Satyanshu Singh

Satayanshu Singh is a National Award winning filmmaker and a screenplay writer.

The Curious Case of a Movie Director

Satyanshu Singh


To objectively determine the job of a film-director has been one of my key focuses since I started pursuing cinema, its study and practice. And based on whatever I have managed to learn so far, I can confidently claim that the director’s role is not only much bigger than what we always assumed, it is also very specific – a role even other crew members may find hard to play. More importantly, the more we learn about the director’s role, the more we realise that it has to do with the person’s attitude and inter-personal skills, as well as his knowledge of the craft. A director is a leader, and is simply required to lead a group of professionals. There is nothing more to it. But this, as we discuss further, is no less a task.


All great work germinates in the mind of someone who has a vision. A film-maker has to understand what kind of film he would like to make. The answer may lie in the genre of his preference, a certain cinematic style, or setting priorities between story or character, structure or mood. The philosophical or spiritual world-view of the artist also often dictates the choice of the subject-matter. It then leads to developing or finding a screenplay that fits into his idea of what his film should be.

If you ever get a chance to read a well-developed, professional screenplay, you will realise that the writer actually writes everything that you see on screen, including big and small memorable moments often attributed to the director. I have often been asked this question – if the screenplay already contains every single detail, what does the director do? Well, the answer is succinct – the director, first of all, envisions the translation of the written word to motion image.

What certain French critics and American film-scholars of the 50s emphasised about successful film-directors is important to be mentioned here. They believed that the ’author’ of a film is not the writer, but the director. The medium of cinema is much beyond the written word. And while a written manuscript of the film, called the screenplay, is an essential and primary ingredient, it is by no means the end. A successful director has an understanding of the interplay of image and sound, shot and cut, performances and technique, and through all these, he re-writes the script in the language of cinema.

Such ’authorship’, in my opinion, can be earned through developing a ’voice’, cinematic and philosophical, and by gaining ’authority’, in-depth and varied understanding of the medium and its powers and challenges. No one wants to board a ship whose captain cannot read a compass. In fact, the captain is supposed to know how each and every department functions, although he may never be required to do any of it himself. Similarly, all crew members on a film want to work with a director who knows his job.

Since no amount of knowledge can ever guarantee a successful film, the director has to have several other attributes to help him visualise the film. Intuition and imagination play a major role, apart from his willingness to experiment, innovate, and take risks. Being able to take ideas from others, from different Heads of Department, to his own assistants, often works wonders for the visualisation process. Not only should the director remain flexible, he should also be able to stick to an idea when backed by his conviction. According to me, the biggest attribute a director can have, at this stage of film-making, is persistent hard work, with a lot of patience, and self-belief. A hard-working leader gains natural admiration from his team, and their wholehearted support. And once he has had that, the leader has fewer reasons to worry.


The cast and crew you choose for your film should be selected on their personal strengths and suitability to the project. But everything may fall apart if you fail to strike fruitful conversation with them. The writer, the cinematographer, and the editor are the closest companions the director has during the pre-production, shoot, and post-production stages respectively. Add to this the director’s bonding with his principal actors.  These relationships are as intimate as any, and it is the decisions taken mutually through such collaborations that create great films. Needless to say, it rests on how you communicate.

All the investigative work for the script and all your visualisation can go for a toss if you are unable to communicate with your team members. Because technicians of different talents and streams need to come together to give expression to your vision, the least you can expect is that they will recreate what you have in your mind. The ideal scenario would be that each technician gives you more than you could imagine, adding his or her own into your vision, to create something that is more than the sum of its parts. It is your job, of course, to make sure that these individual contributions complement each other for the greater design of the film. How to do that without allowing them to go overboard and still work with utmost inspiration is a matter of how clearly you can communicate with them, including how well you listen, how you treat your crew members, reason with them, pamper them, and at times even overrule them.

Developing a short-hand communication also helps. Suppose you are in the middle of a hectic shoot. The biggest reassurance you can have is that the actor is completely in tandem with you. The set is not a place to go into long discussions with them. I remember once I was shooting an exercise with an actor who possessed great comic timing. He was playing a college student who loved watching porn and the funny dialogue in the script inspired him to make the audience laugh. I sensed a risk here – the character might get reduced to a caricature if our judgment of the degree of his performance went wrong during the shoot. Hence, during rehearsals, I made sure that he approached his character with certain innocence. “Think of your desire for porn as a child’s desire for a toy,” I explained and he understood me. Yet, during the shoot I found him falling to the temptation of making the audience laugh. I didn’t have time to explain it to him in detail and was bothered with other technical glitches. So, I just went to him and reminded him of the child and his toy. He got the message and for rest of the shoot he tried only to make the audience love him, the dialogue took care of the comedy. This gave us the tone that we were looking for.

Managing Resources

A good director is a great manager. Not only does he manage dozens of people, he deals with different skill sets and egos. Writers, actors, technicians, musicians, production team, and marketing executives – all are very different professionals. Possessing high degree of professional ethics, including something as basic as punctuality, is the starting point of the director’s command over his crew. He should also have tactful diplomatic and manipulative skills, and learn the art of false praise as well as fake displeasure whenever necessary.

The director also constantly struggles with the material resource at hand. No film ever has sufficient budget. And to be able to budget sensibly is as important as completing the film within the allocated amount, fighting all of Murphy’s unpredictable laws. If need be, the director should sacrifice a part of his vision for the greater good of the film. Being able to take quick decisions that ensure minimum harm to the bigger picture is a key trait for a film-maker. I must recount the evening after the first day’s shoot of my Kashmiri film, Tamaash. I was directing and producing that film. So, the stress of managing resources was even more. The first day of shoot was rather ordinary – we could not even shoot all that we wanted to. Shooting in the cold weather of the hills added to my problems. On returning to the hotel, I was shivering so much that I decided to skip dinner. Without removing a single piece of clothing, not even socks, gloves, or my cap, I buried myself under three layers of thick blankets. I did not want to look at the footage that we had shot, and was left wondering if it was a right decision to come all the way to Kashmir to shoot this short film. I felt like the captain of a ship that was about to sink and I could not share this feeling with anyone. Around the same time I received terrible news – one of the lead child actors was vomiting in his room. If he were to fall ill, we could lose more than we could afford. During that moment of torturous tension, I could only tell one thing to myself – “Shut your eyes and ears and go to sleep. You need it. We’ll see what has to be done when we get up in the morning.” Hungry, cold, and more stressed than ever – I forced myself to sleep. Next morning, I woke up at five and went to the child actor’s room. He was fine, and ready to shoot. I woke the others up. The schedule went as planned. The horror that I had endured that night would remain a secret until the entire shoot was over and we knew we had something special in hand.

The above example makes it clear, eventually, the director must know how to manage himself. Film-making is one of the most stressful professions. If there is one person who is expected to work well with people as well as in solitude, who is good with intuition in addition to logic, who knows to make the best of technology and art, who must be able to plan meticulously while   keeping room for spontaneity, and who should flourish in both madness and method — it is the director. This can be seriously damaging to his own physical and emotional health, and if he allows that to happen, he is jeopardising something for which millions have been invested, not to mention the inspiring hard-work and belief of some hundred people. Apart from reassuring them all about the process and the result, the director also needs to be nurturing to himself. He needs to be strict but not merciless, encouraging but not indulgent. He needs to keep readjusting his expectations from the film at different stages of its making and from himself at different points in his career.

Film-making must be the most chaotic and inorganic process of expression man has invented. We must be thankful to the work of great directors who, with their abilities and hard-work, continue to create movies that move us with their magic. Perhaps my friends were right. Perhaps any successful film is actually very well-directed and it does not require any insight into the craft to comment on the same. If a film works and leaves a mark on you, it must be the work of an efficient leader who knew how to think, plan, talk, and act.

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