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Searching for the Truth: Chaitanya Tamhane on “The Disciple”

The Indian filmmaker discusses his sophomore feature and Venice Film Festival prizewinner.
Leonardo Goi
“Do you know anything about magic?” Chaitanya Tamhane asks, smiling at the Adriatic Sea glittering warm and emerald ahead of us. It’s the last few seconds we have together (behind him, a publicist is waving our time is up), and I regret this has come so late. On my way to the interview, I’d promised myself we’d touch upon something the writer-director-editor had mentioned in an earlier chat: his affiliation with the Spanish School of magic. I didn’t know anything about magic—much less what the Spanish School is or does, exactly—but the connection seemed curiously relevant to his second feature, The Disciple, which unveiled in Venice in early September before resuming its festival tour in Toronto and New York. 
Tamhane’s sophomore effort is his second Venice entry: his feature debut, Court, nabbed the top award in the Orizzonti sidebar in 2014. That film followed an Indian folk singer who finds himself accused of inciting a worker to commit suicide, a farcical trial that sheds light on how social inequalities plague India’s judicial system. The Disciple chronicles the quest of an aspiring Hindustani music vocalist to master a centuries-old tradition, while struggling to find his bearings in contemporary Mumbai. Music traverses the two films as an obvious leitmotif, but The Disciple is dreamier than its predecessor. It trades Court’s struggle for justice for a more transcendental quest, an artistic awakening. 
It opens inside a concert hall in Mumbai, where a smattering of musicians accompany a senior vocalist, and singles out the youngest among them, who plays and gawks at the singer in a clinical spell, head bobbing to the vocal acrobatics. The lad is Sharad (Aditya Modak) and The Disciple is his film: a Künstlerroman that chronicles his 16-year-long quest to excel in a most untimely artform in hopes of becoming a master himself. It starts off as a rags-to-riches parable, only to abandon that scaffolding as time goes on, and Sharad comes to grips with the terrifying realization that commitment, alone, won’t suffice to turn him into any of the musical legends he venerates. 
But even as Sharad grows older, and reality sinks in, the film never abandons all the wonder of that preamble. This is the kind of magic Tamhane gestures at: the spell-binding power of music to transcend and pluck you out of time and space, which the film crystallizes through Sharad’s child-like stupor—a face he wears in that concert hall at 24, when the dream still feels within reach, and again as we leave him at 40, when the mirage has morphed into something different, but no less entrancing. Early in the festival, I sat with Tamhane to chat about his latest, a few days before Cate Blanchett’s jury would award him the prize for Best Script.

NOTEBOOK: I was really intrigued by something I read ahead of the screening: apparently you didn’t have much prior knowledge of the world of traditional music you were heading into.   
CHAITANYA TAMHANE: That’s true. Diving into a world I know nothing about is something I personally find very exciting because in my real life I get bored very easily. I’m a total nerd: I’m into board games, video games, and magic, and mystery boxes, all because I want to entertain myself. And I know all of this sounds far more fast-paced than the film, but… I feel like I suffer from some sort of ADD! [laughs] I grew up in a very insular middle-class household in Mumbai, and always felt like I needed to know more about my own society and culture. And Indian classical music was just that world. It has such a rich history, and I genuinely think it is one of the greatest gifts Indian culture has offered to the world. But my entry-point was the anecdotes and stories I had heard of all these crazy geniuses and eccentric characters, their lost wisdom and secret knowledge. 
NOTEBOOK: This is why it all felt so entrancing, perhaps, for a film to be crafted by someone who didn’t have an insider’s perspective. It doesn’t feel didactic. I never felt as though I was being spoon-fed information. I was wondering if you could tell me about the writing. I know you’re very meticulous when it comes to that… 
TAMHANE: I should hope so! [laughs] But yes, my writing process is extremely tortuous. I don’t mean to romanticize it, or throw a pity party here—it’s nobody’s fault but mine. But, you know, it’s super exciting when you start your research, and you feel as though the world is your oyster, and there’s this blank landscape ahead of you. But then you’re bound to grapple with a painful process of elimination, and restraint. Because this is certainly not a documentary, or a discourse around Indian classical music. You have to serve a narrative. Which means you must calculate just how much intuition you want to grant the audience, and at the same time, how not to alienate people, and give them just enough context for them to be in the story, and for the setting to not be an obstacle. It took me two years of banging my head against the wall to figure it out.
NOTEBOOK: Was it any more difficult than it was for Court
TAMHANE: Court was similar in the sense that I had nothing to do with the Indian judiciary. I had no background knowledge of the field, no prior experience. I just started off from scratch. But The Disciple was a lot more difficult, yes. There’s just so much more here—more personal stories, more characters, more history. After all, this music is the oldest living musical tradition in the world. It’s at least 800 years old, as we now understand it, and there are people who believe it to be 5000 years old because the oldest references go back to our ancient scriptures. There was just a lot more to dive into. Also, this film is very different: it’s far more personal, subjective, and delicate, in a way. It required plenty of care and precision. 
NOTEBOOK: I guess if we were to search for similarities, they both strike me as Sisyphean struggles, in a way. One is a fight for justice against a corrupted judiciary, and the other a quest to master an untimely artform that’s essentially on the brink of extinction.  
TAMHANE: Yes, but to me what was perhaps most interesting was the conflict the protagonist was grappling with: he wants to achieve something that’s beyond worldly values, and at the same time, he also wants things everybody else is after. He struggles with sexual impulses, with a desire for fame and acceptance. He wants to prove something to his father, and live off his dreams, and needs to negotiate his livelihood in a city like Mumbai, and impress patrons and sponsors. I find that schism very fascinating. And I think many artists go through a similar crisis, sooner or later.
NOTEBOOK: On the subject of clashes, I think another crucial one here is that between tradition and modernity, and I was very intrigued by the way you articulate it. It’s not so much as a conflict between technology and antiquity, but a far more transcendental one: a difference in the way we live time.  
TAMHANE: Totally.  
NOTEBOOK: Which is why one of the pivotal moments in the film is this brief exchange between Sharad and his master, when the old man tells the lad to stop being so restless: back in the days, disciples would be required to practice at least twenty years before they could even dream about performing in public. 
TAMHANE: Yes! Time is a very interesting factor in Indian classical music. Realistically speaking, your career wouldn’t start until you’re about forty. And at forty you’d still be considered young, by those standards. That was just their concept of time, and lots of the things people grapple with today wouldn’t have played a role then. For one, they didn’t have to stress over rents the way you would in Mumbai today. 
NOTEBOOK: Personally, I think that one of the most striking things about The Disciple was the way you managed to pay justice to the temporal dimensions of songs. You introduce us to these gorgeous performances that span minutes, and yet they never feel dragged. They just flow, and there’s something so hypnotic about them. How did you manage to strike that balance between visuals and time?  
TAMHANE: Well, first, thank you for saying such kind things, and for appreciating the kind of work that went into it. It’s true: in a concert, a raga could easily stretch for over an hour. There’s no real time limit. The duration essentially depends on your skill set. But we knew we were doing this for the medium of cinema. We knew that each musical sequence was operating within the context of the individual scene it belonged to, but that it would also shape the soundscape of the entire film, and mirror the character’s state of mind. We had to customize and tailor performances for the film, but we also couldn’t allow a shot to change the whole medium of classical music by rushing it, or being tokenistic about it. So the challenge was to give the audience the feeling of having attended a whole evening’s worth of concert, without the performances ever feeling overstretched, or super rushed. It was a tricky balance. Different sequences demanded different strategies. Sometimes we used ellipses, sometimes we relied on old LP recordings, which used to force masters to compress a whole raga in three minutes, because technology back then didn’t allow them to record anything longer. We used all sorts of techniques. I collaborated with tabla maestro and historian Aneesh Pradhan, and we also played to the strengths of the artists we worked with. The people you see in the film are all musicians, and come from different schools and traditions; we had to ensure consistency and help them perform truthfully and authentically, within the constraints we were working with.
NOTEBOOK: Speaking of consistency, I was stunned to hear that each raga is—quite literally—unique: the minute it is performed, it will never be reproduced the same way again. 
TAMHANE: Oh, yes. You can ask an artist to perform a raga for an hour and they’ll happily do it, but if you ask them to repeat the same thing again they won’t be able to. They just won’t remember it.  
NOTEBOOK: Wasn’t this a logistical nightmare? I’m thinking of the way each performance was shot and stitched together, the editing, the rehearsals… How did you manage to make those scenes feel so organic? 
TAMHANE: Well, the strategy we adopted is still… a bit of a secret! [laughs] But yes, we faced all sorts of challenges, because this music is essentially a dialogue between the accompanist and the performer, who’s a composer-performer, in a way. It’s like western classical music meets jazz: there’s a strict framework, but its foundations lie in improvisation. And we did go to crazy extents to make sure it would work, on a technical level. Sound design-wise, we wanted to achieve the kind of isolation that could give us room to intervene in the final sound mix. And accentuate certain elements of the music so as to make it as subjective as possible, and yet maintain an atmosphere that could allow the artists to play as authentically and comfortably as they could.
NOTEBOOK: I’m asking because one of the most lyrical scenes, to me, was the first one, the minute your camera slowly tracks towards the stage and singles out Sharad among the other musicians. There’s a certain dynamism in all scenes featuring musical performances, but the camerawork is always unobtrusive.
TAMHANE: Well, you’ve seen Court. Remember how much more static that film was? There wasn’t that much movement there…
NOTEBOOK: Which gave it this fly on the wall feeling…
TAMHANE: Exactly. Here, I wanted to do something that would be aligned with the film’s narrative. After all, Sharad’s world starts as very rose-tinted, very romantic. There’s a seeped-in nostalgia, if you like. And I wanted to mirror that through the cinematic language we deployed. The dreams begin to fade away, and colors get sucked out, until real life finally hits him—we wanted to reproduce that with the language of the film. We shot the first half on old school anamorphic lenses, and the other half with more modern lenses. We reflected that in the production design, and the colors. The camera movement is also part of that language, in the way it tries to reflect the character’s state of mind. There are certain key moments when the camera is triggered in a way that’s very unobtrusive. Invisible, almost. If you look at his last performance—you’re right, the camera is very dynamic.
NOTEBOOK: I was hoping you could weigh in on the master-disciple dynamic you captured here. I was surprised by just how co-dependent the relationship between Sharad and his mentor looked.
TAMHANE: Bear in mind all the material for the film comes from real life, and these are things I observed during the research stage. And you have to remember that, traditionally, the master-disciple relationship would require the disciple to live with the master, in this house, 24/7. He would take care and serve him any way he could. After all, you’re not supposed to just learn the music, but a way of life. And you’re not only learning when the master teaches you, but when you overhear them practicing their own music, too. You embrace their own worldview, in the end. Nowadays all this has turned into a far more commercial kind of transaction, if anything because there’s money involved. Back in the day, a teacher would have never accepted money from a student. And the disciple had to prove themselves worthy of receiving the master’s knowledge, because they too had learned it the hard way from their own masters, by serving them and practicing over a whole lifetime. And as you know, this music cannot be written down, it can only be taught by oral transmission.
NOTEBOOK: It strikes me as more of a philosophy than an actual art form. We’re reminded early on that this isn’t just about learning a technique, but about pursuing the truth, and you cannot learn the kind of truth that’s at stake here. 
TAMHANE: And what is art if not a pursuit of truth? Sure, there are many different disciplines coming together in the same art form. This isn’t just music: you have philosophy, and religion, and even yoga. I’m not an expert in any of them, but I wanted to explore their amalgam.
NOTEBOOK: I was reading about your mentorship program with Alfonso Cuarón, and there’s a line from his Y tu mamá también that comes to mind in light of what we just said, one of the tenets of the “Manifiesto Charolastra” Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal recite early on: La neta es chida, pero inalcanzable—truth is cool, but unreachable.
TAMHANE: Oh, absolutely! [laughs]
NOTEBOOK: How did that collaboration unfold?
TAMHANE: I met Cuarón through the Rolex Mentor-Protégé Arts Initiative. He was always generous enough to call me a collaborator and a friend, and he made it clear it wanted this to be a two-way process, a dialogue between the two artists. He’s very unpretentious, you know, very chilled out. He didn’t take on the role of a mentor, explicitly, and yet at the same time he was always very paternal. And because he was so relaxed and non-mentor-y, I felt like the onus was upon me to be as receptive and as sensitive as I could be while being on set with him, to watch and learn as much as possible.
NOTEBOOK: Were you able to show him bits of The Disciple before the final cut?
TAMHANE: Oh yeah. I mean he knew about the project right from the genesis, before I even had a script, when I was just researching. And he liberated me in the writing process. I was like, “Alfonso, this is such a complicated art form! How do I establish the basics of it, how do I do the exposition for an audience that may not be familiar with it, which is 99% of people around the world?” And he was like, “You know what? Don’t even try. Don’t do it. They’re not going to get it either way! Just write the film like you would.” And that really helped. So yes, he read the script, gave me feedback, and helped me crew up for the film. He saw a rough cut and went, “Yeah, it’s good—now start editing, take out whatever you can and make it work.” And then he saw the final cut, and he’s helped us loads to reach out to the collaborators who are now conspiring with us to ensure a good journey for the film. 
NOTEBOOK: Talking about influences, one I found really intriguing was the influence of the Spanish School of Magic…
TAMHANE: Ah! [laughs] How do you know about that?
NOTEBOOK: I did my research. 
TAMHANE: Do you know anything about magic?
NOTEBOOK: Nothing at all.
TAMHANE: Well, I’ve been studying it for the last 13 or 14 years. I find a lot of similarities between cinema and magic. Cinema’s early pioneers were, in a sense, magicians too. Cinema itself is an illusion: we’re in a dark room, the lights go down… it really is an oneiric medium. The thing with magic is that you see those dreams unfold in real time. Cinema has a forward trajectory: you want to know what happens next. Whereas magic has a backward trajectory: you want to go back, and understand what happened. And the Spanish School of Magic, what they do is they focus on human psychology and attention, on the idea of tension and release. The same way you’d be expected to do as a Hitchcockian choreographer of expectations, if you like. So that’s my main inspiration. They try to communicate not to your five senses, but to your subconscious. And that’s where magic happens: in the mind of your audience.

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Festival CoverageVeniceVenice 2020InterviewsChaitanya TamhaneNYFFNYFF 2020
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