Walk into any film set, and chances are that you will notice a bunch of men and women in charge, armed with walkie-talkies, running around taking cues from the director and even calling some creative shots. The director might be the captain of the ship when it comes to making a film, but there’s no denying that without the assistant directors (AD), his or her job would be far more difficult. These ADs, as a result — many of whom harbour serious aspirations of turning directors — get to learn a lot about a director’s role on the job. After a few years, if they’re lucky, they might even get to direct films themselves.
The success stories
Several established directors in Bollywood started out as assistant directors — be it Rohit Shetty (assisted Kuku Kohli and Veeru Devgan), Mohit Suri (assisted Vikram Bhatt), Sabbir Khan (assisted Mahesh Bhatt and David Dhawan) and Abhishek Chaubey (assisted Vishal Bhardwaj), or Nikhil Advani (assisted Karan Johar), Vikramaditya Motwane (assisted Sanjay Leela Bhansali), Raj Kumar Gupta (assisted Anurag Kashyap), Milan Luthria (assisted Bhatt) and Ayan Mukerji (assisted Ashutosh Gowariker and Karan).
“Every aspiring director should work as an AD. Regardless of how well-trained you are, assisting helps you understand the craft. Most importantly, it teaches you how to handle actors and a crew of a hundred people,” says Dhawan, whose protégé Sabbir concurs. “When I started, I got the actors’ clothes fixed, swept the sets, rehearsed lines with the cast and sometimes did all that at once. So, on my own film, when I lead a unit of 100-200 people, I knew every single aspect of what goes into making a movie,” says Sabbir, who recently directed Heropanti.
Apart from learning the processes of film-making, ADs also get to interact and network with actors. Milan, for instance, admits that he met several Bollywood stars like Ajay Devgn, Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan as an AD. Ajay went on to star in Milan’s directorial debut, Kacche Dhaage (1999).
Kareena Kapoor Khan, who has worked extensively with Rohit Shetty (on the Golmaal series and Singham 2), first met him on the sets of her sister Karisma Kapoor’s film Suhaag (1994). “Rohit was an assistant at that time. He is like family to me,” Kareena told PTI.
Similarly, Rohit started his career as an AD on Phool Aur Kaante (1991) that starred Ajay. He told IANS, “Ajay and I have been working together for 16-17 years.” Rohit most recently directed Ajay in Singham 2.
Having observed directors closely, many ADs tend to get influenced by their mentor’s directorial styles. Some might argue that Raj Kumar Gupta’s (recently directed Ghanchakkar; 2013) film-making style seems reminiscent of Anurag Kashyap’s; or that Vishal Bhardwaj’s style is reflected in parts of Chaubey’s films. Sabbir admits that this does happen to a certain extent. He says, “From Bhatt saab, I learnt about the emotional density of drama. David sir gave me a great sense of diligence and economics.”
At the same time, film-makers insist that one should be careful about “becoming a Xerox copy”. “Everyone should find their own voice eventually. That’s why I decided not to make my first film with Bhatt saab,” says Milan.
Ek Villain director Mohit Suri, who assisted Vikram Bhatt for many years, adds, “Our styles are different. While his style has been dramatic and hard-hitting, I have always been more emotionally-driven. Ultimately, when you’re making a film, your personality does come in.”