Survival of the fittest

Tags: Films

It’s often negotiating skills, more than just talent, that make for a successful director

Survival of the fittest
IT’S A DUD: A still from Debaloy Dey’s Chandramukhi
The year was 1991. Shah Rukh Khan was yet to make his debut; Laxmikant Pyarelel still ruled the roost; Salman Khan had just emerged as the nation’s latest heartthrob after Maine Pyar Kiya and Sridevi was queen of the box office. The stars in the celestial sphere orchestrated to cast the Southern siren with the young brat who till recently had been an assistant to director Shekhar Kapoor. Salman insisted that the project be helmed by a friend of his from Kapoor’s stable of assistant directors — a certain Debaloy Dey, who had just passed out from the premier film school with an impressive diploma film.

It was a dream debut for any aspiring filmmaker, to work with the hottest stars of the day. The news electrified students at his alma mater, FTII, as well as the industry where filmmakers sometimes struggled for decades for that one big break.

The shooting started but soon got embroiled in a series of unfortunate accidents and undue interferences from the stars. The debutant director lost control over the project and when Chandramukhi finally released, it turned out to be a damp squib. That was the last Debaloy Dey was heard of.

“Cinema does not allow for failures,” Mahesh Elkunchwar, the Marathi playwright had declared at a screenplay writing seminar in Pune a few years ago. He himself had burnt his fingers with Ketan Mehta’s Holi which bore no resemblance to the script he had written and had vowed that he would never work in films again, even if he was paid a million dollars. Serious theatre, unlike cinema, he said, valued a failed playwright and his hunger, but with films, nothing succeeds like success.

Film, unlike writing a novel or painting, involves a team comprising hundreds of people and costs huge money. That’s the bottom line, period. And the people putting their money want their money back, even if it does not make a mark in the box office. The priorities of a director and a producer are entirely different. The director pursues a vision, but for the producer, it is a project like any other that has to generate profits. If it doesn’t, they wouldn’t hesitate to work with another director for the next project, hoping he would compensate for the loss of the previous one.

Throughout the history of cinema all over the world, the conflict between the director and the producer has been the stuff of legend. Hollywood has always been quick to import talents from Europe whenever any filmmaker made a mark there. Many adjusted to the rigid system and churned out both commercially and critically successful films while many others, like the French master Jean Renoir failed miserably and went back. Satyajit Ray refused an offer from David O Selznick because he realised that he could never fit into the system.

The status of a director in such a system is best reflected by an anecdote involving the legendary and tyrannical Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures. When a journalist, in the course of an interview with Cohn, referred to the director who made the film that he had just produced, the patriarch interrupted him and thundered, “It’s I who made the film, he only directed it!”

The names of the directors that we are familiar with constitute just the tip of the iceberg, the number of unfortunate ones that constitute the bulk lies below the surface. That’s not always a reflection of their lack of talent, because market forces and unforeseen circumstances could ruin a talented director as well. It is not enough for a director to negotiate his craft but also the forces that are inimical to his vision. It’s only the tough — and the lucky ones, who survive. Seldom one would come across an eccentric director; eccentricity is a prerogative of the poet and the philosopher. The ailment that one associates with a filmmaker is hypertension. The French director Claude Lelouch, perhaps, encapsulates it best: “Filmmaking is like spermatozoa. Only one in a million makes it.”

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