purchased the property and found a studio to fund it. Then his name came up, he met with them, discussed the project, and finally was officially attached to it. He didn’t just show up on set one day and say “you know, I think I want to direct”. He did that 15 years earlier, apprenticed, worked hard, directed two other smaller films, then got this one)
But in Indian film and other industries without such powerful unions and clear rules, it is handled through personal understandings. In most films, the decisions are not made by one man, but by a team of artists who all work together. The star, the writer, the director, the choreographer of the song sequences, the composer and lyricist of the songs sometimes as well, there is a give and take and a discussion that is not formalized in credits on the screen.
For another analogy, think about the workings of politics. I grew up in the state capital and everyone in town knew how politics worked. When the cameras were off, people got together in rooms, had meals, talked, worked out deals, made friendships, and in the end a law happened. It wasn’t for public consumption, and that’s why it worked. You could say things behind closed doors that you wouldn’t want your voters to know, sell out a local project for the overall good of the state, admit that you were a little less hard line on a particular issue that your voters might want. Come up with a whole law and then remove your name from it and let someone else be the sponsor. And then when the closed door discussions were over, you had a balanced budget or a new law or something else that was perfect and pretty and no one really cared who got credit for what part of it, it was enough that the law was passed and done.
(Karan helped Adi write the script for DDLJ, it came out in his memoir and Adi didn’t dispute it. But Karan didn’t want credit back then, or really push for credit now. It was enough that the film got made, and Adi’s name was the one that could make that happen.)
And then when I was in high school, we got a new governor who loved the cameras. He put the light on those discussions and (for a while) the public loved him. But the state ceased to function. We didn’t have a budget for the first time ever because the governor kept blowing up the backroom deals, making public things people weren’t expecting to be public. And everyone shut down, was afraid to say anything for fear it would be broadcast to the world. There was no trust any more, no security. And no one could work together, could collaborate and create something, without that trust.
This is something most of us have experienced at some point in life. Something as simple as sending an email to one person and then being shocked to discover it was forwarded to a group. And suddenly you are scared to email anyone ever again, to speak honestly to anyone in this group for fear your one to one comment will become public knowledge. Transparency can shut down creativity, free thinking, experimentation. The end result needs to be public, but how you got there sometimes has to be private.
(Honey Irani, on the other hand, tried to claim credit for the DDLJ script and it was an ugly experience and got her shut out of the Yash Chopra family.)
So, there’s that part of it. When these informal collaborations between everyone involved in a film suddenly have to be listed out and made official with the credits list, everyone shuts down a little bit. A writer might be less likely to take a suggestion if they think it means losing their writing credit. A director might be less likely to open up about their plans for the film if they think those plans will be spoken of outside of the closed room. It becomes an unsafe feeling film set. Those outside are happy, because they feel like they are being invited in to a private space. But those inside are unhappy because their private space is being invaded.
And then there’s the question of what happens to the actual final product. Let’s take, for example, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Karan came up with the story and directed it. But one of the most important scenes, when Shahrukh and Kajol are reunited, Shahrukh suggested that it be silent and he and Kajol worked out how they wanted to play the scene. This came up casually a few times in interviews, it wasn’t a secret, but it also wasn’t something they were talking about while it was happening, that was private information worked out between them on set. And the end result is brilliant, Shahrukh and Kajol got to play a scene that felt true to their characters and the kind of acting relationship they had, and Karan stepped back and trusted them. It’s a far better scene than if Karan had felt the need to protect his authority as director, or Shahrukh and Kajol had felt they had no right to speak up as actors.
Fastforward many years to Kangana on Koffee with Karan, saying that she believes fights on set are a requirement, true artistry only comes out through conflict. But, is that true? It’s not just Karan that likes to build close personal bonds with his artistic collaberators, Shahrukh does as well, and Aamir, even Salman. Rajkumar Hirani too, and Yash Chopra. Really, if you look at the successful artists of Indian film (successful both critically and commercially), most of them are known for forming tight bonds and working closely with a trusted group of collaborators. It’s not about conflict, it’s about trusting each other enough to listen. Amitabh Bachchan suggested the casting of Silsila and Yash Chopra trusted him to make it happen. Rajkumar trusted Sanjay Dutt to finish PK. Aamir Khan trusted Madhavan to be in 3 Idiots. And on and on and on. The final product is better when it is created in an atmosphere of love and trust, instead of competition and suspicion.
So, why is Kangana’s (rumored) coup d’etat of the Manikarnika set so distressing? After all this discussion, I think it breaks down to 4 reasons:
First, because if an artist is truly capable of participating in such high level decisions (not just talented in their particular field but with a larger understanding), it is usually recognized by their fellow artists and handled peacefully with no need for force, or else not recognized and the artist has the grace to realize their limitations and stay with what they do best (Deepika, for instance, is a wonderful actress who has not tried to force herself into any larger role beyond acting). To force your way into the discussion shows that you don’t really have a right to be there.
(Anushka didn’t have to make a fuss or fight to get her place. She earned it and people recognized that)
Second, because it is very difficult for an artist to switch between such demanding disciplines as acting and directing and there is a legitimate doubt of her ability to pull it off, just as there would be of any artist making such a drastic switch. For instance, Aamir directed Tara Zameen Par competently but has made no move towards switching from directing to acting, just as Karan Johar has not tried to follow up his Bombay Velvet role, and Farhan Akhtar gets constant questions about when he is going back to directing (not just from me, from everyone). Better to stay with what you know best and do it the best you can than try to switch.
(Oh Farhan! WRITE DON 3!!!!!)
Third, there is the general unpleasantness of this public discussion of internal workings of filmmaking, inherent in Kangana’s public move on the director’s role just as it was in her public move on the writer’s position. To justify the decision, she has to speak publicly about what happened on set, claiming certain decisions as hers and other decisions as belonging to other people, throwing open the doors on closed door discussions. Will Sonu Sood feel as free to talk with his director about his vision for his character knowing that it resulted in his co-star in his last film revealing those discussions and ridiculing him? Will Krish feel as confident trusting the judgement of his stars knowing that it might ricochet (thank you Meenakshy in comments! You are much better at guessing what I meant than spellcheck was. This is almost reason enough to get married, just to have a human person to ask spelling questions to when I am blogging late at night) back on him?
(Krish has already moved on to another movie, another historical even, and these kinds of discussions are NOT being revealed from that new set)
And fourth, the end result just isn’t as good. No one is willing to take a risk, to be honest in their opinions. Simran was a mess and a flop, because no one was willing to speak up and say “I think this is a better way we should try” knowing that Kangana would then turn around and blast them to the press. There was no trust that what was said behind closed doors would stay behind closed doors, and thus things went unsaid that could have improved the film.
There is one elephant in the room that has to be addressed. Kangana is a woman. And it is hard for a woman to get a place in the room, that’s just a reality of any industry from anywhere. But because its hard doesn’t mean it is impossible. Nargis had a place in the room. So does Vidya Balan now. Ekta Kapoor and Anushka Sharma and Rhea Kapoor and Farah Khan are running the rooms, not just in them. And Devika Rani was doing the same back in the 40s. I guess what is bothering me is the difference between trying to make space for more women to be there (like Farah mentoring her female assistant directors, Ekta producing female lead films, and so on), versus do whatever it takes to make sure you, yourself, get in there. Public comment and discussion can be used as a leverage to get one person into the room. But I am not sure it will necessarily make it so that others find it easier to get in there too.