In very simple terms, Auteur theory is a theory of filmmaking in which the director is the most important and relevant person in the film. The director wields the camera and is seen as the all-important “author” of the film. The director, according to this theory, is more important than the screenplay writer, the actors and everyone else involved in the filmmaking process. The movie is the director’s baby. And every movie of the said director, will bear the director’s obvious signature. The director’s stylistic elements, lighting, camera placement and mise-en-scene will be very similar in all of his/her films. And hence viewers know exactly what they’ll get when they come for a movie of such a director.
The term Auteur theory was coined by Andrew Sarris, the American film critic who wrote for the Village Voice. It was based on the earlier theorisations of Andre Bazin and Alexandre Astruc. They were prominent people behind the extremely revered film journal Cahiers du cinéma. It was in this journal that theorisations about the ‘French nouvelle vague’ or New Wave were made that tied up into this theorisation about the authorship of directors of their movies. This theory viewed the camera as the pen in the hands of the director. Every detail in the film was supposed to reflect the director’s aesthetic choices. It was basically an anti-establishment move against the commercial filmmaking process, pushing for more space to experiment and improvise. Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard can be seen as pioneers of the French New Wave fully embodying the Auteur Theory.
In more recent times, filmmakers such Alfred Hitchcock, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, Greta Gerwig, and so on, can be seen as Auteurs. Their movies bear their signature style and it is easily recognisable. They have extreme control over their filmmaking process, many a times, writing their own films, or collaborating very closely with someone for the same. These Auteurs are brilliant in their own terms, and have produced a corpus of films that has greatly challenged and changed the course of the film viewing experience of audiences around the world. They have a certain aspirational factor to them with many new directors hoping to become Auteurs themselves.
In the Indian context, Bollywood and regional film industries to some extent, sees the stars as more important than the directors. No matter who is directing the film, a Shahrukh Khan or Salman Khan film draws viewers primarily because of the Star-value of these actors. Celebrity culture, and Star worshipping is quite widespread in the Indian film industry. It is questionable the lengths to which Auteur theory is relevant in Bollywood but I don’t think one can completely dismiss it. I think more visible than Auteurs, is the branding of Auteurs. There is a certain commercialisation in the Bollywood film industry wherein even rebellious supposed outsiders like Anurag Kashyap have become a part of the mainstream. But it wouldn’t be fair to not point out how there still exist directors like Kashyap, Sriram Raghavan and so on, in whose films we can see a semblance of this theory. The Hindi film industry also has a rich history of stalwarts like Satyajit Ray who did carry movies on his own shoulders. In the Malayalam film industry, I think the Auteur theory is much more visible. Recently, directors like Lijo Jose Pellissery have been able to make his mark in the Malayalam film industry by making movies that are quite different and bear his signature. His movies don’t have many stars or celebrities. It’s his name that brings audiences to the theatres. LJP can hence be considered an Auteur in my understanding.
There may be a varying degree of relevance of the Auteur theory depending on how strong the Star culture in the film industry is. Nevertheless, the Auteur theory continues to be relevant to date, with the old Auteurs still standing strong, and new crops of Auteurs trying to break the ground. Any time a Scorsese or Nolan film is announced, the hype around it, attests to this fact.