vivek gomber chaitanya tamhane the disciple interview alfonso cuaron
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It’s been a rollercoaster few months for actor-producer Vivek Gomber. In March, Rohena Gera’s Sir, in which Gomber stars across Tillotama Shome, was all set to finally get a theatrical release before lockdown struck. Last month, Chaitanya Tamhane’s film The Disciple, which Gomber produced, was selected in the main competition section of the Venice Film Festival, the first Indian film in nearly 20 years to do so. More recently, filmmaker Alphonso Cuaron stepped in as Executive Producer of the film.

This will be Gomber and Tamhane’s second time at Venice after 2015’s Court, which set the global festival circuit on fire winning close to 20 awards as one of the most celebrated Indian indies of the last decade.

As both actor and producer of one of the most acclaimed independent voices, Gomber operates in a unique space. For him, producing was never the plan. It’s a world he fell into after meeting a 21-year-old Tamhane in 2008. A few years later, Gomber decided to help fund a script Tamhane’s was writing, which would go on to become Court.

Gomber, who will also be seen in Mira Nair’s highly-anticipated series A Suitable Boy,  spoke to me about his struggles of making his mark as an actor, discovering and championing Chaitanya Tamhane, and why The Disciple may well be the last film he produces.

Edited Excerpts:

This must be a nerve-wracking year to have an indie film on the festival circuit, with so many major festivals getting cancelled. Was there ever a point when you felt the film may not actually have a festival screening?

Yes, for sure. You can’t predict any of this and there was a lot of uncertainty. We haven’t even been able to show it to our cast and crew, which is something we’re very particular about. I was also in the midst of doing promotions for Sir which was to be released on the 19th of March. So that was pretty upsetting because I am the lead and I wanted to get some good work and so I wanted the film to release.

With The Disciple, we were on the line for Berlin but the film wasn’t ready and we didn’t want them to watch a rough cut. The next was Cannes but just when it became clear that it might not have a physical presence, Venice submissions opened up, so we kept our focus on that. But the weeks between getting that email about being accepted into the festival and the actual official announcement were the most worrisome because we didn’t know if it would go ahead.

Right now, we are happy that the film is travelling to Venice and Toronto but then we also think ‘what next?’. And the recovery and release tensions are still there. I want to do better than what we did last time with Court, but I understand that it’s not like an equation. Sometimes, these films make their own journey and you just have to go with the flow. 

The weeks between getting that email about being accepted into the festival and the actual official announcement were the most worrisome because we didn’t know if it would go ahead. Right now, we are happy that the film is travelling to Venice and Toronto but then we also think ‘what next?’. And the recovery and release tensions are still there.

 

You joined the industry as an actor and production is something you just fell into after meeting Chaitanya. Having produced multiple indie projects, is acting still your main goal?

Yeah, it is the goal. I know I can be better at my craft. I am 41 now and I have been here for 16-17 years and last year was the first time I knew I had a job booked before I finished the previous job. 

Has being a producer ever helped you get acting opportunities? 

Not at all. Nobody gave me a job after Court. I did a lot of auditions but for 2 years I did nothing. So I had to work and prove myself. Luckily, I got Sir in 2017 and last year I bagged A Suitable Boy and I hope that my work also gets noticed in that. There’s also Bombay Begums with Alankrita Srivastava on Netflix early next year.

But that period after Court taught me a lot about what to expect and what not to expect. I love working with Rohena and Tilottama on Sir, I love working with Chaitanya and I had a great time working with everyone in A Suitable Boy. So I’m just blessed that I have been able to work with such good people. I may not be getting as many projects as I want, but I’m okay with whatever is or isn’t coming my way. 

When you decided to fund Chaitanya’s script back in 2011, what was it you saw in him that made you want to back him? Was your aim to develop a project that you could act in?

There was no aim. He was a great, intelligent guy and I felt that there was something there. His parents were wanting him to settle down and get married but I told him not to give in, I knew he needed to foster his talent. So I decided to help him with a certain amount every month that I was able to afford thanks to the inheritance from my dad. And I loved the subject he was writing about and the world that we were talking about and I loved the script, so then I told him that we should make it.

The thing about Chaitanya is he is so unique. Quite honestly, I am only in the room because of his talent. People have to understand that. I think it is to do with his work ethic and how diligent he is. We have learnt so much from each other. And it’s not just about making films, it’s also about expressing what is inside of you which you can’t contain anymore. And we should all be grateful to him. How cool is it that a 33-year-old is going to Venice for the second time with his feature film in the main competition? The future is exciting. None of us even know how many such 20 to 30-year-old talents are out there in Bombay. For all you know, they might already be making things and I can’t wait for that to happen.

At what point did the conversation start about you playing the role of the lawyer in the film?

To be honest, since I was an actor I was unashamedly interested in the role of the lawyer. But I think Chaitanya had clarified very early on that I would only do the role once he is convinced, and he didn’t want to mix things. So we decided to focus on the film, and during this time, I started to put on some weight and grow a beard just to see if I would fit the character. Then, amidst the production work, he would ask me to do my acting research.

It felt good to earn my space in the film. I didn’t want people to think that since I produced the film, I was going to act in it. We don’t have that kind of an equation. Unfortunately here in India, there is this mindset that if we collaborate together on some project then we owe something to each other and that we can’t have successful projects on our own. I love collaborating with Chaitanya, but I’m not acting in The Disciple. As an actor, I am definitely jealous of the cast of the film but as a producer, I would never cast myself because I don’t know anything about Indian classical music. 

You’ve talked about how you couldn’t find financing for Court so it was largely financed by you. Was part of you scared, taking this risk and making an independent film?

For Court, I shelled out about 3.8 crores which was approximately 800,000 USD. I was definitely scared. But eventually, I just decided to go all in and I went for it. The script was that great.

Considering how much acclaim Court got, was The Disciple relatively easier to finance?

Not at all. Again, it all came down to me in the end. Some money must have come from a few places but it was mainly me again. In all honesty, this could very well be my last one in case this film doesn’t do well.

What do you mean by this is your last? Are you not going to produce after this?

I don’t think so. It really depends on what happens this time because it is so painful to get your money back. If this one doesn’t make its money back it’s going to be a big hit for me. It is a way bigger budget than Court and when you see it, you can totally understand why that budget was so necessary.

It is great that Alfonso is part of it and the film has gone to Venice so it has a better shot at recovering funds, but you never know. And I’m not complaining, I’m just being realistic.  It’s just that not all of the recovery happens, and the fact is I am spending my dad’s hard-earned money, so I have to be accountable for it and all of that is very exhausting.  But all the movies I’ve produced I will stand by for life, even if none of these festivals were around.

I have been stressed forever and I know Chaitanya has also been stressed for me. That’s what people fail to see. He bleeds for me too. I hope that going forward, Chaitanya doesn’t need me to make his movies. Art and talent should not be relying on one individual. I hope he makes whatever he wants and that he keeps me as a part of it somewhere. 

Many people have told me that they heard Chaitanya is a difficult director and whatever he demands must be done, which isn’t true. Whatever Chaitanya has demanded has only been to do with the script. If the script demands a particular aspect, then I as a producer must understand his vision and why he requires it.

I imagine Chaitanya’s films aren’t the easiest to put together. I read that for Court you auditioned more than 1800 actors and for this, it was even more.  

It’s honestly a privilege and honour to be his producer. The other day, while I was preparing the festival press kits, I had to write my quote on Chaitanya, and I wrote it without thinking. I am so grateful to have found someone like him to collaborate with. Thanks to him I can make sense of what is going on around myself and what is going on inside me.

Even though I would love to act above anything else, when you are a producer, you want to tell stories that really matter. To jam with another artist and talk about life and see what we can create and that is brilliant.

Many people have told me that they heard Chaitanya is a difficult director and whatever he demands must be done, which isn’t true. Whatever Chaitanya has demanded has only been to do with the script. If the script demands a particular aspect, then I as a producer must understand his vision and why he requires it.

He is definitely difficult, but then there is that much talent in him. Some of the best working experiences in my life are with Chaitanya Tamhane. As far as I am concerned, I am investing in him.

A year from now is it fair to say that you want to be in a position where you’re asked more about your acting work than the projects you’ve produced?

Oh no, I want to do everything. I hope people will say ‘Oh yeah, he was part of a Chaitanya Tamhane film’. I think that would be awesome. I just want to be in the room and interact with creative people. I want a bigger dance floor and have the chance to dance with everybody. I want to audition more and be part of more projects by sensible people.  I just want to be a part of the show.

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