Alfonso Cuarón liberated me: Chaitanya Tamhane

Venice-bound filmmaker Chaitanya Tamhane is concerned about the sophomore jinx. “You know what they say when your début film does so well,” he laughs, as we speak over a video call on a rainy evening. It’s been over a week since the lineup for the 77th Venice International Film Festival was announced, which includes Tamhane’s second film, The Disciple, competing for the prestigious Golden Lion. It’s his return to the world’s oldest standing film festival, where his first venture, Court, won the Best Film in the Orizzonti category and the Luigi De Laurentiis award for best début filmmaker. “It was the third time in the history of Venice that one film won two Lions,” he recalls.

The pressure with The Disciple — a coming-of-age Marathi saga set “on the fringes of Indian classical music and its subculture” in Mumbai — is palpable. Tamhane is no longer a novice director with limited resources, who emerged out of nowhere in 2015. His second film not only has the backing of celebrated filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón as the executive producer but is also a product of various cross-border collaborations. It is shot by Polish cinematographer Michal Sobociński; Polish independent distributor, New Europe Film Sales, and California-based Endeavor Content are handling its sales; Los Angeles-based film company, Participant, has mentored the project; and the film was mixed in Germany. “You feel a sense of responsibility and it is surreal to know that too many people have invested in this and you have to do justice,” says Tamhane, 33.

Cuarón’s backing of the film has been an “organic extension” of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, which enabled Tamhane to spend a year with the Mexican director on the sets of the Oscar-winning film, Roma. As the programme came to an end, Cuarón envisaged interest in The Disciple which Tamhane had just begun to write. “He told me certain traps to avoid. For example, I told him I don’t know how to do any kind of exposition with Indian classical music because most people won’t be aware of this kind of music,” he says. “Cuarón said, ‘Don’t even bother. That’s not your job, don’t do it’, and that liberated me.”

Tamhane has learnt to sidestep expectations. Even though The Disciple is the first Indian film to compete in any of the three big European film festivals — Cannes, Berlin and Venice — in the last two decades, he is unsure about what clicks with programmers. “Court was accused of being made for a Western audience,” he observes. “The Disciple might seem like it was made for festivals because Indian classical music may look like a very exotic subject, but the music is completely alien to Western ears and it is not instantly palatable.” Tamhane has refrained from providing context or explaining the heritage of Indian classical music for an international audience. “I don’t want to have the burden of representing Indian classical music with all its complexities,” he says.

All in the mind

Tamhane has a distinct approach to cinema. He believes in immersing himself in a particular setting — often the one he is alien to — before writing a script. He has often described it to be a “journalistic approach”. With The Disciple, he first travelled around the country — from Ahmedabad, Delhi, Pune, Varanasi to Kolkata — to understand the world of Hindustani classical music and he developed a friendship with musicians. Tabla maestro Aneesh Pradhan designed the music for the film and was a research consultant. “Even while writing, I would call them up and ask them ‘what would you do in this particular situation?’,” he recalls.

Once the script was ready, the casting process involved extensive auditions with actors who could sing. After auditioning professional actors for the primary cast, he realised that they lacked authenticity and opted for non-professional actors. “The human face boils down to texture,” he says. “I am into magic quite a bit and if I’m working with an actor who I have seen many times onscreen, the illusion for me is not real.” The genesis of The Disciple lies in his fascination with magic. “The film is a spiritual adaptation of a play I had written when I was 21 called Grey Elephants in Denmark,” he informs. “It was about the journey of a magician and we would do mind-reading experiments with the audience and break the fourth wall.” The filmmaker is inspired by the concepts of the Spanish school of magic, which is reflective in the editing, sound and grading of his films. “It’s about controlling not just the eye but also the mind, because the film and magic actually happens in the mind and not what you see onscreen,” he declares.

Rooting for Indie cinema

While The Disciple competing at Venice is a milestone for Indian independent cinema, Tamhane says that there’s a “gaping hole” at international film festivals for a country that makes the most number of films. Unlike many Western countries, India lacks institutional funding and international co-productions, he says. “A lot of other countries support films through taxpayers’ money. In India, most filmmakers are working with very limited resources and film is a very capital intensive medium,” he says, adding, “My film is an exception, rather than the norm.”

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Printable version | Jun 23, 2021 2:40:24 AM |

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