- Before The Disciple, Chaitanya Tamhane directed Court
- The Disciple is different tonally and texturally from Court: Chaitanya
- Alfonso Cuaron is the executive producer of The Disciple
Come September the Lido is where the action will be for Indian indie film lovers. Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple is among the 18 entries in Competition at the upcoming 77th Venice International Film Festival (September 2-12). The Disciple, India’s first Golden Lion contender in 19 years, ends a no-show that extends to the other two big European festivals (Cannes and Berlin) as well. It is also the sole Indian film in the curtailed slate of the 45th Toronto International Film Festival (September 10-19).
The Marathi-language film, Tamhane’s sophomore feature, was in the works for four years. After all neither history nor Hindustani classical music, in whose rarefied realms the new film is situated, is easy to make.
Venice is a happy hunting ground for Tamhane. His debut, Court, an austere, unerring critique of the legal system’s labyrinthine ways in a caste and class-ridden democracy, not only made the Orizzonti cut in 2014, it also won the section’s Best Film prize.
Excitement has peaked around The Disciple, which has Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron as executive producer. Tamhane worked with the unit of Cuaron’s Oscar-winning Roma in 2017-18 under the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, which deferred, and also left an imprint on, the making of The Disciple.
“The Disciple required a lot of research,” says Tamhane. “I needed some knowledge of Indian classical music before I could even start thinking about the film and discussing it with my collaborators.” The 33-year-old director dived “without any story in mind” into a new domain. “The theme and the characters emerged from the research and from what I experienced and witnessed (during the process),” he says.
As a teenager, Tamhane wrote daily soaps for Balaji Telefilms. At 21, he authored and directed a play, Grey Elephants in Denmark, which centred on a magician driven by an uncompromising passion for his art. He made an hourlong documentary on plagiarism in Indian cinema before crafting an exquisite short film, Six Strands (2011), which grew out of a video that he had seen of a tea-taster at work. “I found that process very interesting, so I decided to explore the idea of tea-tasting,” he recalls.
Discovery, exploration and an ability to respond to fresh stimuli have since underpinned Tamhane’s creative process, as it most definitely has in the case of The Disciple. It is set in a Mumbai far removed from the one portrayed in Court.
Court was an austere, even absurdist, tale of a people’s poet put on trial on the charge of abetting, through a song of pain and rebellion, the suicide of a sewage worker. The Disciple swings to another end of the metropolis. “I was not at all familiar with either of those two settings, which is what attracted me in the first place,” says Tamhane.
“If you are too familiar with the setting, you take it for granted. Here, I’m seeing it with fresh eyes, absorbing everything without judgment and trying to understand the different aspects somewhat like a kid in a candy store,” he explains.
Tamhane wasn’t exposed to Hindustani classical music in his growing up years. “I wasn’t even a listener. I was out and out a 90s kid who grew up on a staple of Hindi films, Marathi television and mainstream theatre,” he says.
“The starting point for me,” he adds, “were these anecdotes one had heard about the classical music masters of the past and present. These stories fascinated me… Classical music obviously has a rich history… It is a complex world with a lot of different nuances, contradictions and complications.”
He adds: “I approached this world almost like a journalist, interviewing people, attending concerts and slowly entering and getting familiar with it.” He asserts that while “The Disciple, too, is understated, “it is very different tonally and texturally from Court”.
“Court was very objective,” he says. “You observe everybody from a distance. In The Disciple, you follow the journey of one protagonist and almost get into his mind. It’s a lot more romantic, nostalgic and atmospheric.”
The casting for The Disciple was both a challenge and, as it seems to be with everything that Tamhane does, an adventure. The two principal characters are played by noted classical vocalists – Aditya Modak is in his early 30s, Arun Dravid is a septuagenarian.
The challenge was to “find people who could sing and act to fit the description of the characters, have screen presence, be interested in doing something like this, and have the time required for the project”. The casting process lasted for at least nine months to a year.
“We interviewed many Marathi actors. There were times when I was on the verge of giving up. All the other prep was happening parallelly, but we didn’t have a lead actor. It was a major worry,” he reveals. Tamhane had seen videos of Modak’s concerts. “I always had him in mind… But when I saw his audition and then met him, he was 20 kg heavier than what we required for the character.” “We also tried looking for other actors but there was just nobody. So, I told Aditya Modak I will cast him but he would have to do a physical transformation and quit everything else and focus on the film. He was up for it. It was a bit of a leap of faith. It was his first acting assignment in a feature film.”
Signing up Arun Dravid, seasoned vocalist of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana and Kishori Amonkar’s shishya, was another story. “He wasn’t interested in acting at all,” says Tamhane. Moreover, he lived in Los Angeles. We had to wait for him to come to Mumbai on one of his trips. We auditioned him and really liked his screen presence.”
But there was no getting away from the fact that for somebody of his age to do something for the first time wasn’t going to be easy. Says Tamhane: “He has a very sharp mind. But memorizing lines and delivering them was all very new for him.”
And there was the question of availability. “He is a busy professional. He is not only a musician; he also heads a big engineering company. Vivek (Gomber, the film’s producer) and I went to his house and had to convince him. He finally agreed. Once he did, he was fully committed to the project.”
One of Tamhane’s favourite things is going on a long drive at 2 or 3 AM. Mumbai, with which he has “a love-hate relationship”, never ceases to amaze him. “There hasn’t been a single night that I’ve not been surprised by what Mumbai has to offer. Diverse sub-cultures not only co-exist here, he says, but also almost depend on each other,” he says.
He adds: “One lives here, so you don’t seem to notice how this exchange happens. Initially, I would wonder is Indian classical music fighting for relevance? When I actually started attending these concerts, I realized what a vibrant and dynamic sub-culture this is in Mumbai. I was very surprised. For me, it was a new way of looking at the only city I’ve ever lived in.”
How has the stint with Cuaron impacted him? One’s worldview, he replies, does not change all that easily due to external influences. “But being on the sets of Roma has definitely changed me as a filmmaker at the level of craft and sensitization to the medium.”
The conversations with Cuaron and the latter’s “feedback and advice” during the making of The Disciple, he says, “expanded my vocabulary of filmmaking and I can now express my vision better.”
“I felt I had more control of the medium this time. I also had more resources at my disposal thanks to Vivek. I could experiment more, be braver with certain choices, spend more time, work with certain collaborators I could not have afforded in the first film. All of them taught me a great deal,” says Tamhane.