Meet filmmaker Chaitanya Tamhane who is all set to head to the Venice Film Festival a second time around with his new film ‘The Disciple’

In an interview with YSWeekender, Chaitanya Tamhane, the award-winning filmmaker talks about his film ‘The Disciple,’ his scriptwriting process and his stint with Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón known for directing popular films like Roma

Filmmaker Chaitanya Tamhane has done it again. After his debut feature ‘Court made it to the Venice Film Festival in 2014 and winning the Lion of the Future Award- his new film 'The Disciple' is set to sail on international waters again.

It will be competing for the prestigious Golden Lion at the festival’s main competition in September. (Earlier, it was also one of the official selections at the Toronto Film Festival 2020.)

Indian Filmmaker, Chaitanya Tamhane.

Tamhane, who blends imagination, passion, and rigour to portray often-overlooked truths of society, is naturally thrilled. Given that he’d “been studying the world of Indian classical music for the film” and was fairly “obsessed” with the subject, this recognition is as big as any filmmaker could get.

In an exclusive interview with YSWeekender, Tamhane talks about the inspirations behind 'The Disciple', its similarities with his 2009 play 'Grey Elephants' in Denmark,’ his stint with Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón, his long-term creative collaborator, Vivek Gomber (who has produced both his films), and what he wants to communicate to the audience through his cinema.

(Edited excerpts)

YSWeekender: Tell us a little bit about how your passion for filmmaking began. Did you always know that you wanted to be a part of the cinematic universe?

Chaitanya Tamhane: I have always been interested in telling stories and I've always wanted to be a writer. I actually grew up wanting to be an actor because as a child that was the most immediate form of expression that I understood. So, I was doing theatre even in college and I was always a movie buff but when I discovered World Cinema at the age of 19, that is when I became really serious about pursuing films and becoming a film director.

'City of God' was the first film that I had seen outside of Hollywood and Bollywood and it completely blew my mind.

I realised that there are films being made in different parts of the world and there are so many different stories that I had no idea about.

I got obsessed with this and I got sucked into that world of films that portrayed different kinds of stories, and that’s when it became clear to me that I wanted to become a film director.

YSW: Who were some of your early inspirations in the performing arts space?

CT: When I started doing inter-college theatre, I heard about works of Vijay Tendulkar. The more I read about his plays and writing, the more I was inspired by it. I even met him few times. He was a big inspiration. Ramu Ramanathan, another playwright and mentor, has also been an inspiration.

When it came to films, I was really fascinated by foreign films, theatre, and films from different parts of the world.

Some of my early influences were Lars Von Trier, Wong Kar-wai, and of course 'City of God' directed by Fernando Meirelles piqued my interest in world cinema. Another big inspiration was Michael Haneke, the Austrian filmmaker.

YSW: Who currently inspires you the most right now?

CT: Right now, I am in that phase where I like a particular film more than a director's entire set of filmography. There are many different films.

Of course, director Alfonso is now a big influence since I met him, and he has taught me a lot. I am also very inspired by the Spanish school of Magic, a lot of magicians and mind readers, because I am very interested in that world.

There are certain writers who I am inspired by now that I have been studying the World of Indian classical music for the film The Disciple. I also found many of those figures to be very inspirational.

But I would say I have variety of different influences. I am heavily into board games, and interactive films, and video games, so some of those designers I find very inspirational.

So, anybody who is committed to their art in a very authentic way. Anybody who is exploring the medium of storytelling in whatever different format that might be, inspires me.

A still from Tamhane's new film 'The Disciple.' (Image Credit: Zoo Entertainment)

YSW: Tell us about your new film ‘The Disciple’ and what made you explore the subculture of Indian Classical music through this film? Are you an avid music enthusiast yourself?

CT: I had always been fascinated by stories I have heard of classical musicians in the past - funny anecdotes or some anecdotes involving secrets or sacrifices from the history of classical music.

I was never into the music itself, but I don’t know how this bug bit me, and one fine day I found myself obsessed with this world.
I started watching as many documentaries as I could, reading a variety of books, started attending concerts and interviewing musicians, not just in Mumbai but also in Ahmedabad, Delhi, Banaras, Kolkata with no particular agenda in mind.

I was actually working on another film, but I just found myself more and more fascinated and obsessed with this world.

At one point I knew this world was calling me towards itself, and that now I had to commit to it, and I had to come to terms with the fact that my new script would be about the world of Indian classical music. Which is also such a vibrant dynamic world with a rich history, and so many complexities and nuances.

And being in Bombay it’s just a joy to discover how dynamic and active this subculture is.

I would always question if this culture dying? Or is this art form struggling for relevance. However, if you open the newspaper or go to a relevant website (of course I’m talking about the pre-Covid era) you will realise how much is happening in a city like Mumbai. And how many dedicated practitioners this city has.

Also, so many musicians come from around the world and perform in Bombay, there are endless sources to dive into.

YSW: You have previously written a play titled ‘Grey Elephants in Denmark’ (2009) inspired by your love for magic and training in magic and mentalism, does this film hold a special place in your heart, and would you say it helped you as a scriptwriter and director for your future works?

CT: That play was very special to me. It was the first full-length play that I have written and directed. My love for magic and mentalism has only grown over the years and 'The Disciple' is actually a spiritual adaptation of 'Grey Elephants'.

The core conflict and the core theme are the same that they were in 'Grey Elephants' in Denmark. Of course, I am a changed person, this is 12 years ago but the essence remains the same. 

And that play was also a milestone in my life because that was the first time I collaborated with Vivek Gomber who was the lead actor in the play, who is now the producer of The Disciple and was the producer of 'Court' who basically changed my life, so that play remains close to my heart

YSW: Both your films have made it to The Venice Film Festival and ‘The Disciple’ has made it to The Toronto Film Festival as one of the 50 titles in the official selection of 2020. How does the fruit of your hard work feel?

CT: It’s one of those things which you only dream about. Venice is one of the best and oldest film festivals in the world. Some of my favourite films and an absolute filmmakers’ films have premiered in Venice.

But being a part of the main competition, which happened for the first time in nearly 20 years for an Indian film, is one of those lifelong dreams that has come true. 

So, every film is a new battle. They will look at your new film with seriousness if your previous film has done well at their festival. But eventually they are going to judge your film based on its own merit because they're also responsible for the line-up and they care about the kind of films they show.

It was such a relief to know that it wasn’t just a fluke with 'Court' and once again they have responded to our work it felt like a great honour and massive privilege.

Similarly, with Toronto it’s probably the most important film festival in North America and this year they have only 50 titles because of pandemic.

It definitely feels great to be one of those 50 films from around the world. I am very thankful to both these festivals for giving us this opportunity and giving us this platform to present our film to a discerning world audience.

YSW: Your debut Film ‘Court’ was much appreciated and a huge success. Tell us about what inspired you to depict the Indian judicial system with a Dalit singer-activist at the forefront.

CT: I remember attending a live concert by Gadar the famous revolutionary singer in a chawl in Mahim late at night, and that left a deep impression on me.

When I started researching for the film ‘Court’, I came across many cases where people and activists were being charged with sedition and for being anti-national.

Being charged under the UAPA was something that really fascinated me. I wanted to study that because the mainstream media was not really talking about these cases or giving enough importance to the stories of these people.

Then somehow this character of Gadar came about, combined with the time I came across Samba ji Bhagat’s performances and his work, and all this fit into that puzzle. And that became a part of the story of this Dalit activist folk singer who is charged with abetment of suicide for one of his songs.

Of course, the story is very, fictitious and not inspired by one person but many people.

YSW: What is your brainstorming process like, and how do you execute your vision from paper to screen?

CT: For me the most difficult part is arriving at the script. It takes me a long time a lot of stumbling in the dark, a lot of tears of blood and frustration, to arrive at the script, especially since I am more or less shooting in the dark. I’m not following the template of any genre and I’m not trying to do something derivative.
I’m trying to do something original to find newer solutions, and new answers, so it is a very lonely and scary process. For me, the most difficult part is the scripting process.

When it comes to realising and executing on-screen, luckily you have lot of good collaborators, or at least the idea that you should work with collaborators who understand your vision. 

And then you show up at work every day and focus on the details.

It’s important to focus on every little aspect to the best of your capabilities and give your best shot and try to stay authentic to your instincts and original vision so that it does not get lost because of the logistic burden and chaos that surrounds a film shoot for a variety of reasons.

Filmmaker Chaitanya Tamhane with Alfonso Cuarón. (Image Credit: Chien Chi Chang, Magnum Photos)

YSW: What feelings did you hope to evoke in your viewer through ‘Court’ and what would you like audience members to take away from ‘The Disciple.’

CT: For me 'Court' was a film that was about empathising with people who we may not be able to relate to at times.

'Court' for me was about the people who become cogs of the machinery. An institution is an abstract concept, but it is organised and is run by the people for the people. I wanted to understand these individual units.

The feeling I wanted to evoke was that I wanted people to look at the other side of the picture, and realise that even the people who we might find objectionable are from the same society as us.

Their political values, their biases and their views on morality are shaped by the social conditioning that they have been raised in. For me, of course it was watching it objectively from a distance but at the same time being deeply empathetic to their inner world.

With ‘The Disciple’ it’s very different. The film is an inner world of an artist who is trying to trace his path in an increasingly modernised world while at the same time wanting to stick to the traditional values and roots that he has been raised on.

Beyond that I encourage viewers to watch the film, and see the individual feelings it evokes in them

It’s a very emotional film and the themes explored in the film are very universal and applicable to many other art forms and people who want to do something that involves, dedication, rigour, and sacrifice to express themselves artistically.

YSW: In between ‘Court’ and ‘The Disciple’ you worked alongside filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón, who was executive producer of ‘The Disciple’. Where did you first meet and what were some of the similar ideologies you shared when it came to creating films?

CT: Coming in contact with Alfonso Cuarón has been very enriching experience for me because I feel like he has expanded my vocabulary as a filmmaker.

He shared some of his tools and ideas of filmmaking with me.

Obviously he is operating at a very different level with many more resources, so I was quite wide eyed on the sets of 'Roma'.

But at the same time you realise that your core concerns and your core struggles when it comes to this process, are pretty similar because he was shooting that film in Mexico, but I felt like these are the exactly same type of problems that I deal with in Mumbai, while trying to shoot a film.

And no matter how much experience you have or how many resources you have, some of those problems don’t go away, and you just have to battle it out. He inspired me to be a warrior, to be brave and to keep fighting for your vision.

Apart from that he taught me so much about navigating your career as a filmmaker and it was just a pleasure to realise that we share a similar world view about the human experience, which we ultimately try to depict through our films.

Actor Vivek Gomber has worked with Chaitanya as both an actor, producer, and is a dear friend who inspires him. (Image Credit: Jim Sarbh, Zoo Entertainment)

YSW: Who are some of the other individuals you have had the opportunity to collaborate with?

CT: Vivek Gomber has been a most important collaborator in my life. I have worked with him, not only as an actor but also as a producer, and I consider him to be a very dear friend and a father figure in my life. 

He’s the one who provided me with unlimited resources and with blind faith in me and my talent. He allowed to me to uncompromisingly realise my vision, and I am very grateful to him for that.

Puja Talreja is another important collaborator of mine, whom I have known from the age of 18 and she has done the production design for both ‘Court’ and ‘The Disciple’.

On ‘The Disciple’ I have got to collaborate with Aneesh Pradhan which was a very fruitful collaboration. He has designed the music of the film.

It was also my first time working with Michał Sobociński, the Polish cinematographer and he has done a fantastic job. I had a beautiful time working with him.

Another important collaborator Anita Kushwaha who has done the location sound and sound design for both ‘Court’ and ‘The Disciple. She has stood by me and the film in the toughest of times and given me a lot of support not only with all the dedication to the work, but also with her wisdom at insight but just the spirit with which she associated with us, and her blind faith in the film.

I would want to collaborate in future with some of my favourite magicians and, mind readers in the world.

I am working on a very interesting project...but yeah game designer, mind reader, people/artistes from the different walks of life who I think who can sort of eventually amalgamate and collate into the medium of film, and how that happens I’m very curious to see how that happens, but I do have certain ideas that I would like to explore with them.

YSW: Are you planning on any more exciting upcoming projects in the year ahead? What are some of the other themes you would like to explore?

CT: I’m actually waiting to see what the new normal is like and how this industry shapes up in the post Covid era. Of course, I have some ideas in mind, like dealing with what’s happening in this country right now politically, socially and in terms of discourse. I am also very interested in interactive storytelling and different forms of storytelling which can come together in a very interesting way for a modern audience.

I have some ideas in mind but it’s going to be a long commitment. I’m taking my time and making sure that whatever I commit to I am genuinely in love with it. So yeah, I am waiting it out little bit.

YSW: What do you enjoy doing most on the weekend during your free time when not making films?

CT: I love playing board games and performing and studying magic and mentalism. I love playing video games. Basically, being a nerd. I like hanging out with my friends, going for long drives though I don't drive but sit in passenger seat. I don’t like to do anything too intense. I just like to take it easy and unwind.

(Picture Credits: Filmmaker Chaitanya Tamhane, and Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative)

Edited by Asha Chowdary


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