My first memory of Chaitanya Tamhane, the director who made an astounding debut with his film Court, was at a special screening of the film post its big win at Mumbai Film Festival in 2014. Since then, Court has continued to resonate across the world, long after its trailblazing run which began in September (2014) at the Venice International Film Festival.
It was another testament to Tamhane's talent when auteur extraordinaire Alfonso Cuarón handpicked him amongst many contenders to be his protégé as part of the world renowned Rolex Mentor & Protégés Arts Initiative. Chaitanya's friend, filmmaker Aditya Assarat was director Mira Nair's protégé in the earlier years. Chaitanya had made a note in his diary in 2012 to participate but then found out from Aditya that the program is by invite only. The mentors choose their protégés and not the other way round. All you can do is apply.
The news of Chaitanya bagging the mentorship sent ripples through the Indian independent film industry. It was an opportunity that many would kill for. But it was also an opportunity that many might not have the fortitude to make time for. Chaitanya could have capitalised on the success of Court but he chose the mentorship as his follow up act because he says, "I will never otherwise get to see a process like this, a filmmaker of his scale, his level, at work."
I played the festival card and sought permission from Rolex for an interview with a fresh-from-a-month-of-unadulterated-Cuarón, Chaitanya Tamhane. We met and chatted for three hours (not all on the record). Edited excerpts from my conversation:
When people write about you, they often use the term "self-trained". Did you miss having a mentor in your early years?
In those days, I was not lucky enough to be in touch with somebody whose work I admired or who is of that calibre that I would have liked to be mentored by them. I am constantly riddled by this insecurity that I don't know enough especially because I haven't been to a film school and I haven't assisted. Therefore, this mentorship program with Cuarón was a godsend for me. There are certain things that you cannot know unless you've had experiences, unless you have burnt your own hands, unless you have gone through emotions. So, the wisdom a person who has made 7 or 8 films can bring to the table, a debutant filmmaker can never have that.
It's very different when you casually meet someone at a party or at a networking event. You just cannot have that kind of a dialogue. The other aspect is that the most valuable things cannot be expressed in words. There are certain things you only learn by watching someone at work. So the most valuable part of this experience was for me to watch him at work, and not just for a day or two but for a much longer and more involved period. There are so many things that I learnt which even he cannot articulate in words because he is acting from his subconscious when he is working and those were the most precious lessons.
This programme allows the mentor and protégée to decide the duration and the level of engagement. What is the kind of arrangement that Cuarón and you arrived at?
The programme is still ongoing for us. I am going to join him for the post production of the film. We kept it flexible. What happens is that once you have a rapport, once you have a relationship, it becomes a long term thing. I can always email him; I can always get in touch with him if there is something I need to know. Also I shared my next script with him (quickly retracts looking at my bright hopeful face). I don't have a script but I meant I shared my idea for the film and he gave me valuable feedback. My time with him gave me the impression that that he is the kind of guy who wouldn't stick to a timeline. I am sure this would continue much longer than the official programme.
I was the only person allowed to sit next to Alfonso. I was conscious of not getting in his way. We chatted whenever he had time between shots. We went out for dinner, for outings around the city.
For me, the idea of this interview is to be transported to Mexico, where Cuarón is shooting his next film Roma and be the person watching you guys on set. What was it like?
They were shooting outside a theatre and it is a period film set in the seventies. So at first, I was just awed by the scale of it all. It's an art house film. You have never seen Alfonso make anything like this. But of course, it is Alfonso Cuarón's independent movie so it's still much bigger than anything that I would have ever seen. The good thing was that on the first day itself, Alfonso introduced me to his entire crew, not as his protégé but as an amazing filmmaker. He was so kind. He allowed me unlimited access to all departments. The film set was strict otherwise. I was the only person allowed to sit next to Alfonso. I was conscious of not getting in his way. We chatted whenever he had time between shots. We went out for dinner, for outings around the city.
He created an atmosphere where I was the kid in a candy shop, like a butterfly in the garden. I also picked the brains of his production designer who was the production designer on Pan's Labyrinth, the sound recordist who has done Y Tu Mamá También and the VFX Supervisor who worked on Benjamin Button. I made friends with all of them and hammered them with endless questions. Alfonso was always honest, candid and forthcoming with me about everything.
What was his process like?
His process is a bit like that of a superhero. It's insane how much clarity he has. I always thought it was a myth about directors knowing exactly what they want. My process is totally the opposite of that. I am always searching for something. I understood the meaning of the word visionary when I saw him at work. He knows about every department. Every H.O.D. was on his or her toes because Alfonso knew so much about their job. He has so much experience in VFX and cinematography. His sense of composition, sense of lighting, the way he goes around setting up a shot. He was like a painter painting the image with the props, with the lights, with the VFX. On my film I was making the best out of what I had. He was literally creating the image. It is a different approach.
I understood the meaning of the word visionary when I saw him at work. He knows about every department. Every H.O.D. was on his or her toes because Alfonso knew so much about their job
Did you get to ask about his early years, his trials, his challenges or his journey to where he is right now?
All the time! My standard questions would be like, "This process is so painful, this process is so brutal", I would keep asking him. But he infused me with a lot of strength, with a lot of positivity. He said, "Yes, it's brutal but it's the most beautiful brutality that there is. You should stop stressing about the struggles and just do it." That inspired me to not think about the struggles because he never made a big deal out of his struggles. You could clearly see that he has gone through a lot but he doesn't focus on it. He only focuses on progress. He says, "The only reason that I make a new film is so that I can learn something new about filmmaking and be better in my next one." He is really that humble and sincere.
I have learnt so much about filmmaking by making Court that I am not the same filmmaker that I was before Court
What is your biggest takeaway from the programme?
I won't get into the specifics because some of the stuff is technical. But let me put it this way, I got sensitized to certain aspects of filmmaking that I never was sensitized to. Also, I found out that no matter how big the scale of the movie or the filmmakers, some of the battles are the same. For every director, for every movie, it's a battle from the scratch. It never gets easier. This is something that I learnt from his processes.
He was working in Mexico after a very long time. He was working with a local crew this time and he is generally used to working in a totally different set up. He loves taking on these kind of challenges. I was like, "These are the same type of problems that I have faced in Mumbai that he is facing in Mexico and he is the Alfonso Cuarón. It never gets any easier."
You once said, "I am a very practical person and once I have made a film I would only like to view it in terms of how does it practically benefit me." How has Court changed your practical reality?
It has totally changed my life. I don't have to think about my survival for the next 2 years. It doesn't get more practical than that. Before Court I was always worried about my survival in terms of putting food on the table. Sometimes it attacks your dignity and your self-respect. Practically, that has changed. There is so much that has changed that I can't even put that in words. I got to travel and see the world. And when I say world I just don't mean the different countries, but how certain things work like releasing a film, the festival circuit. Being on the Jury at Venice taught me so much. Also, filmmaking is a practical exercise. You can only learn by doing it. So, it was also like a film school for me. I have learnt so much about filmmaking by making Court that I am not the same filmmaker that I was before Court.
Is it hard to keep the purity of the creative process intact when the burden to deliver a brilliant second film looms large?
It has nothing to do with expectations. It's just bloody hard for me. I don't enjoy it at all and it is super stressful for me. I am shitting bricks, and I am not that person who is super confident like an alpha male and knows what he is doing. I am totally not that person. So, it has got nothing to do with expectations, it is to do more with my journey. I am a cynical person. As it is in my head, my next film is going to be a disaster, so might as well make it the best disaster that I can. So that's more my thing.
As someone who works at MAMI, I can see that it is so hard for filmmakers to get sales, distribution, exposure, production money. Everybody is struggling to get their work out there or off the ground. On a path that is fraught with so much struggle, what holds a filmmaker together?
You know, this is such an interesting question. I asked the same question to Jia Zhangke at MAMI last year when I moderated his masterclass. He gave an answer that just solved the mystery for me. He said, "We make films because we love to make films. We don't do it for any other reason and no matter what the economic status of the market is, what the situation is, the ones who want to make it to express whatever – resentment, anger, love, it's a part of resistance, it's a reaction. The ones who want to make it will make it. It is happening, it has happened and it will keep happening because we do it because we love it." So yes, there is this reality and then there are miracles that happen because they are supposed to happen. His answer was really an eye opener for me.
What is the one thing if changed can alter the reality of filmmakers in the indie space?
What I would like to have essentially is something that cannot be created. It is the audience. If there is a demand, everything else will take care of itself. Right now there are too many problems. Like institutional funding is not in place, distribution outlets are not in place, the right kind of infrastructure that suits the Indian film's workflow is not in place, those sensibilities are not in place. But, this is all related ultimately to the demand. That demand can only be created through an audience that goes to the theatres and pays for these kind of films. The demand is on torrent or film festivals. You know this is something that cannot be created. I mean maybe not consciously or overnight. What I mean is that this is not something that can be fixed on a policy level.
Out of your contemporaries, whose work do you like?
I like many. I liked Thithi a lot. I think Amit Dutta and Gurvinder Singh are two directors that I really respect for the kind of work that they are doing. Avinash Arun's Killa also I liked a lot.
I am still in the process of writing. It is the most painful process, the process I hate the most, but I can't live without it, so it's a weird relationship. It would be significantly different from Court is what I can tell
I cannot conclude without you telling me about your next film.
There is no script. There is just an idea which I told Alfonso in London about. I can't talk about it but all I can say is I am very excited at the same time very stressed because I am still in the process of writing. It is the most painful process, the process I hate the most, but I can't live without it, so it's a weird relationship. It would be significantly different from Court is what I can tell. Hopefully in a couple of months, I will have something to share.
While you battle it out at the artistic level, in terms of practicality, have you managed to get finance for your second film?
Honestly, people offered but I didn't take it. I said, "You don't come on board because of the success of Court. You read this new script, and then if you want to come on board then you come on board, because it might not be your cup of tea" and I said, "I have enough money to write the script, so I will share the script with you once it's done. I don't want your money right now." I got offered money internationally and I haven't taken it. I really haven't thought of where I am going to raise the money because I feel if I start thinking about all that, it will adulterate my creative process.