As a child, my efforts to understand a movie director's place in the scheme of things were thrown out of gear by Subhash Ghai's cameo in the "Ding Dong" song in Hero. You'll remember — or you should remember — that the shot has a cowboy-hatted Ghai standing next to a stalled car, looking for help. When Jackie Shroff, Meenakshi Seshadri and the rest of the gang race by him on their bikes, he shrugs stoically, deadpans the lyrics "Ding Dong, Oh Baby Sing a Song" and redirects his attention to the car engine.
"So THAT'S what a director does!" I thought to myself in the pleasing glow of revelation, "he lingers about the set, waves at the actors as they pass, and hums the tune to make sure it's good. Fun job." I spent the next few years diligently refusing to exercise my mind any further on the subject, but then I learnt about the Auteur Theory, and things have never been the same since.
In retrospect, that Hero scene was also my first sighting of a director in front of the camera. (Note: I don't include Charlie Chaplin's short films. For the young viewer, Chaplin is a performer first — only later does one learn that the Bowler wasn't the only hat he wore.) And over the years, I've developed quite an interest in directors in acting roles. I don't mean the playful cameos like those of Hitchcock. (For my money, Hitchcock's real performances were the ones in his brilliant trailers, like this one for The Birds.) Nor am I thinking of directors who were actors first, or who were equally well-known as actors — Orson Welles, Jacques Tati, Woody Allen and so on. I'm talking about people who are principally known as directors, taking on an atypical acting part.
There are, of course, grey areas here. When you first enter the world of foreign-language cinema and watch Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries, chances are you'll be deeply moved by the 77-year-old Victor Seastrom's performance as the vulnerable professor — without yet knowing that Seastrom himself was a great silent-era director who was making movies before Bergman was even born. But once you see his (difficult to access) early films, you immediately realise how influential they must have been. Seastrom's 1921 classic The Phantom Carriage can be viewed here; don't miss the opening credit that reads "A tale told in living pictures under the direction of Victor Seastrom"! But also note how some of this film's imagery — and its preoccupation with questions of mortality and redemption — is reflected decades later in such Bergman works as The Seventh Seal and even Cries and Whispers.
Bergman's poignant use of Seastrom in Wild Strawberries is an example of a director paying tribute to a personal hero. At other times, the casting of a veteran director can be used as a meta-commentary on film history, or a wry reflection on changing times. As in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, where Gloria Swanson plays a once-legendary silent-screen actress named Norma Desmond, and the 60-plus director-actor Erich von Stroheim plays Norma's devoted manservant Max. There's a scene where Max screens one of Norma's old films on a home projector, and what we see are a few shots from an actual 1928 movie, Queen Kelly, which was really directed by Stroheim and starred the young Swanson.
"We didn't need dialogue, we had faces then," boasts Norma, and the lined faces of Stroheim and Swanson in this scene are a pointed comment on faded careers and the movie industry's treatment of its former stars.
Sometimes a director plays "himself" in a film (it might be more accurate to say he plays a director who happens to have the same name and who also happens to have directed the same films), with amusing results — in the aforementioned Sunset Boulevard, Cecil B DeMille supplies such a sympathetic and saintly portrayal of Cecil B DeMille, you'd think he was portraying the love child of Jesus and the Dalai Lama. But a more nuanced performance of this type is the great German director Fritz Lang as "himself" in Jean-Luc Godard's Le Mepris (Contempt).
Early in this film, the protagonist Paul introduces Lang to his beautiful young wife Camille. "He made the Dietrich Western we saw on TV the other day," he tells her, an allusion to the Marlene Dietrich-starrer Rancho Notorious, directed by Lang in Hollywood. But Lang smiles self-deprecatingly. "I prefer M," he says, referring to his chilling 1931 film about a child-killer at loose in Berlin.
Perhaps this exchange is an inside joke about the two contrasting phases of Lang's career: working within the Hollywood studio system in the 1950s, and in Germany more than two decades earlier in a more artistically fulfilling milieu (but one that became stifling in its own way because of the rise of Nazism). Or perhaps Godard is simply parodying our simplistic ideas about "commercial" and "artistic" cinema. (Remember that he was part of a group of French student-directors who took Hollywood's genre films seriously as works of art.)
Closer home and on a smaller scale, look at two brief roles in Zoya Akhtar's Luck by Chance, the best meta-film Hindi cinema has produced in recent years. I never thought I would apply the word "sinister" to anything involving Karan Johar, but in his appearance in a party scene in this film, he resembles the head vampire at a gathering for creatures of the night — very different from the sunshiney interviewer we know from his TV talk-show (and his mass-audience pleasers such as Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham).
At the same time, Luck by Chance has a fun part for a director of grittier films, Anurag Kashyap; he plays an overzealous screenwriter who is clearly too highbrow for a mainstream movie industry, and who is swiftly put in his place. ("Abbay, Institute!" a producer named Romy Rolly says condescendingly when this writer tries to exceed his brief by incorporating "film-festival" bits into a script.) It's a cameo that points to the schisms and compromises within a complex movie industry, made up of artists, businessmen and a huge continuum of people who are some mix of both.
In other cases, the casting of a director in a (fictional) role can provide a contrast with the sort of cinema he is typically associated with. Vittorio de Sica's performance as an ardent baron who falls for a married woman in Max Ophuls' The Earrings of Madame De... deserves a column to itself, but for now I'll just note how intriguing it is to watch the director of hard-hitting neo-realist films like Bicycle Thieves and Shoeshine (about the struggles of working-class people) in this beautifully filmed tale about the romances, self-indulgences — and the itinerant jewellery — of high-society sophisticates.
Again, the question of depth also comes into play: compared to something like Bicycle Thieves, Madame De... might appear to be a superficial story about superficial people, but it's really a magnificent study of social mores, gender roles and relationships — every bit as "relevant" as a story about a poor everyman who loses his means of livelihood.
The examples above involve directors being used by other directors. But my favourite instance of a director taking on a prominent role in his own movie — and making it work — is Roman Polanski in two of his most underrated films. In Le Locataire (The Tenant), which is a fine companion piece to his better-known psychological thrillers of the 1960s, Polanski plays a nervous tenant who becomes increasingly alarmed by various goings-on in the apartment block he has moved into. And in the wonderfully offbeat horror-comedy Fearless Vampire Killers, he is the wide-eyed Alfred, assistant to the vampire-hunting Professor Abronsius.
Both films are laden with paranoia and both gain a great deal from Polanski's mousy and anxious persona; don't miss the mood-setting opening sequence of Fearless Vampire Killers, where the fearful Alfred tries to ward off a pack of wild dogs during a carriage ride in the snow. Though this film, with its strange mixing of menace and goofy humour, is one of Polanski's most atypical works, there's clearly more to it than meets the eye. As cinematographer Douglas Slocombe put it: "I think Roman put more of himself into Fearless Vampire Killers than into any other film. The figure of Alfred is very much like Roman himself — a slight figure, young and a little defenseless — with a touch of Kafka. It is very much a personal statement of his own humour." Watching Polanski's performance here and in The Tenant, I have absolutely no trouble picturing him as Josef K in a movie version of Kafka's The Trial.
Interestingly, Polanski doesn't give himself a starring credit in either film, despite the fact that these are major roles (he is on screen for nearly every minute of The Tenant, starting with a blink-and-miss appearance in the brilliant tracking shot that opens the film). Could this be a case of genuine modesty — a reticent man preferring to stay off the marquee — or the ultimate evidence of hubris: a director who knows his stamp is all over the film and that he's the real star anyway, so why bother underlining it?
Jai Arjun Singh is a Delhi-based freelance writer. His book about the making of the film Jaane bhi do Yaaro was published by Harper Collins in 2010 and he has also edited The Popcorn Essayists, an anthology of film writing, for Tranquebar. He writes the blog Jabberwock.