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 artistry in many genre films — proposed that some directors imposed a unified artistic vision on the movies they helmed, 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, 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 — consequently, 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 oeuvre of a full-blown mainstream director like Manmohan Desai (whose best movies — culminating in Amar Akbar Anthony — were built around the theme of national integration)? And how far does this help to meaningfully assess their work?
But an equally intriguing idea is that in a mainstream movie culture founded on the star system, actors can sometimes be the true auteurs — their personalities shaping not just a film but in some cases an entire filmic movement. The classic example is, of course, Amitabh Bachchan as Vijay, the angry young outsider-vigilante of the 1970s. In Deewaar and Trishul (to name just two key films), 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 films 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 Salim-Javed’s writing in conjunction with the intangible aspects of Bac hchan’s intense personality; the two things came together in a way that worked perfectly for the prevailing social zeitgeist.
Equally, there are cases where a forceful star personality can work against a writer’s vision. Take the policeman Chulbul Pandey played by Salman Khan in the hugely popular Dabangg last year. Dabangg is an intriguingly schizophrenic film: Chulbul is a cartoonish super-hero and his action scenes are like parodies of the dhishoom-dhishoom cinema of an earlier time, revamped for an age of computer effects. But in its quieter scenes (and especially the moments where Salman isn’t winking at the camera), it come across as a grounded, character-driven movie — the sort that might have been categorised as “Middle Cinema” in the 1970s.
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. 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 movie. It’s the sort of back-story that helps explain why unified visions — and evenness of tone — are often hard to find in our mainstream films.
Jai Arjun Singh is a Delhi-based writer