‘The Disciple’ Director Chaitanya Tamhane On Independent Filmmaking In India — And Learning From Alfonso Cuarón

In less than a month since the film’s Sep 4 premiere at the Venice Film Festival, Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple has blazed its way to Best Screenplay and FIPRESCI critics’ prizes — and also picked up the Amplify Voices Award in Toronto. The film has Alfonso Cuarón onboard as executive producer, whom Tamhane had met through a mentorship program by Rolex after finishing his debut film, Court. Arriving at the New York Film Festival this week, the Indian film will have a drive-in screening in Queens and will screen nationwide via the Film at Lincoln Center’s virtual cinema.

After making a splash on the festival circuit in 2014 with his breakout first feature, Tamhane follows up with The Disciple, a poetically-sketched drama set in the world of Indian classical music. Discovered through a year-long casting process which involved auditioning more than 1800 people, first-time actor Aditya Modak plays the lead character Sharad, a young vocalist devoted to this hallowed musical tradition. It becomes a spiritual journey of sorts for Sharad, as he soon grapples with the uncomfortable realities and daunting challenges of pursuing this artistic path.

Tamhane was named in the Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia list in 2016, under the Entertainment & Sports category. The Disciple marks a reunion for Tamhane with Court producer and long-time friend, Vivek Gomber. They first met in a theatrical play more than 11 years ago, titled Grey Elephants in Denmark — which shares similar thematic concerns as The Disciple, according to Tamhane. Tamhane wrote and directed, while Gomber acted in it. Besides serving as a producer for The Disciple, Gomber is also an actor and recently appeared in Mira Nair’s BBC series, A Suitable Boy.

Speaking from Mumbai where he is currently based, Tamhane shares more about The Disciple and the rollercoaster journey he’s been on, nurturing this film from idea to script — and from screen, to the world.

Sara Merican: Why did your team decide to premiere The Disciple this year, given these strange circumstances? For example, there are some filmmakers who decided to wait for the next festival cycle.

Chaitanya Tamhane: A few different reasons. We had finished the film quite early in the year, and I’ve been working on this film for four years. There was obviously great enthusiasm and excitement to share the film. And then you know what happened with the pandemic, and what happened to film festivals and cinemas around the world. So for us, Venice was also this big sign of hope. We felt like the festival was trying out something and still trying to celebrate cinema with great responsibility and with safety measures. And also like you said, a lot of studio films pulled out, so this became the year where the spotlight was on the more independent films, the kind of films that would probably get lost in all the noise and the media hype that the bigger films would come with. It was a silver lining in that sense. And Venice is home for us. Court, my first film, premiered at Venice and I have been on the jury at Venice, so it also felt like a homecoming for us.

Merican: You’ve shared quite a lot in the past month about how funding this film was difficult. I think it’s a bit hard for international audiences to reconcile seeing this booming side of the Indian film industry that is Bollywood — so well funded, so commercial — and the independent side, where it’s so difficult to get a film made. How have you navigated this? And what do you think is needed to improve the support for independent filmmakers?

Tamhane: It’s something that we’ve been trying to answer for a while now. Not just me, but a lot of other independent filmmakers in the country. India is not even a country, it’s a continent. We have such diverse cultures and such diverse stories to tell. But because of the dominance of mainstream cinema — and not just in Hindi, which is Bollywood — but also in other languages, it’s almost like cinema is not seen as an art form. It’s seen as just a form of entertainment, recreation and a commercial product made for money, which is also why we don’t have the kind of traditional funding or institutional support for films that are not operating in that framework of commercial cinema.

I think this is also something that happens with a lot of film festivals. The Disciple was the first film in 20 years almost, in the main competition of a major European festival. Is it because there’s so much noise, of the dominance of Bollywood, that the world perceives that we don’t need a platform? Or that there is no other kind of cinema that we have to offer? Or that we are self-sufficient and self-reliant? But actually we are not, because there are just a lot of struggles that an independent filmmaker would have to deal with. Not just in terms of funding but also distribution and exhibition, and reaching out to the audiences that would care for this kind of work. It’s a complicated problem. The independent cinema movement is suffering because of that. And now more so because so many international OTTs have come in, and there’s a huge influx of series and international shows, which makes it even more difficult for indigenous voices to survive and be heard.

Merican: That’s interesting, I can imagine that because Indian cinema is so well-known in some ways that programmers perhaps think that they don’t need to highlight it as much. But like you said, there’s this whole other section of Indian cinema that is so under-recognised on the world stage. It’s great that your film is bringing attention to that in a way. I’m also quite curious what the response has been like from the Indian classical music community, after your film provided so much attention and reflection on that cultural sphere?

Tamhane: Well, people are excited to watch the film, very curious to watch the film. Not just people from the Indian classical music fraternity, but just generally people who love cinema and who understand the importance and relevance of what’s happening with the film. And I’m sure it won’t please everybody. But that’s kind of expected because you can’t please everybody. We are trying to bring the film out to Indian audiences as soon as we can.

Merican: With all the attention on your film in the past few weeks, what is one way that the film maybe has been misunderstood, if at all?

Tamhane: [Laughs] The thing is I don’t really read the reviews. The big question in our minds was whether this film which is set in such a specific cultural context — and which we believe to have a very universal ethos and universal themes — will it speak to an audience that knows nothing about this culture or this music? Or is it going to be too challenging and too alien for them? It has just been very heartening to see that critics, film lovers and jury members have understood the film and that this could have been set in the world of jazz or ballet, or it could have been the story of an athlete. They’ve also recognized the fact that this is something new, but at the same time, it’s also something fascinating and interesting. Something that has such a rich tradition, rich history, and has had such an impact on global music and artists from different disciplines. So we’re very happy about that.

Merican: Yes, I think the music might come across as quite intimidating at first, But I guess it’s like you know, how music is not really understood in a way, but felt. And that’s when the spirituality and the philosophy of the film really start to shine.

Tamhane: It was also a decision to have faith in the intuitive power of an audience. You trust them to let go and to submit to the film and then eventually start intuiting. And you know on an intuitive level that this music is powerful, hypnotizing and mesmerizing. Even if you’ve never heard it before.

Merican: I read about how you do 20, 30 takes and you really take the time to get the right shot. With all that, I can imagine how the editing process might be quite heavy, sifting through so many takes. You edited this film — how was the editing process like for you?

Tamhane: I do a lot of takes, and it’s a bit of a challenge in the edit. The thing is, in both my films, I’ve worked with a lot of non-professional actors. In The Disciple, most of the primary cast are professional musicians but acting for the first time. The language of the film is that there are long takes, there are wide shots, there’s not too much of back and forth in terms of the editing. So it’s a bit of a Rube Goldberg effect, where if one thing goes wrong, you have to start again. These are people who are acting for the first time and delivering scripted lines, and you don’t have the room you would find in other films where you can edit and cut to somebody else’s reaction. That is quite challenging, which is why we design our shooting schedule in a way where people and actors get the time to experiment, fail, and feel comfortable, not rushed.

At the same time, I’m also finding my rhythm for the scenes. I like working in a meticulous way. When it came to editing, it became more about shaping the overall rhythm of the film, shaping the performances, finding the best take. I didn’t plan to edit the film myself. It was Alfonso [Cuarón] who encouraged me and insisted that I edited this myself. I remember at one point, I was complaining to him that I was finding difficulty getting an editor for this film. Everyone’s so busy with all the work that’s happening in India, and I was considering getting an international editor. But I didn’t know if the language barrier would be too much or whether they’ll get it. And he said, “Who will know this better than you? Who can edit this better than you? It’s your vision, you should do it yourself.” And that was the time when I was like, okay, this sounds daunting, but maybe he is right. So I took that leap of faith, and I edited the film myself. I mean, I’m also generally quite involved in my edits. But this just became like a proper commitment, and it was great.

Merican: I’m sure you have many ideas of swirling around your head all the time. But what captured you about this particular story? How did you know that this was the next thing that you wanted to work on after Court?

Tamhane: I mean, there was a point in time when I had a lot of ideas in my head. But now, in the last six, seven, eight years, it’s been a bit more like just one idea that I am obsessed with and feel okay to commit to for such a long period of time. And generally the way it’s worked is that the idea calls me to itself. I might be chasing other ideas, I might be flirting with other thoughts and stories, but once a certain idea speaks to me and starts resonating, it becomes hard for me to think of anything else. So right now I’m waiting for this new idea that I’m going to obsess over and commit myself to. But definitely in case in the case of The Disciple, this world of Indian classical music just had me absolutely obsessed and possessed with it.

Merican: Could you share more about your working relationship with your producer, Vivek?

Tamhane: Vivek has been not just a collaborator, but also a friend and a mentor for me. He stuck by me in difficult times and put his own money in both the films that we’ve made together. Because he’s completely aware of the kind of work that’s happening in India and the lack of institutional funding. He believes that if you want to bring about a change, you have to do it yourself. The sheer amount of respect he has for the process, because our our entire objective is to be process-driven and not result-driven. With both Court and The Disciple, we’ve always tried to give it our best without thinking about the market or even festivals, awards, box office or any external constraints or requirements — and just do what we believe in. And it has worked out both times. Both these films would not exist without a producer like Vivek Gomber.

Merican: And I’m not sure if I got this exactly right, but you guys started out in a theatrical play together?

Tamhane: It was a play that I wrote at the age of 21, called Grey Elephants In Denmark. Vivek was the lead actor. I was directing and he was the actor in that play. That’s how we met back in 2008, or 2009. It’s been a very long collaboration in that sense. The fun part is that The Disciple is a spiritual adaptation of that play — the core premise and conflict of the play is what I adapted into a more mature [project] and set in the world of Indian classical music version, in The Disciple.

Merican: Oh, that’s so cool. Could you share more about how The Disciple borrows that same core philosophy from this play you wrote and directed?

Tamhane: Grey Elephants In Denmark was about a magician who’s partially talented, and he realises this when he has an aesthetic vision of what good magic is supposed to be. But he just doesn’t have the skill set or the personality to reach that. To live with that awareness after having come with that dedication and commitment to a certain art form is what the play explored. Of course, it was completely different. But I feel like The Disciple shares this thematic similarity and this conflict of an internal shortcoming being the obstacle in the way of your goal of your artistic pursuit. It borrowed from and was inspired by that play.

Merican: I was also wondering, you’ve done theater before, you’ve done writing for TV shows, and now you’re making films. Why do you think cinema is the best way of expressing all these ideas, at least for this stage of your career? What draws you to cinema specifically to express your creative ambitions?

Tamhane: I grew up loving films and loving theater. I was always fascinated by the idea of storytelling. My mother would take me to watch plays, she would get me audio cassettes which had people narrating stories. And coming from India, you’re always a film fanatic. There’s never a point where you’re not a film fanatic. But yes, it’s true that I did have a lot of interest in theater as well. I also grew up wanting to be an actor, because that was the most immediate form of expression and storytelling that you understood as a child. The changing point in my life happened in my late teens when I discovered world cinema. Up till then I only watched Bollywood films and a little bit of Hollywood films. When I discovered that there are films being made outside of these two mainstream systems and such unique stories from different cultures and different societies, it became a way for me to travel the world without really travelling. I was completely hooked to this new world of films that I was discovering, which I didn’t till then comprehend. That film as a medium could also mean this, or accommodate this. But it’s true that I don’t want to be tied to any one medium. For me still, storytelling is the most important part. So I also explore board games, and I play video games. And I still love watching theater. For me it’s still more about expression than any particular medium. But yes, I quite do love the medium of cinema.

Merican: You mentioned how world cinema opened your eyes to this different universe — what are perhaps two or three films that really inspired or influenced you the most?

Tamhane: The film that really changed my life and was the first film that I saw outside of Indian films and American films was City of God — the Brazilian film. Somebody just randomly mentioned it to me, “You should watch this film.” And this was also the time when a lot of DVD libraries were popping up in Mumbai, where you could rent DVDs. City of God was definitely one thing that influenced me a lot. Apart from that, something I saw in my early years of being a cinephile, one was Close-Up by Kiarostami. And the other one was Underground by Emir Kusturica. These films had a deep impact on me, and I still continue to love these films.

Merican: What are you up to next?

Tamhane: I have a few ideas in mind, I haven’t really committed to anything. I’m waiting to be obsessed with something. I’m also still finding some sort of a closure with The Disciple. I’m very interested in interactive media and transmedia entertainment. So there’s something in that zone that I want to explore. I’m also quite worried with what’s happening in the country right now, so I also want to do something that’s more political in nature, but nothing that has very easy answers. I’m toying with a few different directions and ideas. So let’s see, fingers crossed, that I come up with something that I feel is worth committing another two, three years of my life to.

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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