It’s the day after the premiere of The Disciple at the Venice Film Festival. How is Chaitanya Tamhane feeling? “Good,” he says over the phone, with a little-boy giggle that frequently punctuates our conversation. I’m thinking it’s a pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming giggle. I’m also thinking “Good” is not a good-enough response for the momentousness of the occasion. Another giggle, and Chaitanya obliges with what it really was like. “It was a big day. It was surreal. To put out a film in 2020, in these times, in front of a real audience, in a real cinema hall where the lights go down and the room goes dark…” The last time he was in this scenario was in London, when he saw a bunch of films like Parasite (for the second time) and Knives Out. “The fact that the film was in Competition didn’t hurt.”
This doesn’t come off as immodest, and at least on the phone line, Chaitanya doesn’t come across as a jaded film-festival veteran. “You never get used to something at this level,” he says. “The photo-calls, the press conferences, everything…” But he adds that Venice has probably become a bit easier because it’s his third time here, after appearances with Court (in 2014) and as jury member in the Orizzonti (Horizons) section in 2016. The really nerve-wracking thing is how the film will be received. (The Variety review has called The Disciple “nuanced” and “meticulous”.) “Every film is a new battle. It doesn’t matter how good your previous work was. People may come to your film based on what you did before, but they won’t judge your new film based on that.”
So what is the word out on the streets of the Lido? Chaitanya didn’t find out until later, even though he was at the screening. “Honestly, I don’t watch my own films,” he says, adding a tiny (and welcome) touch of auteur-eccentricity to someone who otherwise seems a very wholesome, down-to-earth person. “I keep staring at the floor, trying to hide my face. But later, I heard it went over well, and the audience said some very nice things about it.” He doesn’t read the reviews, but it’s not because he’s “cocky”, as he puts it. “Reviews do make a practical difference, and I do get a sense from the headlines and the quotes. But I try to be detached.” He also doesn’t watch trailers, which is always a good thing.
The film is about Indian classical music, and I wonder if there was some kind of crossover issue. Cultural hegemony being what it is, we know about pop and rock and Mozart, because things flow easier from West to East than the other way around. Chaitanya says it definitely was a concern, right from the scripting process, “because there’s so much of it in the film. It was brought up when we discussed the sales agents who’d sell the film, the publicists who’d promote it, the festivals that would programme it…” But he always felt the audience would intuit the art. “Besides, The Disciple is not a documentary or a discourse about Hindustani music. There are characters, a plot, there’s dramatic progression, a conflict at the centre… If one comes with an open mind, the music won’t be a barrier. Besides, even in India, this is a niche subculture.”
Chaitanya Tamhane is all of 33, and he’s already gone places most filmmakers can only dream about. Where does he go next? The giggle was most pronounced at this question, which he says he’s asked of himself as well, though not in the sense I intended. “Once you see The Disciple, you’ll see that at least a part of the film is about a man going through an existential crisis about his art form. He is thinking about the changes in patronage, the changing audience… Cinema, too, is going through these things, even though it’s a much younger art. You keep thinking about whether you can keep making the same kind of films, who the audience for this content is going to be…”
He catches himself at the word “content” and twirls it around in his head. “See? Even I am saying ‘content’ instead of ‘cinema’!” But he’s had good company so far, in the form of producer Vivek Gomber, who he’s repeatedly thanked in interviews. In fact, it was Vivek who picked out the Canali tuxedo and the Hugo Boss suit for Chaitanya’s red-carpet appearances, where the strict safety protocols mandated that the mask come off only for photo calls. “I am a typical Maharashtrian boy,” Chaitanya says. “I have never cared about clothes. I’ve always been the nerdy kind, more interested in the books you’ve read and the films you’ve watched and the philosophers you’re fascinated by. In the store, Vivek just said, ‘Bhai, put this on’, and I was good with it — though later, I was running around everywhere, asking for help on how to wear cufflinks and how to wear a bow tie.”
I ask if his mentor Alfonso Cuarón’s fashion sense hasn’t rubbed off on him. “He’s super relaxed,” Chaitanya says. “I’ve mostly seen him only in casuals.” And this includes the post-screening call they all had. They have been on calls every single day, and when Chaitanya returned to his hotel room after the premiere, he found a bottle of Moët champagne and a “very sweet note”. I ask him what it said. “I can’t tell you that,” Chaitanya giggles, but I gather there was a sense of wish-I-had-been-there. I hear the PR in the background, and Chaitanya says we have three minutes left. It doesn’t matter. We’re done. I wish him the best, and hope the bow tie and cufflinks won’t be an issue before the closing ceremony. An award? Fingers crossed, Chaitanya, fingers crossed.