Hindi Film 101: The Job of a Director, Hollywood versus India

I just reviewed Junglee, one of the few Indian movies directed by an American which I can still legitimately call “Indian”. And in that review, I started talking about what is and is not universal in the job of a director, and then I realized I really should make this a 101.

Non-usual Disclaimer: I am not trained in the mechanics of making a movie, I have never even been on a film set, the specifics are NOT my area of expertise. But I am going to try to talk in generalities instead.

When film started in America, there were no stars. Like, the names of actors were literally not even published. The idea was that you would go see a movie because it was a movie, who cares who is in it. The end result was based on a title and a poster, and maybe some interesting visuals that would start word of mouth, that is what would drive in the audience.

To create that end result, a talented “director” was required. Again, we are talking super early, like before 1910. The ability to understand the functioning of film equipment without breaking it, and to do the mental flip to see how those functions could be used to make an interesting movie, was very rare. It was that ability that was valuable, that people sought out. No one even considered that the dumb mindless humans in front of the camera might be valuable too. Like, if you go to see a magic show, the magician is the star, his “beautiful assistant” doesn’t even get billing. In the case of early film, even the director didn’t necessarily get billing, but behind the scenes he was the one people knew and cared about.

Image result for mary pickford young"
Mary Pickford was a really really awesome business woman and producer, but of course all anyone remembers is her pretty hair

It was Mary Pickford who changed this. She worked for a film company called Biograph, was one of two young women (the other being Florence Lawrence) who they regularly used as, well, human props in their films. She was a decent human prop so they used her a lot, and then discovered that the public and theater owners and stuff had started calling her “the Biograph Girl”. No one even knew her name because Biograph had never thought it was worth publicizing, but they were recognizing her face as someone who showed up in the movies from Biograph over and over again and they liked her and would come into the movies to see her. So, okay, following the lead of the audience the film studios started promoting their “stars”.

It sounds silly that studios had never considered the actors as important before, obviously it is their faces the audience is seeing more than anything else so naturally they will build a bond. But when you are actually making a film, the actors are such a tiny part of it that it feels crazy to think they could end up being important. Especially in that era. If you are doing something like filming a comic sequence where a bunch of people end up trapped in a room, you need the cameraman to keep cranking his camera at the right speed (back in the day that was part of their job, to crank at a regular rhythm or to speed up or slow down as the director directed), you need the light guys to have all the lights going just right so the camera can see and without the bulbs exploding, you need your set people to have built (or stolen) the right kind of things, and you need a director to shout directions and keep people from running into each other. And then you can literally pull in any random person from off the street and put them in a maid’s costume or a butler’s outfit and tell them to walk from point A to point B. Why in the world would you bother to learn the name of your random “walk from here to here” person versus the name of the guy who can crank a camera at alternate speeds at will?

But the audience is king, it is there willingness to buy tickets that pays for everything, so once it was clear that they were building a bond with the people they actual saw onscreen, Hollywood veered towards promoting those people and making them famous. But, and here is the key, behind the scenes they still had absolutely no respect for them. In the old studio system days, an actor was treated like a piece of equipment. You were under contract to the studio, they put you in a room with experts who dressed you and made you up and gave you a new name, then they sent you out onto whatever film set they chose and the director told you to walk from here to here, you did it, they took your photo, you became famous, and the next day you were shuttled to another film set where another director told you to walk from here to here.

Image result for katherine hepburn"
Katherine Hepburn was another famous star, who rebelled against the studio, ended up buying and promoting her own script when the studio wasn’t giving her what she wanted

Actors started rebelling almost immediately, United Artists was founded in 1919 by Mary Pickford (first movie star ever!) and her husband Douglas Fairbanks, along with DW Griffith (the first superstar director, who was also smart enough to appreciate his actors) and Charlie Chaplin (an actor smart enough tot urn his own director). This let the actors have the same power as any other artist to pick their projects and be respected. But that was a solution that only worked because Pickford and Fairbanks were SOOOOO big. For other actors, it was a matter of being under contract and fighting to break it. Going on strike and just refusing to work on films they didn’t want, or finding their own projects and begging the studio to make them, or simply playing the game and making nice and maneuvering for what they wanted. And this is how it was from the 1920s until the death of the studio system as it was in the 1960s.

This is a story film history tells constantly, because even film historians are sucked in to caring more about actors than the other artists. But it’s the other story I want to focus on. While actors were suffering and had no control, directors still had a remarkable amount of power. They were studio contract employees too, but studios were willing to listen to them, give them the projects they liked, and let them run their sets their way. It was gendered, the biggest actors tended to be split 50/50 male and female while the directors were almost always male. But it also just went back to the way film in America had always been, the person running the set was the person with the job title of “director” while the person following orders mindlessly was the one with the job title of “actor”.

Image result for marlene dietrich josef von sternberg"
This is how you get people like Dietrich who had her look completely controlled by her directors, to the degree of having teeth removed to give herself high cheekbones

Now, let us jump to India! By the time Indian film started in 1913, the “star system” was already the norm for film. So they were coming in with that established. Maybe because of that understanding, that the stars were the people the audience cared about, the early studio owners were both directors AND actors. The acting still wasn’t considered as important, more just an add on to their directing, but they knew that keeping control of that aspect was part of keeping control of the films as a whole. Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani at Bombay Talkies, PC Barua at New Theatres, even Dadasaheb Phalke and his family, they combined directing and producing and acting all in one person. This is all pre-Independence, when funding was regulated and hard to find and film releases of Indian films had to fight for space with British movies brought in by the colonizers.

Everything changed in 1947 with Independence. The new Indian government put in place highly restrictive import-export laws. They weren’t aimed at film, the new Indian government didn’t think that much about film one way or the other, but they had an effect anyway. Since outside movies (just like outside, say, shoes) were suddenly highly regulated there was a massive space in the market for locally made products (which is what was intended to happen with, for instance, shoes). Let’s go back to those shoes for a second. What happens if I am a fairly wealthy Bombay merchant who loves my western style shoes that I have been wearing for 20 years and suddenly they are not available through my regular store because it is illegal to import them? Well, I can follow the laws and wear Indian made shoes that I have never worn before in my life, or I can ask around and find out if maybe there is a slightly illegal source for the shoes I love. Most people chose the second choice. For shoes, alcohol, radios, food, everything that was suddenly highly regulated. Especially in Bombay where the wealthiest most Westernized folks lived, and the port that brought ships from Europe every day was right there. Everyone in Bombay got their nice illegal important goods, and a very few people in Bombay suddenly had a ton of money they couldn’t really explain to the tax authorities. Gee, what industry is only loosely regulated, based in Bombay, and so desperate for money they won’t ask a lot of questions? FILM!

Starting in the late 40s, “Black” money started just pouring into the film industry. Folks were looking for a quick profit (or “profit” since it was partially money laundering) and didn’t care much about building long term talent or structure. The fastest way to get a profit was by giving money directly to the stars who would attract the audience and drive ticket sales. All logic says this is a terrible idea because, truly, actors are just not that important on a film set. It would be like giving a taxi driver the keys to his own car company. He just knows how to drive the car, he doesn’t know how to design a car, fund a car, hire employees, and so on and so forth. But the funny thing is, in India, the actors rose to the occasion.

Image result for raj kapoor dev anand and dilip kumar"
These three, all big stars, all turned producer very young and helped control and create the film industry

Each industry developed slightly differently from this point, but I can talk about Bombay in particular. Let’s look at Raj Kapoor, because he is the most important man in Hindi film history. He wanted to be a director/producer before he wanted to be an actor. In fact he started working as an actor in order to get the street cred to be a producer. His first film was a modest hit, and he started shopping around a script right away. Finally got backing and convinced a big name actress (Nargis) to join his script, and found a director. The film was a hit, he leveraged that for his next movie, which became a record breaking unprecedented biggest hit in the history of Indian film up to that time. From then on, Raj was golden. He became a star, writer, producer, and director all in one person. And he set the standard. There truly is not another star of his caliber who is also a producer/director of his caliber because he is in comparable. But every star of his caliber also had some basic understanding of the entire function of a film set and the film industry. Star to producer became the expected career track, and on a film set it was understood that the star (not the director) was the most knowledgeable person there.

Okay, let’s back up and talk about actual roles on a film set. Film is a complex combination of art and craft. From the “art” side, there is the writer and actors. And on the “craft” side, there are the folks who move heavy lights and big camera equipment, and sew up dozens of costumes in record time. The director is special because they are the one person who serves as a bridge between the art and craft side of things. If the writer writes a scene of terrible sorrow, it is up to the director to understand that mood and then turn around and translate it to specific orders for the technical crew. And on the other side, if the technicians tell him that the camera is broken and can’t move today, it is up to the director to explain to the actors that they have to do their death scene standing up because that’s the only way the camera will work today. India or America, that is the basic job of the director.

Image result for yash chopra on set"

But there is another part of it, the leadership role. In America, the understanding is that a director is like the captain of the ship, his word is law and any disagreement is anarchy. In the best possible world, this is a good thing. A film set is a constant tug of war between art, craft, and commerce, and someone is always going to be unhappy. As a manager, a director is the person who balances all those needs and gets his crew to work for him anyway. For the American system to work, most of the time the director is kind of helicoptered in after the whole film is already put together. The script is in place, the stars are in place, the studio has agreed to a budget, and then you hire the director and say “here is the job, clearly defined, now you go out and implement it”. The director has no particular dog in the fight, he is looking at the film as a whole. In Hollywood it is often the “producer” who cares the most. They are the person who finds the script, finds the star, finds the backing, and really cares about the project, the director comes later. Or it is an agent who acts as matchmaker between a project and an actor, but in that case they are done once the contracts are signed while it is the producer who takes over and brings it forward. But even in that case, once the producer has brought everything through, the hand it off to the director for the final touches and actual filming and step back. The director must have full and total control of their film set, their primary role is actual managerial and not artistic.

In Hollywood, once the film is handed off to the director, there is almost no check on their power. Which famously leads to massive MASSIVE abuses. Encouraged by the fact that directors are considered by the awards committees and so on as artists first rather than managers. So you have someone like David O. Russell constantly getting jobs and winning award after award, while if he were managing a McDonalds (for instance) he would have been fired in a week for HR complaints and probably cost the company money in lawsuits. Often it seems like the most famous directors are also the worst managers, but correlation is not causation. I think it is more that you have to be extremely talented for people to forgive that level of abuse. There are also brilliant directors who are decent people, like the Coen Brothers. Or moderately talented directors who keep getting jobs because they are such extremely good managers, like Jon Favrou. This is also, of course, why so many actors say they “really want to direct”. It’s because they are natural managers, they want to walk on set and be the person everyone looks to, help them, answer questions, keep the needs met and managed, and so on.

Now, let’s go back to India! On a Hindi film set, the job of the director is the same in that they are the one who “directs” everything that is happening, tells a camera when to move and an actor what to say and so on. But they are NOT the set manager. And they are NOT the objective outsider helicoptered in at the last minute. That is the Stars job.

Image result for aamir khan on set"
See Aamir telling people what to do, while Kareena just shows up and does her job? “Star” versus “Actor”

Since Raj Kapoor, director/producer became the norm. It is the director who finds (or writes) the script, the one who spends years putting together the whole film, the one who cares desperately about it. At the last minute, he brings in a “star” to lead the film. And then the director steps back, it is the stars job to bring the film on home, to make sure the needs of art, commerce, and technology are all met on set, to make sure the film completes on time and on budget. If a producer/director says “I love this scene in the script, it is beautiful and original and makes me cry”, it is the star’s job to say “I’m sorry, we aren’t doing it. It’s too dangerous, it’s too complicated, and it’s too expensive. Plus, my fans will hate it and won’t buy tickets”. They are the “buck stops here” person, NOT the director.

I’m talking in generalities of course. It varies a bit film to film, most notably whether or not the film even has a “star” versus just a lead actor with no experience. But the basic job description, in India, is that the director directs the mechanics of the film but a Star is the manager of the set. Part of this is also the job description of “Star”. An actor is someone who knows their lines and shows up on time and does their job. A “Star” is someone who has put in their time to learn everything about the film industry from how a camera works to how to launch a PR campaign, who shows up on set every day whether or not they have lines, who sat in on the initial script readings and music settings, who had input on who to hire for every position on set, and who now hosts the cast party and says “hi” to everyone from the lighting boys to the producer, who keeps it running smoothly.

That is the biggest difference between an Indian film set and an American one, everything else is semantics. And it is also the smallest difference. Film is a temp job kind of industry. If you can go with the flow job by job, you will be fine. If I am an American director hired for an Indian film and I show up for the first meeting and the lead actor is already there, and giving really smart intelligent suggestions, and everyone in the room is deferring to him instead of me, I know that for this job the lead actor is going to be in charge and I need to be okay with that and just do my bit. If I am an Indian movie Star and I show up for a job in America and at the first meeting I realize the director and writer have already met without me, and everyone is deferring to the director over me, then I know that for this job the director is in charge and I need to shut up and follow orders. This is why Anil Kapoor can easily transition to Hollywood (because he is a nice humble go with the flow guy), and why a lot of lower level Hollywood technicians can work in Indian film (because they just show up and go “oh, my boss on this job is the Star instead of the Director? Whatever”).

Anyway, that’s what I’ve got! There’s so much I haven’t covered here, and don’t even know, leap off from my starting point in the comments and let’s keep talking about this.

20 thoughts on “Hindi Film 101: The Job of a Director, Hollywood versus India

  1. So I guess this is why the Khans have been the top dogs for so long and other stars don’t really compete with them in a meaningful way even if they have films that outperform their films in a given year. That stature of being the person who everyone look to in order to get the film done. It seems like Akshay is there now though I don’t hear the deference to Akshay that the Khans get. And it’s why poor dumb Hrithik will never quite be on that level.

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    • It’s not just the Khans, but it’s also (I think) a status you legitimately have to earn. Aamir was running his sets by the late 90s, everyone knew that. But that was also 10 years into his career. Ditto Salman. It took SRK slightly longer, but his career also started later. Ajay, Akshay, John Abraham, Prithviraj down south, they are all doing it. Shahid Kapoor, at least recently, Abhishek Bachchan even. Some director mentioned how helpful Abhishek was on a recent film, coordinating the crowd scenes. Varun and Ranveer are actively working towards it, like Varun has started sitting in on music sessions for his films because he needs to learn that piece if he wants to run a set, and Ranveer works super close with his directors already as far back as script development stage. And Ranbir totally failed at that piece, that’s why his movies are such disasters (I think), he is just not capable of steering the ship. A new actor would have to defer to his directors, but once you are established and a few years into your career, you are expected to know all these things and to have put in the time to learn them. It’s also why most new actors came out of working as an AD, not from an acting school.

      Hrithik does it too, just in his own Hrithik way (I think). I mean, he’s real real dumb. But if you have an HR issue on set, or a family emergency, or just think the director is asking for something you can’t do, it is Hrithik you would go to. That’s part of what came up with his Kangana interview, he was trying to explain that staying in touch with her while she prepped for the role and being nice to her on set was part of his job as the star, to keep everyone involved happy and taken care of. Heck, he made the call to suspend filming on Super 30 and he made the call to start it up again.

      On Sun, Jan 19, 2020 at 8:58 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Is Hrithik really that dumb? I know he isn’t good in interviews, but are there some stories I’m missing about his stupidity? Not everyone can be as witty and charming as SRK.

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        • I suppose he could be a genius and we just don’t see it from interviews. But he comes off as not just bad with words, but as kind of a shallow thinker. Lots of repetition of trite phrases as though he thinks they are deep.

          He’s an interesting guy, because his dancing is amazing, and his occasional performance is amazing also. So I don’t want to untalented or unskilled or anything. But not a deep thinker.

          On Mon, Jan 20, 2020 at 12:07 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • Well, i disagree. His stammering and him being shy and awkward can create that impression. He is not very articulate and doesnt have the social intelligence to see that not everyone has the philosophical disposition that he has.
            But actually if you look at the things he is actually saying they make a lot of sense if you try to understand it, i know that because i have been a huge fan of his since i was a young boy and his interviews and his “phiosophical ramblings” helped me through my difficult teenage years , i connected with what he used to say.
            I dont think he will be able to contribute a lot to the discussions about political or the country’s economy but he knows the human conition, pain, suffering, love, humiliation, kindness, cruelty, willpower all of that, he knows how to get through it. Probably because of his own experiences he has a tendency to look at everything from that lens which makes people who want entertainment or “juicy gossip” from celebrity interviews think he is being too abstract, shallow or fake but its actually them who cant think deeply enough to comprehend what he is saying.
            So to conclude, ye he might be “dumb” is some ways but he is also very very deep isn some ways which is better than most people.

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  2. I think it’s also why the real top actors like the Khans have zero interest in working in Hollywood. The level of power and control they have is something HW would never understand. They wouldn’t be able to give that up and go dance to someone else’s tunes. We see all the top actresses trying to transition to other industries but none of the top actors are even a little interested.

    I know Aamir and Hrithik both got Hollywood agents at one point but they must have realized it’s not right for them and nothing came of it. SRK and Salman were always adamantly against it. On the other hand, guys like Rajkumar Rao or Irfan Khan are perfectly happy working outside BW.

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    • Yes, absolutely. It would have to be such an amazing director, and script, and role, that they are willing to take a step back and just trust others to carry the film through. I think all the Khans have, occasionally, reached that place with an Indian project (like I suspect Shahrukh gave up huge amounts of control for Dear Zindagi). But to trust an outside director that much, and be offered a role that good outside of India, is extraordinarily unlikely. Which is what we have talked about before, Shahrukh has always honestly said he would take a project if one good enough were offered him. I think the other top actors feel the same. Oh! That’s why Amitabh did The Great Gatsby! He respected the director, he knew it was a really important character and good scene, it was worth the risk of letting go.

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    • I read it as part of the films conscious updating, like using modern hip-hop instead of Jazz because that would have been the same thing in the 20s. You could argue that South Asians are the new like-us-but-not-quite immigrant community. Or, just color blind casting of the best possible person for the role.

      On Mon, Jan 20, 2020 at 10:47 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. Malaylam industry has mostly followed the lead of the director as the captain of the ship. There was a change in the star assuming control in early 2000s which is also known as the terrible decade. The tide has changed again and the control is back to the directors wherever there’s an acclaimed movie. Mammotty & Mohanlal are churning out star vehicles even now but whenever they have turned the control over to capable directors, the results have been brilliant. Unda & Lucifer are examples. Raajamouli’s movies work because he is the leader ,no matter who the star is & stars will give anything to work with him. So I prefer movies where director assumes control. I find it interesting that Prithviraj was trusted by Mohanlal to great results but Prithviraj’s own movies with other directors(with the exception of Anjali Menon)ends up being half baked cos he can’t let go of the control.

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    • Would I be right that some of the stars in the Malayalam industry who might be considered big enough to take control of movies, instead use their powers to push forward projects that wouldn’t happen otherwise? So, in a greater sense, Peranbu (sp?) only happens because Mammootty signed on. Even though the last big active thing he did was signing on and everything else was in the hands of the director. Does that make sense?

      I think Dilip Kumar was that kind of an actor back in the day. Amazing dedicated acting talent, but a lot of it was picking the right script/director and lending them the Dilip Kumar name to get their project made.

      On Mon, Jan 20, 2020 at 10:53 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Okay,so most Malaylam actors lend their weight to the projects by just signing it which gives the (mostly)new directors confidence. But they don’t interfere in the creative process or the managerial process for which there are dedicated production control teams. The face of the known actors draw the crowds on opening days. Where the actors are unknown,there will be some brand directors or producers backing the project which is good enf to draw the Malayali crowd.
        Mammooty in Peranbu is a unique case cos that movie needed an actor of that caliber and I guess Mammotty is open to doing non-heroic roles outside Malayalam. I think he has decided that while his Malayali fans like him in big star roles in Malayalam(unless it’s a capable director like that of Unda’s), the same fans are okay seeing him in performance oriented roles in Tamil & Telugu. Complicated , but smart.

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        • So in the industry as a whole, the actors still control everything, only through picking projects. And then once they are on set, they take a step back. Fair to say?

          On Tue, Jan 21, 2020 at 12:54 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • With newbie directors,yes. But not with established directors & producers like Aashiq Abu,Dileesh Pothan or Rajiv Ravi. And that holds true in other industries too rt? Mani Ratnam, Vetrimaaran etc who pick their actors,not the other way round. I guess you can say there are star directors too. And didn’t Yash Chopra have the practice of paying less than market rate for any actors in his movies including SRK? So there are powerful producers & directors in Hindi who could override the stars. Not sure if there’s anyone still,maybe KJo ,Aditya Chopra,Anurag Kashyap etc?

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          • On a related note,the reason why the Salman-Sanjay Bansali project fell off was because of ego clashes rt? As in they both wanted to call the shots & Salman wanted to cast his favorites but Bansali refused. I guess when Aamir or Salman collaborates with YRF, some strict terms and conditions are put that makes it a YRF project first. So that way there is at least one production house that still overrides the Khans.

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          • The little story I remember is that YRF had a strict “no vanity vans on studio lot” rule. Which says something right there, they don’t want the stars to be able to escape and hide away from the rest of the human people, and they can enforce such a policy. But they broke that for Ek Tha Tiger because Salman refused to give up his van. That’s a story that leaked, I am sure there were other little compromises so Salman still felt like he was in charge, and YRF got him to do what they needed him to do.

            On Tue, Jan 21, 2020 at 8:42 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • Well, it depends on what you mean by “override”. Shahrukh worked for Yashji and did what ever because he loved him, but Aamir and Salman both had tussles when they were in YRF movies because they aren’t used following orders. Anurag works a lot with newcomers because he doesn’t want to deal with starry tantrums (I suspect) and Ratnam has had last minute casting changes, I suspect for similar stars just not ready to follow orders issues. I can’t think of a director that has a universal “anyone would work with him because he is such a super director” reputation. More of a “he actually wants control on set and stars sometimes can and sometimes can’t handle that” reputation. Like Bhansali and Salman splitting up.

            I guess it’s that even with the top director, there is still an assumption of a negotiation? No director just assumes that a top star will follow his orders, they work it out in advance and are pleasantly surprised when it happens. Which is maybe less true in Malayalam cinema, or the discussion in advance is simpler and stars are more likely to say “sure, I’ll bow to your wishes.”?

            On Tue, Jan 21, 2020 at 7:46 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • I assume any director with the best interests for his movies as the primary goal, will be open to suggestions from anyone with a worthwhile input & ready for negotiations. Haven’t heard any of the Malayali directors having a dictator,too crazy to put up with reputation

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