If birds of a feather flock together, why do opposites attract? If more is indeed merrier, why is three a crowd? If you should never put off till tomorrow what you can do today, why should you cross the bridge only when you come to it? If one is never too old to learn, why can’t you teach an old dog new tricks? If clothes make the man, why shouldn’t you judge a book by its cover? How would too many cooks spoil the broth when many hands make light work?
It is not only in school while learning adages that one wonders how two routes, each sensible in its own right, can be totally contradictory to each other. And often this grappling with which of two diametrically opposite paths to take has a significance that goes way beyond text books and moral science lessons.
Among those who face this dilemma are our leading actors and directors. God knows that the film industry is extremely tough to break into, especially for front-facing talents like actors and the person whose vision typically makes or breaks a film, the director. Yet, against phenomenal odds, if you do manage to make it big as a superstar or a director whose presence alone is enough is to green light a film, perhaps the even bigger task is to hold on to that success through the length of one’s career.
Typically, successful actors and directors make it big on the back of a specific image or a signature stamp, respectively. So it is to be entertained by the angry young man, or the king of romance, or the rakish but good-hearted action hero, or the master of slapstick comedy, or the dancing superhero that the vast majority of the audience shells out the price of cinema admission.
Similarly, not just the trade, but the audience too has a fair inkling of what they are likely to experience in a film on the basis of the director’s name on a film poster – a social issue tackled with a light, humourous touch; equal measures of action and comedy interspersed with high-octane car crashes; a musical journey in exotic locales that shadows the love story of two protagonists; or a taut thriller with a twist in the tale.
So far, so good, and as mentioned earlier, it’s the rarest of the rare that manage to reach this status. But there does come a point for most of these ultra-successful folk when, either voluntarily or as a result of diminishing returns at the box office, they face a dilemma that’s much like the contradictory adages in the beginning of the note. Does one continue to play off the image/directorial style that made one successful in the first place or does one reinvent one’s calling card and thereby hopefully extend one’s shelf life?
That’s not an easy choice to make, as many stalwarts from our fraternity will attest.
We have seen this so many times – an actor tries to break out of his ‘masala’ hero image by playing a restrained character in an off-beat film, or a director known for low-budget films featuring actors of little ‘face-value’ attempts something on a much larger canvas with huge stars. The film fails and trade pundits (which means pretty much the entire industry!) pronounce: “I knew it from the day I heard of this project that it was bound to fail! When you know what the audience comes to watch you for, why put them off by cheating them with something totally different? It wasn’t a film in his zone to begin with.”
On the other hand, many a superstar and eminent director has delivered flops while pandering to their core audience, leading the very same trade gurus to proclaim: “I knew it from the day I heard of this project that it was bound to fail! After all, how many times will people continue to pay to watch you doing the same thing again and again? If you don’t change, you will get only loose change!”
It’s the archetypical devil’s alternative: you are damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.
However, extremely challenging as the conundrum may be, it is not an impossible one to overcome. We need look no further than the legend in our midst, Mr Amitabh Bachchan, who has segued from the angry young man of Zanjeer of the 1970s, to the towering patriarch of Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham in the 2000s, to a potpourri of intriguing characters in recent years – the prematurely aged progeria victim in Paa, the love-struck chef in Cheeni Kum, and the constipated hypochondriac in last year’s Piku – to remain at the top of his game after more than four decades in the business.
Similarly, directors can seek inspiration from the redoubtable Martin Scorsese whose relevance and aura has only amplified over the decades – from Taxi Driver in the 1970s, to Raging Bull in the 1980s, to Goodfellas in the 1990s, to The Departed in the 2000s, and The Wolf Of Wall Street a couple of years ago.
It is from these formidable gentlemen that we need to learn the art of sustaining success… their life stories are far better teachers than knowing that a rolling stone gathers no moss, but haste makes waste!