Chaitanya Tamhane's new film, The Disciple, released on Netflix on April 30. A week before, two personalities he worked with in his two feature films passed away: Veera Sathidar, the Ambedkarite activist and the actor at the centre of Court, Tamhane's debut feature; and Marathi writer-director Sumitra Bhave, whose death gives a whole other dimension to her otherworldly voiceover in The Disciple. Around the same time, Tamhane also lost his uncle and aunt. His uncle, in some sense, played a critical role in Tamhane's entry into the arts. He was a producer and writer of Marathi plays and thanks to him, his parents had a familiarity, even love, for the world of theatre.
"There was a recording studio for plays next to our chawl. A lot of Marathi actors would come and chill at our place. My mom would make tea and food for them," he recalls, "They had nothing to do with theatre and films but because of my dad's younger brother, they like that whole atmosphere. I knew in the sixth standard that I am going to go for arts, and not science and commerce after my SSC. And a lot of parents wouldn't be okay with that."
At 34, Tamhane is something of an indie film wunderkind. Both Court and The Disciple won prizes at the Venice film festival, before making their way to Indian screens. Add to that, his association with Alfonso Cuaron, who he assisted on Roma after winning a Rolex grant. Their equation has developed into a friendship and Tamhane is in a constant conversation with his 'mentor'. (While explaining to him how Indian vaccines for Covid introduce the virus in the system to develop antibodies, he called it a "Bong Joon Ho comedy"; guess that's just how filmmakers talk among themselves). Cuaron is also an executive producer in The Disciple.
The film is based on a premise Tamhane conceived for Grey Elephants in Denmark, the play he wrote and directed in 2008, even before he made his first film, Six Strands. The Disciple is about the journey of Sharad Nerulkar, a Hindustani classical vocalist from Mumbai, a dreamer who is repressed by the lofty ideals and weight of classical music, rather than being liberated by it. The long, continuous wide shots from Court are there and so are the public spaces, filled with groups of people inside the frame; Tamhane's unique way of looking at the world shows in his films.
In one of the interviews leading up to the release of The Disciple, Tamhane said someday he would like to make a superhero movie. He was kidding, of course, except he wants to add that he has no such hangups. "I will do a superhero movie if I want to," he says. "What's important to me is the purity of the process." If "purity of process" sounds like jargon, and vague, the interview might shed some light on what he is talking about. Tamhane goes to great lengths to make films in the way he wants to. He talks about The Disciple (and Court), his preoccupation with background action, obsessing with the aural design of the film, and why he is bad with titles.
I'll start with your entry point for all your films, be it Six Strands (set in a tea estate in Darjeeling), Court and now The Disciple, which is settings, worlds, and subcultures rather than the 'story'. What is it that draws you toward settings?
I think it's got to do with the fact that I don't venture out too much otherwise in life. I am holed up at home in my computer screen, playing games and watching films. So in that sense I haven't had crazy life adventures. I've grown up in Mumbai, haven't lived anywhere else. What these settings allow me to do is to immerse myself into different worlds that are alien to me but also fascinating. And also there is a yearning to learn more, know more about our society, how different people look at the world, different philosophies. So these settings kind of allow me to engage with people, ask questions that I otherwise wouldn't ask in my insular life. That is what excites me about settings, because I go in like a student, or a journalist, and there is the fascination of the new, there is the curiosity that drives me. It's like peeling the layers of an onion in a way.
But of course it eventually ties in with something deeply personal. So it is like a marriage of the external and the internal, because the themes always end up being something personal. If you see Court, it is about the courtroom and the judiciary and the world of activists, but there is also a very strong layer of the cultural milieu, which is very personal to me, which I've seen growing up. Similarly, with The Disciple again, the Mumbai, the Marathi cultural element is there.
Can you be more specific about the life experiences that went into Court?
The defence lawyer's life, for example; it's a schizophrenic life where you are very morally and politically conscious but there are certain things you are very conveniently insular about. Or the picnic sequence which has the judge. I've been on countless such picnics myself, where it's not questioned why women and men will sit separately, and the conversations have this inevitable pattern of them being about cricket, and politics, and Bollywood, and then some covert references to some sexual innuendo or things like that. I used to be in a creche because my mother used to work in the railways, so she would come every evening and take me back home. So all those things kind of seeped into Court.
Also I have a natural sense of whether a location is authentic or not, how the costume should be, how the faces should be. I remember once Fellini was asked, 'Why won't you make films in America?' And he said, 'Because I don't know what shoes the character will wear'. I'm not trying to compare myself or anything but it makes sense to me why somebody would say that.
Mumbai and other parts of Maharashtra have a vibrant Hindustani classical music scene. Was it an added impetus for you to make the film?
There are two reasons for it. One is the fact that I am a city rat, and that kind of subconsciously drives this choice, because I haven't grown up in the hills. I don't even have a hometown or what you would call a village. My forefathers are from Pen-Panvel, which is an hour away from Mumbai. So Mumbai is everything I know. Even if you are a native, the pressures of this city are constantly playing on your psyche. And the other thing is Mumbai genuinely fascinates me. It's a city that keeps surprising me, over and over again.
I've said this in a few interviews, pre pandemic, one of my favourite things to do used to be to go for long drives late at night with a friend of mine who has a car. Every time I find something amazing. I feel the city has so much to offer that it's not one city, it is whatever you want it to be, it is chameleonic in that sense. And there are so many different communities and subcultures thriving in this one city. And I'm not even talking about the cliched kind of cosmopolitan potpourri, but just within Maharashtrian cultures; if you look at arts, there is such a thriving dance culture, Hindi music circle, a vibrant Indian classical music culture.
Even the community spaces where you have yoga classes happening like the one you see in The Disciple, or those public news libraries by the bus stops. And then of course you've got places the gates of which are closed for most lay people, fancy ass rooftop places with an entire sweeping view of the city. So many expats living in the city who have their own circle they operate in. When I was doing Court, I was exploring the activist circuit. There's so much happening in terms of resistance and anti caste movement. ALL of this coexisting with the new city and it is really, truly one of the great cities in the world in that sense. And it's funny how all these are insular but at the same time interacting with each other in unknowing ways, because the city also has everybody crammed in together.
So many of the scenes — in both Court and The Disciple — are staged in public spaces like courtroom, concert halls, competitions. Even when you are showing the insides of a Mumbai local in the last scene of The Disciple, there are so many people in the frame. How do you manage the crowd? Do you decide where they will sit or stand in the scene?
Absolutely. And that's a mixture of many different factors and elements. One is I myself haunt these places and visit them quite a few times during my research phase. It's also my chance to go out and be a quiet observer in these public spaces. So it becomes a challenge to capture its essence on screen. How to recreate it? Film is a very practical medium. Everything has to be executed practically. So if you want 200 extras, you have to actually have 200 background actors on set and decide their costumes, decide how those colours are interacting with each other, give them directions, how they should behave and what little activities they are doing, what props they are holding in their hand.
I direct every single crowd dubs…We give them real topics. None of this is going to be actually heard because hopefully we will be focussed on something else. But I have this conviction that somewhere in your subconscious this is going to be communicated.
But you have to render it cinematically, because you are not making a documentary — as opposed to what a lot of people say about my films (laughs). It can't work that way. So there's an aesthetic involved, a rhythm involved. More than anything, what I'm looking out on set while directing a scene is a rhythm, whether it has an inherent rhythm in it or not. Their movements, their passings, how convincing they are looking.
And since I am not from a film school, and these might come naturally to others, I've had to learn those things over the years, after making mistakes. Somebody holding a bag while he walks makes it a little bit more convincing than somebody just walking by. If you give them an intent of why they are walking somewhere, that will change how they walk and you can see that intent on somebody's face. If you ask two people who are not going to be heard in the soundtrack to just move their lips, it's not going to be as convincing as if you actually give them a topic to discuss.
It becomes this marriage of realism, where you are trying to depict or recreate an atmosphere with a cinematic sensibility, where you talk about composition, you talk about colours, you talk about rhythm. And sound has a very important part to play in that.
Which is why I direct every single crowd dubs, what you call 'walla' in film language. They are not recorded by professional voice actors. We do a different kind of casting for the walla. Let's take the example of the youth competition where Sharad is performing: what kind of people would come for that competition? We actually get those people (and they could be different from the ones who are on set). You record in twos and threes. I direct every single one of those conversations. We give them real topics. None of this is going to be actually heard because hopefully we will be focussed on something else. But I have this conviction that somewhere in your subconscious this is going to be communicated.
Every single cough that you hear in the film, every single sneeze has been decided and placed there. Because a cough can suddenly immerse you into that space. A good example would be the South Bombay concert where Guruji is performing the Sampoorna Malkauns. How do you create that space aurally? You hear some throat clearings, you hear some minor coughs—all of that is a choice. Because that is also my memory of those spaces.
This is fairly standard sound design. It also depends on how much you obsess over it and how much time you give it, which in this case (laughs) happens to be a lot, sometimes to the annoyance of sound teams and other teams.
Similarly in the train sequence when the boy is traveling with is father and his friends. You have no idea how long the designers had to work to create the rhythm of that train, playing with multiple tracks, mixing, matching. Because I had a certain rhythm in mind. And it could have nothing to do with actual sound of a train and I don't care, I'm not a slave to reality, I'm more concerned with the essence of things, and personal truth, and the mood.
What about the casting of the people in the crowd?
We cast those faces. We request non professional actors to come for audition, we talk to them, they are requested to turn up on shoots. Sometimes they have to take a leave from their office, then we give them costumes, so there is a lot of work. There's like a whole direction team that's talking to them even on set, getting them in that mind space. So we treat them as actors.
This requires time, and that's why I don't know if I can work in a set up where the timelines are what they are generally in the market. I shoot mostly one scene a day. Even shooting two scenes a day for me is a nightmare. Because you want control over the atmosphere, and the background action. Then there are non professional actors who are doing this for the first time, there is rhythm of the scene itself. I mean this is a matter of method, but it is also a matter of privilege. I got do this in both the films; even my short film, Six Strands, was shot in 10 days or 12 days. Which is a lot for a short, although I was still finding my voice and was very, very green when I made that. I mean, I am still finding my voice, I am still green, but I was even more green 11-12 years ago. That kind of pacing is a bit unnerving and can throw people off, especially if they have worked in the commercial film industry.
This is not standard practice, right?
I wouldn't know, because the only set I've been on is Roma and Alfonso would take one or two days for just lighting a location. So that was for me some other level of indulgence. He had to tell me 'Don't go by this way of filmmaking, this is an extremely privileged, exceptional style of making films.' But even Court was like that.
The long wide shot has become a signature style.
I wouldn't like to validate this narrative that this is my style now. You saw Six Strands, and that has a different language. Of course there will be overlaps… Just yesterday I noted down this quote by the painter Philip Guston, who said, 'It's funny when people talk about style. I'm just trying to live and survive'.
Style has also got to do with the story and the requirement of the narrative. I mean look at Hindustani classical music, look at the story—somebody who gradually realises something. It would be strange to make it like a fast paced film. It just wouldn't be the same. So it also comes from there.
There are perceptions like there are no close ups. But look at the very first scene, we are tracking in to Sharad will full glory on his gloating face.
Of course it comes from my personal affinity towards a certain style. my worldview, my personality as a filmmaker or wanting to be an observer. I like watching characters in their environment and seeing the worlds that they inhabit. And for me there are multiple stories that are unfolding in the same frame. The story of the protagonist and the main character is not the only character that is unfolding in any given sequence.
But I would still say The Disciple in that sense is a lot more subjective. The visual grammar of the film is not constant. Once it comes into the second chapter it changes.
There are quite a few scenes where you show the character, Sharad Nerulkar, in an unflattering light.
I wanted to play with the archetype of the dreamer. But then real life happens to this dreamer. So those shades of grey and shades of bitterness is definitely a choice that I wanted to make and not make the character unidimensional, because even people with the best of intentions, all kinds of different impulses reside in us in varying degrees, which also makes it more human.
The other theme that I was also trying to explore is this schism between the mind and the body, in the sense that we understand something on a theoretical level but our gut has its own mind. You might know that I'm not supposed to feel bitter or jealous about something or take it to heart but your body reacts in a different way, which you can't control with your intellect. So that is also something I want to explore with the character: the drama is unfolding in the character's mind. How do you externalise something like that?
There was great reliance on Aditya's (Modak) performance in that sense—what his eyes are communicating, what his body language is communicating. Because it's all internal. Because nobody verbalises these realisations. Nobody even talks about these to their closest friends because it is hard to confront it for your own self. So then this is standard screenwriting. You have to show it through behaviour, you have to show it through performance.
I was reading an interview of T Bone Burnett, who had designed the music in Inside Llewyn Davis—another film that looks at failure. He said, "If you're telling a story about a musician, I think you have to see something about the character when he plays music, or when he performs music, that he doesn't reveal any other time." Does this seem true for The Disciple as well?
I have seen Inside Llewyn Davis once, when it came out, I think at MAMI or something. I must tell you that my inspirations are mainly coming from real life. I am not so inspired by films in terms of the content or what I want to say. I have seen concerts like the ones you see in The Disciple, including the one from where Sharad walks out.
Of course one of the reasons why it was interesting for me to set this story in the world of Indian classical music and khyal was because khyal translates to state of mind. The whole foundation of this music is improvisation. So it's true that the artist has to be present at the moment. And their state of mind is going to be reflected in their music (which is also what the character of Maai says).
But I'll tell you an interesting fact. We consulted the mixing engineer and the recording engineer of Inside Llewyn Davis for how to go about recording the music and they helped us quite a bit. We wanted to record this music in a way where all the performers are together—the tanpura, tabla, vocalist; but we also wanted complete isolation of each track, so we can play with them in the mix and shape that music more to align with the mental state of the characters. We could have just recorded everyone separately, but that would be against the essence of Indian classical music. We had to figure out a way where we get isolation of each track as much as possible but they are all in the same space. They can look at each other and perform without leakage into the other tracks.
You can't get 3 people from 3 wildly different gharanas and then put them in a room and show they all belong to the same gharana. There were a lot of restrictions and invisible little battles that we had to fight to be authentic to the essence of what we were trying to show.
Similarly, during the recordings of the music, we had a camera on every musician. It would become a reference for them how they react in the moment to that music, so that they can replicate that on set. We had 4-5 camera setups. The footage was only given to that person to do homework and study. It kind of ties down to what you said—being in the moment.
I was particularly struck by how Sharad is shown as technically sound but his singing lacks soul. It would be easy to show someone as explicitly bad, but he is, kind of, average. How did you achieve that? I guess Aneesh Pradhan, the music designer of the film, and the fact that both Aditya and Dr Arun Dravid are vocalists themselves, would've helped.
Yes, and they are much better singers than the characters they play. Also you need that kind of musical intelligence and skill set to able to execute something that is of a lower skill level in the film. There was a lot of planning that went into shaping the musical landscape of the film and Aneesh playing to the strengths of Aditya and Dr Arun Dravid. What exactly is the flaw of that character? How do we communicate it musically? How do we choose the ragas which will reflect his state of mind (but is also appropriate for the occasion, the time of the day)? How do we achieve the economy with is required for cinema?
How do we make them feel like they are actually from the same gharana, because Aditya is from Gwalior, and Arun Dravid is pure Jaipur-Atrauli. Aneesh said If the student does not genuinely respect the guru, it will show on camera. And I couldn't believe it. I was like, 'Are you saying if he *really* doesn't respect him it will show on camera? He was like, 'Yeah, no matter how hard he tries'. I was like. 'Okay, that's interesting'. So there were all kinds of challenges, because you can't get 3 people from 3 wildly different gharanas and then put them in a room and show they all belong to the same gharana. There were a lot of restrictions and invisible little battles that we had to fight to be authentic to the essence of what we were trying to show.
We also did rehearsals. We had music sessions at Ravindra Natya Mandir where Arun ji taught Sampoorn Malkauns to Aditya and Deepika (the girl who plays Sneha), and the guy who plays Tejas. Arun ji would tell them the finest of nuances, because that's his specialty. He has learnt from Kishori Amonkar, and Mogubai Kurdikar, and dedicated a lifetime to this singing. We did a lot of behind-the-scenes work where they were given the space to form a genuine rapport with each other, for it to translate well on screen. It would be difficult for them to just land up on set and pretend to have all these complex dynamics.
What were the instructions given when a scene demanded Aditya to sing averagely?
I must tell you that process was challenging, but also on some level a lot of fun. Aneesh would tell Aditya 'Accha, now do this, now do that, now you blame the guy who's handling your reverb, because that's what people do when they get insecure.' So we would also have a good laugh about these things.
Then there is the scene where Guruji gives a bad performance.
I remember we were so moved when Arun ji had to do the recording of that final performance. He is old and ailing and struggling. We really had him cough so much and have water for real during the takes and have a handkerchief in his hand. He was like, 'If I sing like this, nobody is going to offer me concerts after this'.
I was clear that this is not a film about musical geniuses. This is not another project glorifying and showing the pristine and the best side of classical music. There are so many others who are on the fringes. There are so many others who will never achieve greatness, even if they strive for it. So this was a story of the ones on the sidelines in that sense.
One aspect of the film is how something as ancient as Hindustani classical music juxtaposes with the modern. You go on to show different media, from VHS tapes to YouTube. You recreated scenes that look like VHS footage. How did you achieve that?
Firstly the definition of ancient is debatable. Some people say it's 5000 years old, some say 3000. Some say the way we listen to it and understand it today is 800 years. And some way if you have to be really realistic it's 350 years old. And for some people, the 80s and 90s can feel like a distant, romantic past. So ancient is a concept in the head, because things are constantly changing and evolving.
But yes, in the 20th Century everything changed because of technology. You could use mics and you could have speakers and you could reach out to a lot of people rather than just people in a room. Then, you could document and record music and then it became about how it is distributed, which YouTube and all have changed completely—our idea of access, which in itself used to be a matter of pride and great secrecy for others in Hindustani classical music.
Coming to the VHS recording, we had as our references a lot of Ashok Ranade interviews with the great musicians that would, I think, air on Doordarshan. We had a reference of those kind of sets, those kinds of colours. We also tried to cast faces in that scene which would be evocative of that period, including those in the audience. And then we shot it in a camera from that era and of course, treated it in post and add little sound glitches and video glitches to make it all evocative. We also had a consultant who actually was a technical director in one of those shows. We had him on the set so that our lighting, the cameras you see on screen, and what those attendants are doing—all of that feels authentic.
There's also an elaborately designed reality show that looks something like Indian Idol but is fictional. How did you create it?
Well, that was the hardest part for us to pull off. It has given us more stress than any other sequence in the film. A lot of people think that it's footage from some show and even if it is not, they would say why couldn't it be, why did I go through so much effort? It's the same thing—complete control of those elements. We actually had to shoot on the set of a reality show. We had to get judges and it was a whole different treatment and world. Alfonso told me after watching the film Hey, man if nothing else happens, you have a bright future in reality TV.
There's even an ad that you see on the billboard in one scene (shot in Girgaum Chowpatty). I shot with a model, designed that bottle, think of a name. I take it as a complement when people say the reality show felt like something I pulled footage out of. It's done its job.
The show keeps appearing in parts. There's one segment about the backstory of the contestant, the Bengali girl, where you see interviews of the parents and visuals from her village. Did you go to West Bengal to shoot just that?
Yes. We had a professional reality show team on all those shoots. We had a reality show director. We had reality show technicians. We also allowed them their space to shoot it the way they would but also subtly guiding them for what was needed for the film. And trust me we have so much footage from that didn't make it to the film that it could be a whole alternate universe of that Fame India reality show.
And what was needed for the film?
It has to be at the service of your narrative, and what you want to say through it. If you look at her final performance, by the end of it there is not even the logo of the show on screen. It completely abandons, in a way, the form of the film, and definitely the reality show. The reality show team were like, 'We would never have this kind of a close up. We would never have lipstick on her teeth, and her smudge'. And I am like, 'Yeah yeah yeah, that's what we want here'. So it's a choice you make for the film and how it plays in the mind of the character.
You have said that the film is really about the fading of a dream.
That was the main guiding theme that everybody knew. You know, like how Coppola says that reduce the essence of your film down to one word. This was not one word but one theme which was a guide for the film and all the thousands of decisions we had to make in every department.
Is the reality show meant to contrast Sharad's unfilled dreams?
I would like to think it's a lot more playful than that. I refuse to watch my own films because they make me cringe but yesterday I made my maid watch it. She is Bengali, she sings and she wants to go to a reality show. I showed her just those sequences—because the rest of the film is in Marathi and she can't read subtitles and she would find it damn boring anyway. But I was showing her those two sequences and in my head I was like Man, this is so much fun. This is playful and so naughty. She loved it.
Was casting the girl in the show also an elaborate process?
Yes. My casting director (Niharika Popli) had to go through so many music schools and audition so many girls. Not just the girl, but also Moti Khan, the boy who sings in the last scene. She traveled to some villages in Rajasthan with no electricity including to places where women of the village had to hold saris for her to take a bath. She auditioned many boys till we finalised on this extremely gifted boy, and then we found out that Pushpendra Singh has made a wonderful documentary on him and he was also in Anup Singh's Song of the Scorpions.
I believe all these efforts communicates something on a visceral level. That boy's look, his appearance, his physical form was important. Because filmmaking is such a challenge. You write something on paper. It could be a great idea in your head, but it's such a practical medium that now it has to translate in physical form. And you are relying on performers to realise that depth of the idea, and so much of it is non-verbal.
My last question is about the title of your films. Court. The Disciple. They are direct and straight forward about the subject of the film. But why an English title for a Marathi film? Is it because you know your audience and market too well, which is the film festival ecosystem?
If that was the case, I might as well be making films in English. Why just the title? The reality is that both Vivek and me are very bad with coming up with titles. Honestly, for me the title is not as big a deal because I don't know a single film I like because of the title or dislike because of the title. If the film is good, the title automatically gains credibility and respect, you know.
I mean I theoretically understand what a title is supposed to do. It is supposed to add an extra layer of subtext, one little fine punctuation. Both the times we had to consult the entire team. Court was called Untitled Courtroom Drama throughout its making. We had Untitled Indian Classical Film written on the slate and script during the making of The Disciple. We thought we will give a Marathi title to The Disciple when it releases here but that didn't happen. We were better off with Court because the word travels in Marathi. The reality is that we are just very bad at it.