The Disciple is an expensive film and I was allowed to make it with zero compromises: Chaitanya Tamhane

As The Disciple releases on Netflix India, an interview with director Chaitanya Tamhane from Venice Film Festival 2020, where his Marathi film won the Best Screenplay Award.

Tatsam Mukherjee April 29, 2021 13:50:48 IST
The Disciple is an expensive film and I was allowed to make it with zero compromises: Chaitanya Tamhane

Chaitanya Tamhane

This interview was conducted at the heels of Venice Film Festival 2020. It is being republished in view of The Disciple winning the Best Screenplay award at the festival's annual competition. 


We have only been talking for 10 minutes, and I have already made my second gaffe in front of Chaitanya Tamhane. After calling him an 'intern' on the sets of Alfonso Cuaron's Roma (which I promptly correct to 'protege' in the next second), I am trying to veer the conversation towards the close collaborator and the producer of his second feature film, The Disciple. "From your number one collaborator in Alfonso Cuaron, let's move on to your number two," I say, only to be corrected with, "Actually, Vivek (Gomber) is number one." 

He is right. Much before Roma, Tamhane and Gomber's first collaboration, Court, took the country by storm in 2014. After premiering at the 71st Venice International Film Festival, the film acquired distributors in parts of Europe and the US during a successful festival run, and became India's official entry to the 88th Oscars. Gomber, who debuted as a producer in Court, and acted in it too, is serving as producer on The Disciple as well.

Tamhane's latest film won the Best Screenplay award at the 77th Venice International Film Festival. The Disciple is the first Indian film to compete at Venice since Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding (2001). It is hard to imagine that this journey began in the office of Balaji Telefilms, while developing a K-serial nearly 16 years ago.

Growing up with a voracious appetite for mainstream Hindi films, Marathi theatre, and Hindi/Marathi TV, Tamhane's first affliction towards films possibly began with a Salman Khan-starrer. "My parents tell me that they got the VCR tape for Maine Pyaar Kiya (1989), and I apparently watched the film 74 times, till the VHS completely stopped working. I have no memories of it, but it must be true," he says. Taking up English Literature at Mithibai College for its 'vibrant theatre scene,' 17-year-old Tamhane's dreams of becoming an actor got sidetracked, when he took up a job as an assistant writer on Balaji Telefilms' Kya Hoga Nimmo Ka. "I developed the show, but it didn't air while I was still there. I don't know if it did well."

The Disciple is an expensive film and I was allowed to make it with zero compromises Chaitanya Tamhane

Chaitanya Tamhane and Vivek Gomber.

Writing and directing a play called Grey Elephants in Denmark by the age of 21 is where Tamhane first met his actor/producer. "He (Gomber) was supposed to leave for the US but he read the script, and he really liked the prospect of doing this part. It was the part of a magician and a mind reader, which involved a lot of training, so he cancelled his flight. It was a difficult process, and I used to be pretty hardcore (laughs) as a director. But he appreciated the fact that a 21-year-old kid was so passionate. And then we became friends."

By 23, Tamhane became disillusioned with the work happening around him. "I reached a point where I didn't want to work as an assistant, and I didn't want a 'job.' I wanted to work by myself, but it wasn't like I was being offered anything. I had a lot of creative impulses, and at that time, it was writing Court. I wanted to start writing the script — which would take a year to do, but then how was I going to sustain myself during that time was the question." Enter Vivek Gomber. 

Impressed with his young director, Gomber offered help in the form of a monthly allowance of Rs 15,000 per month. The deal was that Tamhane would focus only on finishing the script of Court over the next year. Something Tamhane managed to do, kickstarting arguably the most high-profile Indian film of 2014. "He's just incredibly talented! What do I tell you? I read his work when he was 21, and he's 33 now. He's really talented and that helps, but above all I think I really like his character. I'm in awe of the writing process, which can be so isolating... you know? And I've not met anyone more meticulous than Chaitanya Tamhane in my life," Gomber says about his three-time collaborator.

"I think there are some core values that we share: like a lot of mutual respect, trust and love. Sometimes he dreams bigger than me, for me. It's almost like he's more ambitious about my career than I am," Tamhane says about his partnership with Gomber.

The euphoria of the stellar run of Court had barely settled when Tamhane was invited to apply for the Los Angeles-based Rolex Mentor-Protege Arts Initiative programme. He did, and he was selected to collaborate with auteur Alfonso Cuaron.

"I still remember it very clearly. I gave him some gifts that I was carrying from India — some agarbatti and a Ganesh idol. I told him that I'm an atheist, but this is just for good luck on the film. There was this air of secrecy because nobody had the script. After a couple of weeks, he said to me that it makes sense to show the script to you, I was one of the three people in the world who had read Roma. The film was in Spanish and Mixtec, and I was wide-eyed, in complete awe of the massive set-up... on a technical and a visual level, there was a lot to take in."

Soaking in this unfamiliar environment, Tamhane discovered a whole new mojo for the craft of filmmaking. About Cuaron, he says, "Talking to him sensitised me even more to the medium. There's just no end to learning you know? I wanted to work from bottom-up. I'm not formally trained in filmmaking so there's always this insecurity/hunger in me that I don't know enough. Watching someone with so much in command on their craft, and also so generous when it comes to sharing the knowledge with me in an unpretentious way, I came back really grateful and as an enriched person. Alfonso has so many techniques in his arsenal, how he uses VFX, how he manipulates sound, whether it's the cinematography, his editing; he was in total control throughout the shoot. It's all this experience accumulated over the years, that's being used in the service to communicate more effectively."

The Disciple is an expensive film and I was allowed to make it with zero compromises Chaitanya Tamhane

A still from Court

Five years after his fine debut, Tamhane is preparing for an even bigger release for his next film. What has really got everyone's attention is Tamhane's mentor Alfonso Cuaron agreeing to come on board as an Executive Producer on the film. Given Cuaron's stellar reputation in the festival circuit and his successful awards campaign with Roma (2018), having his name attached to his disciple's next film, co-incidentally also called The Disciple, lends a significant weight to Tamhane's film. Speaking to Film Companion, Tamhane mentioned that he was toying with a different idea when he suddenly found himself bitten by this 'bug’ of Indian classical music.

"The essential conflict in The Disciple comes from Grey Elephants — the play I had made with Vivek Gomber. I fell in love with the field because of all these stories, and secrets, this lost, ancient knowledge, and this complex, intimidating genre of music with roots in religion and spirituality. All of this collectively fascinated me. I started attending lots of classical concerts, and I travelled to places like Kolkata, Varanasi, Delhi, and even Mumbai has a really vibrant scene of Indian classical music. I began interviewing musicians. Most of the story and characters began to emerge from that," Tamhane says of his latest film.

While telling me how he has broadened the canvas for his second film, Tamhane cannot help but circle back to his eternal gratitude to Gomber for his 'blind faith.' "The Disciple is an expensive film, and I was allowed to make it with zero compromises. Everything I wanted, I was given. I don't know anyone else who would invest with so much blind faith in me. It becomes easier to trust you, once you have a body of work behind you. But for him to be so gutsy where he's putting his own money, he doesn't tell me but I'm sure he's selling off some property to meet the expenses of the production, you know?  He's an indie producer in the truest sense. There's no black money involved (laughs). Everyone keeps telling him that he's crazy."

Gomber is not too far behind with compliments for his director, but he also seems to touch upon what has kept this partnership thriving even after 12 years. "I think directors and producers often get sucked into petty arguments. For example, do we need that drone shot in our film? Then let's get those guys from Hungary, or Turkey? Or let's look for drone operators within India, or let's buy the drones and learn to operate it ourselves. All of this needs to be a conversation between the director and the producer. When I met a 21-year-old Chaitanya, he had hired this tiny office in Sitladevi, where we used to rehearse our play. He produced that play, and he also arranged the finances for his short film, Six Strands. Deep down, Chaitanya is actually a producer, you know? He gets it, he always finds a way to stay true to his vision and text. I trust him that if Chaitanya's saying he needs that drone shot, I better give it to him because he has definitely thought about everything else."

The Disciple is an expensive film and I was allowed to make it with zero compromises Chaitanya Tamhane

Chaitanya Tamhane and Alfonso Cuaron

There is a gnawing realisation that Tamhane does not quite fit into the mainstream industry, yet. "Many offers have come my way, and I've been to several of these 'meetings' (with studios), where most of them haven't even seen Court. They agreed to produce my second film without seeing my first, based only on the press or the awards they might have read about. I obviously don't want to generalise all studios, but some of these meetings have been rather odd."

Can the international trajectory of The Disciple change all this for Tamhane, where he gets a free hand to make something on the scale of Roma in a regional language, with the complete backing of a new-age studio like Netflix or Amazon Prime Video? For the time being, both Tamhane and Gomber are working relentlessly to manage their premiere in Toronto. "We still don't know if we'll be able to travel. We need to look after the promotional material in place. I'm doing so many interviews, I can't complain. And, of course, the kind of gloominess that had set in because of the pandemic has somewhat been shirked by this new goal."

All images from Facebook.

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