…after him his work was still alive, like watches on the wrists of dead soldiers… Jean Cocteau had observed.

He was talking about the work of Marcel Proust at the latter’s deathbed.

I wonder if Proust would be flattered with the comment, particularly after his death. I wonder if I would be. (No I am not comparing myself with him, am just asking the question.)


Atul and his very fine taste in conversation. I do not get the pleasure often, but I do get it at times. Sadly enough, I am not that great at making conversation. I can only talk about films. At all other subjects, I am miserable. And mostly he bears with me, sometimes provokes, sometimes probes, almost always provides and explores. Sometimes we have a conversation over chat too! 🙂

We were chatting last night. He told me about a new post he was writing. I could not see the post till lunch time today because of connectivity outage, but when I did, the questions put across suddenly connected. They were once very close to my heart too, but, from a different angle. The questions used to bother me, not as a spectator, but, as the performer.


When you think about all the hard work a performer puts in and the in securities that come packaged with the job, the temptation to brand the work with your identity is really strong.

From watching one to actually making a film, I’ve crossed the fence twice (for small 5 minute shorts). Even though the results were horrible and bad (in order of chronology) the amount of work in both cases was a lot! We had to work so hard that at the end of it all, we could not see anything objectively. Regardless of the quality, the work moved us. We felt extremely attached to it. We wanted our names all over it.

And so the question is: what is an artist’s signature? where is the artist’s identity within the art? where is the artist’s vanity within his work? where is the humility within the artist?

I get a mixed response when I ask these questions to myself. In real life I ended up branding my baby on the forehead. I am not at all proud of it. So, I look around for the masters for the answers. (Again, I coulda talked about other arts, but, as I said, I am only good with films.)


To understand it better, remove the credits from a film and then watch it. Never knowing the name of the film and the cast. Also, know that no matter how successful the film, a Herculean amount of thought and effort has gone into making it and making it work.

Take a look at Guy Ritchie. He does a revolver. A film with no credits. None. It still has a Guy Ritchie signature though. Things that move the man and the ways he expresses himself. Experimental edits, chekov’s guns, pace set to a beat, beats set to a rhythm, music score in sync with every beat and camera angles that are never objective. Why the loud? I guess it is the way he likes things.

Or at Alfred Hitchcock, the man himself. His signature appearances in his films were popular enough to allow him to use as attention hooks and plot devices. But why did he make them in the first place? It couldn’t have been a significant draw in his third film? Especially since it was a silent film. Did he know he could use his appearance to highten the drama or the overall impact of the film? I doubt. Did he feel a need to “sign” a part of the film, on which he had worked so phenomenally hard, like a painter’s flourish? Probably. But was that it? Cause then there was his “lost” film – The Mountain Eagle. A film that he himself “was not sorry that there are no known prints”. So, did he not love the resultant enough? Is it that he never made a mistake in the films he appeared as cameos in? How could a man who made 60 of the most awesome films ever, not love another one of his own?

Or at Woody Allen. A character so integral to the films he makes, that the film would loose all flavor without him. Is the on-screen importance of the character self-referential? Probably not. Is the character a coincidence? Not at all. But he is almost conspicuous by understatement during the credits of his film. Then again, Bananas and What’s up tiger lily were exceptions. Why? His best films lately have been the ones in which he was nowhere to be seen – Match Point, Vicky Christina Barcelona, but, if you are familiar with Woody Allen’s work, then you could immediately recognize them.

The list goes on…

Several patterns emerge.

The question of Identity is very strong when you start.

Some filmmakers begin with their names all over the place – on the credits and on the film – though a superficial signature, but, not a bad idea at all. After all it is very difficult to disown the baby you endured all the pains for and just delivered. Some begin with excessive focus on the treatment of the film, so the work takes up part of the director’s personality. The vanity is an integral part of the identity here.

There may be another reason behind all this pomp – you need to make it in the business. So the first few films are like your showreels. Exemplifying your “take” on filmmaking.

With time the ego’s need for identity matures. In the first case the director becomes the “will power” artist, direct anything that comes his way, losing his “touch” and losing his identity itself (hence those “finding oneself” themes in films, because the search for the self becomes a very personal issue with many directors). In other cases the director’s focus becomes keener, he may become more observant, resulting in such fine work that you marvel! But, in the most dangerous case, the ego is satisfied and here is where the one hit wonders come from. The satisfied ego sleeps and there is nothing that the director looks forward to.

And finally the director (and I think any other artist too) learns to “use” his (her) ego. Personally speaking this is a very painful process. Accepting your mistakes, changing tracks, learning on the go. Listening closely to what others (even less accomplished ones) have to say. Learning the aesthetics and the dynamics of when, how and why to put across your point. This clinical dissection of each thought, each need, each moment, each everything becomes painful very quickly, but, I have seen people grow and grow to wonders as this pain starts reducing and becomes the cure.

I strongly feel that it is from this stage that the greatest masters of the art emerge. When finally the art, the work, the content takes precedence over the self. These works of art are still personal, deeply so, but the artist learns to manipulate the self well to make the right impact, a bit like a sculpturer with his chisel. This is the quality that I tend most often to appreciate in art. Not having to think of the maker, just the made. The humility of the identity playing a significant role in the masterpiece.

The harsh truth is that the artist does not matter as much as the art does (I say “harsh” because I am yet unable to separate my “self” and my “work”.) But the art of the master at the very end speaks of the artist – “…like watches on the wrists of dead soldiers“.

30th Aug. ’09


  1. @conversations, I observe the art keenly, I might improve. 🙂
  2. Blame the connectivity, the computer, the condition but we could not chat much last night.
  3. There was a time when Atul got me started on those Mondrian compositions in films, with this, he got me going on another longish rant. Good for me. 🙂
  4. Atul asked me the reason for not working on a film right now and I gave a circumspect answer. The truth is that I am in a state of comfort and fear. Not ready for the leap. Scared. But something tells me that I am probably not a coward. So there is still hope.
  5. OMFG! It’s been two years. I better do something!