In the last two parts of this essay, Part 1 and Part 2, we discussed the pitfalls of the current understanding of the Auteur Theory and subsequently Karan Johar’s qualifications to belong to it. In this final part, we will use what came before as our grounds to propose a newer model of the Theory.
We saw that while Andrew Sarris’ Notes on the Auteur Theory is the most widely accepted version of the Theory, it has several problems. We also saw that despite it being unbelievable at first mention, on paper, Karan Johar fits snugly into Sarris’ model, in all three criteria. It seems unbelievable because we have been made to either think that only technically adept filmmakers are auteurs, or that Johar is an objectively bad director, neither of which is correct.
Need for a New Theory to Classify Directors
The driving force behind looking for a newer model is to remove the good-bad binary and to make the theory less judgmental of filmmakers. The various criteria however are still valid. They help us consider the various merits filmmakers can have. Some have more than one outlook towards the world and their films. Some have different films at different levels of technical, intellectual, or artistic competence. There is room for all kinds of filmmakers and for all departments.
I disagree with Pauline Kael’s idea of abolishing or dismissing the theory. As with everything that’s imperfect, we should try to evolve the theory instead. Instead of saying there’s no author of a film because the director isn’t the sole visionary on it, we should try to think that there’s room for auteurs, and that they need not only be the directors.
That does not negate what Kael argued. Film work is collaborative. But it can still have the author, the one person who has the most say or influence on the final product.
The music composer, regardless of how inspiring the director was to the score, will almost always get the full credit for music that outlives a film, because that’s their product. The cinematographer will get the credit for a brilliant shot or sequence even if the idea was the director’s because that’s cinematographer’s product. A professional gets credited for their product. The only professionals who can maybe claim authorship of the entire film are the director, the writer, or in rare occasions, the editor, or the cinematographer. Did Salim-Javed invent the masala genre? Or was it Nasir Hussain? Or Manmohan Desai? Who owns the greatness of Citizen Kane – Mankiewicz or Welles? Whose soul, sensibilities, and voice does Kal Ho Na Ho have – Nikhil Advani’s or Karan Johar’s? Would Raging Bull be the film it is without the editing genius of Thelma Schoonmaker? Would Skyfall (2012) be as lauded if it weren’t for Roger Deakin’s camerawork? In all these examples, one side of the ring always has the director in it and the other professional is the other applicant to the position of the author. A film director simply cannot be removed from the contest when it comes to crediting one person with the authorship of a film.
Javed Akhtar (left) and Salim Khan (right); Shyam Aurangabadkar
So, it stands to reason that while each professional can be an auteur in their own field and for their own product, the director does have the final word more often than not, and since their product is the final film, they are the ultimate author for it. All this is not to deny credit to other professionals – the Auteur theory has since been applied to other fields as well, like music and video games.
Besides, when directors have the final say, they may hold as much to lose unfairly as they stand to gain unduly. While they might receive most of credit for work done on a film, they are also the face of failure if the film fails. The Taken films are thrashed because of editing issues, and while the blame lies equally with the stunt team, the editor, and the director, the latter is the one who takes the fall for such decisions. High risk, high reward. With this level of importance, there needs to be a better way to classify and qualify directors than the binary hierarchy of the current Auteur Theory.
The Director Theory
What we have with the current model is good criteria being used in a bad way by layering them on top of each other. This model, in my view, wastes valid criteria by making the theory hierarchical, judgmental, value-based, narrow, and binary, where a director is either an auteur or he is not.
Andrew Sarris's Auteur Theory
However, if we take the same criteria and arrange it as a Venn diagram instead of as concentric circles, we not only eliminate the pitfalls of the theory, but also then have seven instead of three categories that we can qualify directors into.
The new model is illustrated below with a few examples in each of the new categories.
A New Theory and Model to Classify Directors
Two of the three original categories form the main circles for the Venn diagram – the Technicians and the Stylists. In the earlier model, Auteurs were claimed to be the ones whose films have a consistent inner meaning. In the new one, I have reimagined the category as Poets since they propagate their meaning through many of their films. And they need not necessarily be interested in being great technicians or stylists. Instead of having Auteurs at the centre and technicians as directors who are below in rank or value as compared to ones with distinct personal style, this model shows us that all kinds of directors bring something of their own to the table. In the same way, this diagram lets us categorise directors without making value judgements based only on an auteur-non-auteur binary. The entry qualification for the old model was that directors had to be decent or above-average technicians, as that was the outermost circle. In the new one, we could still want a certain calibre as a threshold to obtain a position on the chart. But that quality need not solely be technical. The directors can be average technicians and still be considered an auteur even if they are good stylists, for example, and thus, worthy of being discussed or studied under the theory. The new diagram also lets us include more directors, whose skills may lie in different genres or schools of filmmaking. A great storyteller is just as important to the film culture as a great craftsman.
Which brings us to the last point in favour of this model – the creation of four new categories which did not exist in the Sarris theory – the Craftsman, the Poet, The Artist, and the Generalist. The word ‘auteur’ is thus removed, which does not make the theory reductive and binary anymore.
So, let us revise the three existing criteria before defining the new ones, this time with contemporary mainstream examples.
1. The Technician:
Sarris, in his essay, writes, “A great director has to be at least a good director.” While we can agree with the sentiment, the new model does not make good technicians feel inadequate. Or at least that is the aim. Kenneth Branagh is a fine example of a great technician who can also be a worthy (or even great) director, even though he does not have an immediately recognizable personal style or any consistent inner meaning throughout his filmography. He is known to have starred in and directed a lot of Shakespearean adaptations but does not have a consistent record as a stylist, nor does he convey a worldview or inner meaning that underlines his films. He can be a great studio director for one film, a good storyteller for another. The fact that his latest, Belfast, is creating awards buzz is worth taking a note. Perhaps his return to writing after fifteen years has brought along with it a certain flair which he developed over these years. Time will tell if this continues. But at the moment of writing this article, he is an accomplished technician and not at all being dinged for only being that. Another example is Joe Johnston, the director for Jurassic Park 3, the first Captain America movie, and Jumanji, among others. Mike Newell, who directed Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and Four Weddings and a Funeral is also a good example of a technical director.
It seems like if and when these directors are given good material, they can make really good films. But what they themselves bring to the set is their technical competence. On the home front, we have Shaad Ali (Saathiya, Bunty Aur Babli, Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, Kill Dill, OK Jaanu, Soorma), or Vikas Bahl (Queen, Shaandar, Super 30) as really adept technicians making great films when other elements meet with their area of expertise.
Still from the film ‘Man with a Movie Camera’ (1929); Dir. Dziga Vertov
2. The Poet:
The Poet is what Sarris’ theory originally called the Auteur, because it presumed that a director with a consistent inner meaning would likely have a developed personal style and decent knowlegde of the technique as well. In our model, a Poet can be a director that makes deeply personal films but they need not have technical flair or personal style. A great example of a Poet, is Gulzar, coincidentally a real-life poet himself. He has directed 22 films and while all are known to handle some social issue or tension, or his political or humanistic view, none of them are looked at as technical masterpieces. The common thread in his films is thematic more than audio-visual. A Hollywood example of this is another great writer, Charlie Kaufman. He has directed three films – Synecdoche, New York (2008); Anomalisa (2015); and I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020). These films are easy to gauge because of their themes and stories and not because of a personal directorial style. In fact, Kaufman’s thematic inner meaning/tension is so promiment that it overshadows other directors when they make films from his scripts.
3. The Stylist:
This is the easiest cateory to slot great directors in. A director who has a distinguishable personality that is clear throughout, whose work is recognizably theirs, consistently, whose stamp is all over the aesthetics of the film – visual and auditory, can be described as a Stylist. E.g., symmetry and grandeur are associated with Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Flat, muted palette with a dollhouse/storybook framing is associated with Wes Anderson. But one of the best examples for this category would be David Dhawan. However, it is difficult to find directors like him who have a distinct personal style but no inner meaning or little technical flair. Inder Kumar could count as another. Pure stylists in Hollywood are rare. Even John Woo or Michael Bay, who are infamous for valuing style over substance are really good technicians and cameramen themselves. Hence, this category remains the most barren. David Dhawan and Inder Kumar can provide entertainment to their target audience and for those who wish to do so there is enough merit in simply giving people a great time at the cinemas.
Still from the film ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ (2020); Dir. Charlie Kaufman
The four new categories are formed by the common areas in the Venn diagram, the overlaps of the above three circles.
4. The Craftsman:
Directors who have a distinct style and are technically proficient fall into this category. As shown above, some great examples are J. J. Abrams and Ram Gopal Varma. We can argue that Varma does have a political point of view, but his filmography is so inconsistent in tone and message that it is hard to put that down. Having said that, he has a visually distinct aesthetic and is an expert technician. The same holds true for Abrams. Tom Cruise gave him his first big break in Mission Impossible 3, and since then the infamous lens flare has been a constant, among other things, like his Mystery Box storytelling. Craftsmen have identifiable style – a personal trademark along with proficiency in their technique. Edgar Wright is also a good craftsman – start contrast lighting, polished, non-franchise, visual action comedies being his style. In Bollywood, Prabhudeva, Rohit Shetty, Neeraj Pandey, and RGV are directors whose films are identifiable at first glance (Stylists); and yet they also have command over their technique. Thus, they're Technicians + Stylists.
The Craftsman is often best used by studios to do their bidding. They can do wonders with a great story. But with a bad one, they look the worst, because when their style and technique is used to tell a poor story, it looks much more hollow than when a bad filmmaker tells a bad story.
5. The Artist:
A combination of a Technician and a Poet gets us an Artist. Stanley Kubrick and Shoojit Sircar are in my view good examples of Artists. Both of them have everything except a consisent recognizable style. Sure, there are elements that they repeat in many of their films. But Vicky Donor feels more like a regular Ayushmann film than a Sircar one. These filmmakers can make excellent movies, have a thematic trademark, and not get boxed into an aesthetic.
For them, the material comes before having a personal stamp; and they change their aesthetic to the needs of the story.
6. The Storyteller:
Sooraj Barjatya comes to mind when I think of a Storyteller. As does Rajkumar Hirani. Their films have heart and soul, they project their worldview, and many of their films have a similar palette. These filmmakers often provide great entertainment when they get their material right. If there is a consistent trademark they have, it is in their themes, ideas, and the writing. They are a mixture of being a Stylist (sometimes inadvertently) and a Poet. Their focus is on their themes and their style of filmmaking. All storytellers have a genre. A genre here means films that are all thematically (Poet) and stylistically (Stylist) similar or consistent. Stortytellers are not very concerned with great technique – their films can be just average technically. Milap Zaveri is an example of that – his films are more or less recognizable and they propagate a certain philosophy, but they're not necessarily great technically. Even Hrishikesh Mukherjee, although he was an excellent editor, can be loosely called a Storyteller, because apart from some great blocking, he didn't care about stunning technical showcases in his films.
The Storyteller is not expected to dazzle. They are expected to deliver. They are usually burdened with expectations that people have from them, based on their previous work. They can also easily become trope-worthy if they don’t innovate a bit with each film.
Still from the film ‘October’ (2018); Dir. Shoojit Sircar
7. The Generalist:
This is my replacement in place of the Auteur, at the center, but not the same classification. The Generalist is a director who can deliver great films by balancing all three circles. If the material isn’t that great, they can bolster it by adding their inner meaning, their worldview to it. An example would be how Jurassic Park, a decent novel, is catapulted to be an excellent film because of Spielberg’s sense of optimism, wonder, awe, and joy that he brings to a fairly basic thriller. Zoya Akhtar can take simple templates like rags-to-riches, family drama, road-trip, and imbue them with her messages of freedom, aspiration and equality to make them even better. When the material is good, the Generalist can still elevate it with their personal trademarks.
Generalists can tend to get boxed into making similar kinds of films, but they will still try and innovate within genre or style to give their audiences something they haven’t seen or felt before.
This model is a first-pass at evolving the Auteur theory, and thus would obviously need discussion and updates. With these three articles, the attempt is to start a dialogue so that we become a generation of empathetic audiences that doesn’t quickly judge filmmakers in binaries. Just like how the film review system needs to evolve beyond the star-ratings, a more nuanced view to review filmmakers seems now to long be overdue. There is room for all kinds of filmmakers to explore and claim their own creative territories.