WHAT are the qualities in a film that appeal to the majority of people and so make it a good box-office draw? I guess every person connected with the film industry has asked himself (and others) this question eliciting an answer neither satisfactory nor illuminating.
Frankly, I don’t know the answer myself. I doubt if anyone—even the world’s greatest showman, Cecil B. De Mille—could answer it wholly.
The fact is that no two human beings think alike. That is what makes this world so fascinating and yet so puzzling. Imagine an equation with 300 million unknown factors ! How is one to set about solving such a complex problem? And yet, fortunately for the makers of films, human nature, although differing in minor nuances from person to person, has achieved some sort of overall uniformity in essentials.
Just as we have our six basic ragas in music, from which a limitless variety of compound tunes can be composed, so to my mind is human nature—complex as it is— based on a permutation and combination of a few basic emotions : love, joy, anger, hatred etc. So by being a good chemist of the human emotions it is possible to a not inconsiderable extent to evolve a film that is just the mixture that will go down well with cinema audiences.
But for all this theorizing let me confess at once that I couldn’t at a pinch evolve a foolproof formula for filmic success. The show business may have nothing like it in the world, but it remains—and will always remain—a tantalizing complex job, drawing men to it like moths and, alas, treating them as such.
Very often I am told that such and such a picture is “doing excellent business in the north”, but has failed in “the C.P.—C.I. circuit.” It is clear to me then—just as it must be clear to everyone–that this picture has a limited, fractional appeal and lacks those qualities that make a film universally acceptable—although I couldn’t for the life of me name them. Consequently it may or may not be an overall commercially successful film, depending upon the sizes of the areas in which it has “done well” or “failed”. It is better, true, than a total flop but, as is evident, it hasn’t collected all the money a universally successful picture would.
Lately, considerable evidence has come to light to show that more than any other single component of a film it is its story value that makes or mars it. I wholeheartedly agree with this conclusion—always have. Indeed, I have often said to myself : “If I can’t get a good story here, in my own country, I wouldn’t mind taking it, suitably adapted, from elsewhere.”
Photo Caption – Director Bimal Roy and his cameraman Joseph Wirsching working outdoors.
For the story, mind you, is the backbone of a film—if not its whole anatomy. It is the prerequisite of a successful film although, as is obvious even when you’ve fixed to your marionette a good spine, your work is by no means finished. You have then to think of the other parts—the legs, the arms, the head, the face and so on—and assemble them to make a pleasing, self-sufficient whole. Take “Maa”. It deals with mother love, always, in my opinion, a theme with world-wide appeal. I was never wholly satisfied with this film as it finally took the screen and there is much in it I would have liked (or would now like) to prune and alter. But for all that, I am told that it has done well everywhere. This does not surprise me. I had anticipated some such reception. Here, in my opinion, is a good story—pretty adequately, if not brilliantly filmed. As my compounding of the various elements in it— music, acting, suspense etc.—came pretty near being a balanced mixture (though, being wise after the event, I could perhaps have greatly improved upon it), it became a successful film.
But when you have got hold of a good story—the basic core, that is—your work has by no means ended. “Maa”, for instance, is a story that (in its essence) has been filmed time and again by various people. And yet all of them did not succeed as pictures. Why?
This brings us to the most important task of the film director : the treatment of the story. You may film the world’s most novel theme and come a cropper.
Let me illustrate this point by dwelling briefly on a journalistic parallel. Do you read the sports page in your newspaper? If so, you must have noticed that although several papers have their representatives on the spot covering a sports fixture, a certain reporter finally gets to be breezier and more readable than the others. This is because his “treatment” of the same set of facts is more refreshing and novel. This is exactly what happens in films. You have seen “Duel In The Sun”, “Loves of Carmen”, “It Happened On Fifth Avenue” and so on and you have also seen their Indian versions. If you have not liked the latter, the blame (as you can easily see) does not lie with the subject (which is identical in both versions) but in its treatment in our hands.
Photo Caption – This informal studio trio has, on the flanks, Dilip Kumar and director Bimal Roy. In the middle is Jairaj.
But how is one to treat a story idea so as to produce a likeable screenplay? Here my own motto—an inviolable motto I might say —is : Be faithful to the story. Once you set to work on the story, all you’ve got to do is to be sincere to it. That is to say, follow its moods and characters faithfully, without trying to be too smart or too highbrow. I don’t think I have had a marathon run of successes and am fitted to advise anyone, but if I were this is the prime advice I would like to give : Be Sincere To Your Story.
Very well, then. You have produced a good screenplay. What next? I am afraid the subsequent procedures do not lend themselves to a precise definition. It is here, in fact, that the director takes over wholly and, according to his intelligence and way of looking at things, produces the final film. No matter how detailed and exhaustive the script, no two directors will “shoot” the entire film alike. From here onwards the film is bound to bear the personal “stamp” of the man directing it. The “bad” director has ample chance at this stage to completely or partially spoil the film, because there are so many intangible things, undefinable adjuncts that a film needs, which only the director’s imagination (and no script) can supply.
I have directed four Hindi pictures so far : “Hamrahi”, “Anjangarh,” “Pahela Admi” and “Maa”. The only credit I personally want to take for them is that in all the four I did my best to remain sincere to the story. And, I might add, down-to-earth and rather humble.
This is an important prerequisite, too— being down-to-earth and humble. Come to think of it, I know of none more important. I have always noticed that as soon as you try to soar unnaturally high and give yourself the aura of a supernatural being, the audience quickly pulls you down to earth. When you are picturising the life of a 30-rupees-a-month chowkidar, for instance, and show his natural habitat to be a palatial building, you are not being down-to-earth. If your story is to do with a simple hill girl and you’ve given her a dress that’s made of sheer silk with bizarre patterns, you’re being untrue and not down-to-earth. If, out of sheer highbrowism, you’ve decided to place a Piccaso or a Rembrandt in a lower middle-class house, you’ve lost both, your down-to-earthiness and your humility. I would guard against these “false patches.”
Once you’ve decided to be sincere to the story and its subject, it’s surprising how other things will generally come right. As soon as you invent an incident to place in your story, you’re asking yourself : “Does it ring true? Can it happen?” This question eventually becomes your standard measure of film-content. It will regulate everything : the cast, the music, the tempo, the sets, the costumes. After that, it’s merely some measure of technical skill you require in order to turn out a “good” film.
Photo Caption – Discussing a character-role. The author with actor Nazir Hussein, made-up for his part.
If in the foregoing paragraphs I sound like a man who is in possession of the long- sought secret formula for filmic success, I must discourage the assumption. It is only a narration, or summary, of my personal experiences and my individual mode of working, right or wrong. It may be that my success so far is only an accident. If so, I will soon be disillusioned. But this I will say. Although no two directors will ever agree on what to put into a picture, they will easily concur as to what NOT to put into a picture. Or should.
Because even working in a negative way, there is so much you can keep your film free of. Wrong costumes, unconvincing sets, forced music, labored humor, inept casting—these are some of the things every man with reasonable intelligence and foresight can guard against. And if we go on eliminating from a film the patches that are false and irritate, we give a better and better set-off to its remaining good points. That is simple logic.
But, to revert to the question : Is Success A Fluke or Can It Be Planned? I am told that in Hollywood no picture is a fluke. I do not agree with this contention. In fact I have arrived at the conclusion that no human enterprise is purely a man-made affair (Article written by Bimal Roy in 1952).