He Has Expanded My Filmmaking Vocabulary: Court Director Chaitanya Tamhane On Working With Alfonso Cuaron

The filmmaker's next feature, The Disciple, has been selected in competition at the Venice Film Festival
He Has Expanded My Filmmaking Vocabulary: Court Director Chaitanya Tamhane On Working With Alfonso Cuaron

Celebrated independent filmmaker Chaitanya Tamhane is back. After his highly acclaimed 2015 film Court made waves at festivals across the world, the filmmaker's next feature The Disciple has been selected in competition at the prestigious Venice Film Festival. The filmmaker spoke to Anupama Chopra about his new film, auditioning more than 1800 actors and working with Alfonso Cuaron.

Anupama Chopra: The Disciple is the first film to be selected for the competition at the Venice Film Festival since Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding in 2001. It's also showing at the Toronto Film Festival and filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron has come onboard as an executive producer. What is going through your head right now? 

Chaitanya Tamhane: I am very excited. We are still processing all of this and it's very overwhelming. We have seen some tough times and there was a lot of uncertainty. I was very worried about what  would happen to the film and how it would be released. So when we got a competition slot at Venice and then at Toronto, which was followed by Alfonso coming on board as a producer, we couldn't have asked for a better fall festival premiere. It's one of the first films to make it to any of the three main European festivals in the last 20 years. So it does feel surreal. 

AC: This film is based on Indian classical music. Can you tell me from where the story originated?

CT: I was working on another film. I don't know how or when this spark of music just bit me. I don't even know why it happened but I was in denial for the longest time because I had to work on another project. But I was gravitating towards this music. I was reading books and watching documentaries and attending concerts. 

It was 9 to 10 months of auditioning musicians and actors. There are absolutely no professional actors in this film

AC: You weren't already a fan? 

CT: I had no idea about Indian classical music. I had not grown up listening to it. So I had to start from scratch, which was also exciting because I like to immerse myself into worlds that I have no idea about. So there was this  big process of being completely enamoured by it, then finding it mundane and then rediscovering it. After that, came the script, which was the last part. It's also such a rich world, filled with tales of masters, secret knowledge and these anecdotes with such a rich history. The music is also so magical. So it was an entire process of falling in love, then falling out of love and then falling back in love and then I decided, after a lot of thought, to abandon the other project. And that's how I started writing the script.

AC: For your first film, Court, I heard that you had auditioned around 1,800 actors over 10 months. How did it work for this film, which requires the actors to be steeped in such a specific knowledge? 

CT: When I gave the script to my friends and other people to read it, they said it was great but would ask how I was going to cast the film. They said it could not be cast for because we were working with so many limitations. The actors need to have a screen presence. Since the primary characters are musicians, they need to be able to perform the music. They also need to speak Marathi. If you're a musician, you have to be interested in the project to be able to give it so much of your time. We auditioned more people than we had for Court. The pool was quite narrow because we harassed every Marathi-speaking musician in the state and in the country to come and audition for this film. They were wondering what this project was and why they were constantly getting calls  about it. But we had a very dedicated casting team who really stuck it out. It was 9 to 10 months of auditioning musicians and actors. There are absolutely no professional actors in this film. There are theatre directors but it's mostly musicians who are acting for the first time. 

AC: How did you get them to give you the performance you wanted? 

CT: Once you know that the performance, the actors are your priority – you engineer your entire shoot around them. It's an expensive and tedious process. We would shoot one scene a day. It's about creating an atmosphere on set so the actors to feel comfortable. So, in essence, we were performing for them because even though we were freaking out, we kept saying that everything is okay. I did a lot of takes but that's to do with the the form I use. We had to ensure that we had the perfect cast. Then we conducted a lot of workshops and formed a rapport with them. After that, it wasn't too difficult to get the performances. 

AC: How did Alfonso came on board as a producer? 

CT: I had shown him a rough cut and I was really scared about what his reaction was going to be. Then he left for Cannes. He was involved with the film right from its genesis. Even before I wrote the script, I told him about this project and he said it sounded beautiful. He helped me find a cinematographer. He helped me during the edit. He read the script and saw the film as well. He has been guiding us through the entire journey of this film. It's a relationship that has developed organically over the last three or four years. He keeps saying that he is helping me because of the film, which makes sense because a person of his stature wouldn't put his neck on the line just because we're friends or because we met through a program. (Producer) Vivek (Gomber) and I are very grateful to him because it obviously helps the film. The Rolex mentorship program I did with Alfonso has been very beneficial. The gains go much beyond the program. 

I've been bullied by people on my short film. But that gave me strength and made me decisive about what I want to do and the kind of people I want to surround myself with

AC: In one of your interviews, you said that since meeting him, you have become more sensitized and aware. Can you tell me what that means as a filmmaker? 

CT: It was not just one thing, it was a lot of things. There are some things that you learn through having deep conversations with a master like him and there are others you learn by watching him work. I'm not professionally trained as a filmmaker, whereas he is a filmmaker who is at another level of understanding the medium and challenging it. He pushed me out of my comfort zone many times, not only on my film but also during Roma. He pushes me all the time to think big and to not be fearful of anything. I used to think that I was very detail-oriented and then I saw Alfonso at work.

As a filmmaker, he has expanded my filmmaking vocabulary. For instance, he is the master of using VFX in the most deceptive manner. I'm not talking of films like Gravity or Children of Men but I'm talking about a film like Roma. Even his usage of Dolby Atmos or editing. He was editing the final cut of Roma at three frames or four frames, there was that level of detail. There's also his understanding of light and image and the relationship of cinematography with storytelling. I've imbibed a lot of that into The Disciple in conscious and unconscious ways. He keeps saying he sees me in every frame of The Disciple. He's very kind. I've become even more of a control freak now. 

AC: Your journey has been amazing. At 17, you were writing daily soaps for Balaji. At 33, you have a film at the Venice Film Festival. And you've never learnt filmmaking in a formal way.

CT: I started working very early and met some terrible people who tried to convince me that I wouldn't go anywhere in life. I've been taken to a fake astrologer at the age of 17 or 18. He told me to work only under one particular person. I've been bullied by people on my short film. But that gave me strength and made me decisive about what I want to do and the kind of people I want to surround myself with. I realised the importance of the energy or vibe your collaborators create. I've been very lucky to have a great crew on both my films. I became very vigilant about who I was working with and whether they understand my vision.

But in the larger sense, there is only one answer and that is Vivek Gomber. The films and I exist only because of him. At 23 or 24, I was on the verge of completely giving up, not just on films but on life as well. My friends used to check up on me to see if I was doing okay. This theme is somewhat visible in Court. I was a different person back then. I had a different kind of fire in my belly and I wanted to prove myself but I did not have any opportunities. I still don't see any opportunities outside of Vivek, to be honest. We met when I was 21 and had done a play together in Denmark called Grey Elephants. Then I did my short film, which in many ways was not a good experience for me. We reconnected and I told him that I wasn't doing very well. I told him I had this idea of a courtroom drama but I didn't have the money to either make it or to sustain myself. Without any conditions or agreements, he said he would provide money for my sustenance and that I should write the film. We've had this relationship for the past 10 to 12 years and I can't tell you the paternal love he has for me. I remember when the Lion of the Future award was announced at Venice, I could see tears in his eyes – not because the film won an award but it was like a father won an award.

AC: Your first film premiered at the Venice Film Festival and won best film there. It also was India's official entry to the Oscars that year. It won the National Award. What was it like to experience that rush of fame and then to put it all aside and make your next film? 

CT: Court's journey was like a fairytale. I was just 25 when I made it. Vivek had produced it and it was just a small Marathi film with few non-actors, but with a lot of passion and ambition. What happened was beyond our expectations. The journey was quite long because we had to submit the film to all the festivals and then do an Oscar campaign in LA. I got offered the Rolex mentorship program then.

I don't take the success part of it seriously, I keep all of those things at bay. The way of life that I've chosen is very disconnected. You won't see me at parties or screenings or giving many interviews. It's a conscious decision so I don't get distracted. Any kind of pressure or fear that I felt was before I wrote the first page of The Disciple. That was just my process of getting it all out of my system. After that, I didn't care because I was busy with work. 

I am obsessed with the idea of internal success and internal failure or worldly success. All of these ideas are a part of The Disciple

AC: You're a lover of long takes and stillness. There is a certain gravitas you see in Court. Where does that come from? 

CT: That neither comes from films nor from theatre. That came from my understanding of magic. I've been learning magic and mind-reading as a subject for the past 13 years. It's got something to do with communicating with the subconscious and understanding time and space to create a convincing illusion. A lot of the filmmakers whose work I admire have that sort of conviction and assurance in their work, which I'm definitely inspired by.

Alfonso keeps telling me that cinema is a language. The Disciple has an eight-minute-long scene, which we shot in one continuous take. The actors rehearsed for it for one month. But on the day of the shoot, I said that this would put viewers off and it wasn't right for the film. So it's all about how you play with that language and how you evolve with it. It's also about how you play with the audience's expectations. 

AC: Alfonso said that his daughter asked him whether you would be a successful filmmaker and Alfonso said that you already are. How do you define success? 

CT: This is the first question I asked him when I met him for the first time in London. I am obsessed with the idea of internal success and internal failure or worldly success. All of these ideas are a part of The Disciple. I asked him what it feels like to be a filmmaker who has not seen failure. His last five films have either been financially successful or critically successful or both. He told me that success or failure is all internal and not what the world thinks. And that hit me.

I'm scared of too much success because that brings too much attention. The higher you get, the bigger the fall. We're living in a scary world and I'm happy being at room temperature as long as I get to work. 

AC: What can you tell us about your next project? 

CT: It's too early to talk about it but I was working on something very exciting. I'm still thinking about it. I watch a lot of interactive films and mystery boxes and play a lot of video games and so it's inspired by that. But this lockdown has really put me off. My productivity has gone for a toss. I have learnt cooking though. 

AC: Will you be traveling to Venice and Toronto? 

CT: Toronto won't happen because of the mandatory 14 day quarantine. But we would like to go to Venice. It all depends on the situation in Mumbai and if international flights are available. 

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