Today for Flick inSide, writer, director Amit Mehra, who’s been in the industry for 30 years now, shares his experience of what it is like to exist alongside the big guns of the industry and hold your own. Since 1990, he has worked across motion pictures, television, media and advertising.
Working when you are older is a lot like swimming as an advanced swimmer. The risks are the same; you can still drown and die but now you have learned to use your own limbs and intelligence to navigate through water, explore the deep end and even dive once in a while, all without a coach, a friend, a big brother or an inflatable rubber duck.
Most importantly, you understand and accept the risks swimming comes with and have a realistic expectation of benefits that it offers. None of this was part of your swimming experience as a newbie or middle-level swimmer or for that matter a working professional.
Through this article, I am not speaking only to fellow middle-aged filmmakers or those in an advanced stage of their filmmaking career but also to the young and next generation of our lot. Consider it as a warning, perhaps a voice of reason or free advice from the future. This could also work for professionals in any walk of life or in various streams within films, television, entertainment and now digital verticals but I have used the example of a line of work I know a bit about since I have been at it for almost twenty eight years and then some.
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Back in my early twenties, after graduating from film school, when I started working in the film and television industry, I was a lot like a newbie swimmer. Scared to get into the pool, always looking for a coach, a guru, a friend, a big brother or even an inflatable rubber duck to help me stay afloat. Swimming in the deep end was not even an option. Thought of diving would give me serious panic attacks.
Someone, who learned swimming as a 4-year old and reading this, may find the swimming analogy and the risks being described as ridiculous and an overstatement.
However, trust me, this analogy will work fine for most of us as many in India, the country from where most of my readers will be, learn swimming only in our twenties. Reason being, till today, most of us do not have pools in our homes or are a member of a club or can afford to use pool services in five-star hotels till we reach our twenties and can afford these or choose to, with our own hard-earned money. Most of us also do not go to schools that have pools.
Most of us live in small towns and rural areas or belong to that socio-economic group in cities that can’t afford to experience luxuries like swimming except few that may have grown up in small towns or villages that have rivers or ponds. I don’t want to make this an ecological rant but most of our rivers and ponds have either dried up or become so filthy that swimming in them is not a sensible option. Most of our schools even in big cities are now housed in tall vertical buildings with little amenities for real extracurricular or sporting activities of any standard to speak of.
None of these applies to me, or did as I grew up in the 1980s when these issues did not exist. And yet I did not learn swimming till my early twenties. I was just foolish and I won’t hazard a guess as to how many of us are foolish till they reach their twenties.
The decade that follows when we enter our twenties is when most of us graduate from being foolish to downright stupid in all its glory. And this is why one tends to think that a coach, a guru, a friend, a big brother or an inflatable rubber duck can help us swim or make a career.
Make no mistake, only you can make your own career, irrespective of the line of work you are in. However, this holds even truer for people who are in filmmaking.
One of my early gigs in Bollywood was being an assistant director on a mainstream feature film with A-list Stars. And boy did I learn some hard lessons during that stint. Till date I owe a lot to the young director I was assisting on that project. He was a great, kind and patient teacher but that was not his job and he made me realize it.
I was part of the screenplay brainstorming sessions for the part that we were going to be shooting in the upcoming schedule. The director and the writer were going scene by scene with the writer reading out every page and the director approving it or giving his pointers to be incorporated. We as assistant directors were only supposed to be there to take notes on the requirements that may change or arise due to this session. The three other assistants and even the chief assistant were doing just that.
However, yours truly thought I must go beyond the brief. So, I’d often interrupt the writer and the director with my own take on how the scene or a dialogue should play out.
The kind, patient director tolerated it for a while and then called me closer, gave me some money and told me to go and get some ‘paan’ for all of us. I was quite shocked and felt humiliated on being given such a mundane task while clearly I thought I could contribute to making the film a masterpiece. Nevertheless, I quietly took the money and exited the hotel room we were in without even glancing towards the other assistants who I am sure must be rolling their eyes or sniggering.
The nearest paan shop was quite far away and I realised while walking to it and back from it that the director had purposely chosen to send me for paan to keep me out of the room for a while so that they could proceed without my interruptions. What I couldn’t understand is why would the director or the writer not be interested in my inputs? That was answered soon after I returned to the room.
Soon after I returned with the paans, the script brainstorming session got over. The writer went to his room to incorporate the changes asked by the director. All assistant directors were busy making the list of requirements for production team and I was sitting sulking in one corner. The director went out to the balcony to smoke and gestured me to join him there.
He offered me a cigarette. Though I was a smoker too, and was often bumming cigarettes off him, that day, since I was sulking, I politely declined. He smiled and lit up his cigarette and then looked at me letting out a loud sigh.
He said he understood why I was sulking, that I felt humiliated and insulted on being thrown out of the script session and told to fetch paan like an errand boy but it was a lesson that I had to be taught. I looked up at him perplexed.
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He said and I paraphrase “Amit, you are a young assistant director on this project, just a year or two into filmmaking and doing your first project in Bollywood. Yet, you thought you were better placed to tell the writer what the scenes and dialogues should entail than any of the other more experienced assistants or even me, your boss and the director of this film. Your job is to sit quietly, listen attentively, watch closely and learn. Assisting a director is, in fact, not a job but an extension of your film school’s practical classes. You are here to learn, not teach all of us how to do our job. However, unlike a film school, we’re not being paid by you or your family to teach you filmmaking but are, in fact, paying you to learn it. But you have to learn it while doing your job, not my job. It’s also not my job to distract myself from my work and teach you how to be on a film project or what to learn. I might, out of kindness of my heart, or if I have some spare time but mostly you will have to figure all that out on your own while doing the best you can as an assistant director. You may find my words harsh today but remember them because someday you will be having this same conversation as a director with one of your assistant directors who may choose to overshoot his brief.”
He again offered me a cigarette. This time I smiled and took one cigarette and thanked him. He knew I was not thanking him just for cigarettes but also for the rare, free and valuable lesson he had imparted that day.
Firstly, filmmaking is an art that is also a full-blown mainstream commercial profession. However, much like any art, success in filmmaking depends upon how unique and individualistic is your voice, expression, creativity, methodology and above all idea. None of these can be taught or given to us as a favour or shared with us out of kindness. At best, if you are lucky, someone can point you in the right direction where you may discover this uniqueness and individualism that is so crucial for success in this line of work.
I did not know this. No one told me this or if they did, I did not listen. I kept hoping and waiting for someone to teach me or offer me or share, lend me these attributes. As a result, I discovered my uniqueness and individualism much later in life. Rather, I am still discovering. And hence, I had similar timelines for my tryst with filmmaking success.
Secondly, professional life in any line of work, more so in filmmaking, is like swimming with the sharks. People often use the ‘dog eat dog world’ phrase. Frankly, I find that objectionable to my personal ideology. I love dogs and I see them only as kind, generous and giving souls. None of these attributes you will find in abundance when you enter the shark-infested waters of filmmaking.
When you are a small fish, swimming with the sharks in the same water with no choice or power to change the playing field, you will find that while sharks are trying to eat everyone including you, others are trying to first save their own ass instead of helping others escape shark’s hunger pangs.
This is because you need top-of-the-line survival instincts to swim with the sharks and live to tell the tale. Pun intended. Forgive the selfishness but helping others in any way is not really a priority or even desirable when the shark’s sharp teeth are gnawing at your back.
The sharks in filmmaking are not just the big daddies, the studio heads, the producers or your own boss, the director you may be assisting but also the system. It is designed this way to bring up the best and only the best.
Lastly, who do you think you are? Ask this question often to yourself throughout your filmmaking career. I see most of us who enter this amazing universe, tend to believe that the universe owes us success. Completely ignoring the dismal rate of success in any line of work, more so in filmmaking. I don’t have the data but you can safely assume that it is less than one percent. That should give you some perspective before you start wetting yourself with unbridled expectations.
The universe owes you nothing. The water owes you nothing. You came to this planet or you were born to it, either ways, no one owes you anything. You’ve got to earn every speck of success you wish for yourself. And even then you may just have to contend with telling yourself, “I gave my best” while listening and loudly singing along to Sinatra’s “I did it my way”.
All that being said, none of it is unachievable. Impossible is nothing, right? So welcome to the jungle, or rather to the ocean of filmmaking. Swim as best as you can.
After all, the next Guru Dutt, Gulzar, Ramesh Sippy, Rajkumar Hirani, Sanjay Leela Bhansali or for that matter even David Lean, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg could all be residing inside our gooey grey matter. Just remember, that when that genius does come out — and it will only do so once you’ve learned to use the key of uniqueness and individualism and dusted the lock off the herd mentality — you will be known by your own name and not by the greats you’ll be joining in the proverbial hall of fame.
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By Amit Mehra
Amit Mehra, who recently turned 50, is a writer, filmmaker and founder of AMP ANGLES, a 15-year-old boutique creative video content agency where they create advertising related video and filmed content. Since 1990, he has worked across motion pictures, tv, media and ad industries. Also a prolific food, travel blogger and founder of popular foodies meet-up group FoodieBoozard, Amit is based in Mumbai and has an outpost in Bangalore. You can connect with him here.
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