Chaitanya Tamhane’s life is turning out to be so melodramatic, it’s become the sort of plot he’d never pick for his films.
After starting out at 17, writing scripts for TV soaps at Balaji Telefilms, he made his first movie, Court in 2014, winning a National Award in India and winning in the Horizons category at Venice that year. Two years later, at 29, he was picked by the Rolex arts initiative to hone his craft under the mentorship of the Mexican master Alfonso Cuarón on the sets of Roma, which would go on to win an Oscar.
Now 33, the boy from middle-class Dadar in Mumbai is just back from the Venice film festival, where his second feature, The Disciple, received a standing ovation and won Best Screenplay as well as the International Critics’ Prize. (The last Indian film to win in the main competition at Venice was Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, 19 years ago.)
In neither of his films would he have tolerated this kind of unlikely, exaggerated drama. Court was a delicate slow burn about the trial of a protest singer on trumped-up charges aimed at silencing him. The film was nuanced, political and unapologetic.
The Disciple is another delicate work; this one follows a young classical Hindustani vocalist in Mumbai as he tries to balance the demands of his craft with the ever-morphing realities of the metropolis in which he lives.
All the regional languages suffer the weight of Bollywood, but it’s especially difficult for Marathi films. With Court, I realised that Chaitanya doesn’t make films in Marathi. Being a Mumbai boy, his language reflects the city’s polyglot culture. Tamhane has stayed true to his Marathi roots while making international cinema. This is what sets him apart.- Meenakshi Shedde,film critic and India and South Asia delegate to the Berlin Film Festival
Speaking on the phone hours after the Venice win, Tamhane sounds exuberant. It’s been a tough journey. He and his producer, Vivek Gomber, struggled to scrape together the money to make both films, despite the viral success of the first. They’ve struggled to find the right faces and voices that would be true to their tale. Funding and casting are among the reasons The Disciple took six years to make.
“For the role of Sharad, we needed someone who could sing, act, and be fluent in Marathi,” Tamhane says. “We went with a newcomer [Aditya Modak, a classical singer and chartered accountant] because we figured it would be easier to get a musician who could act rather than vice-versa. But we had to do this for most of the key roles, and casting alone took us a whole year.”
It was a leap of faith for everyone, but a leap they’ve clearly landed. The Guardian describes The Disciple as a “heartfelt, melancholy drama”, Variety calls it an engrossing watch, adding, ‘Tamhane patiently constructs his characters out of small details’.
How does he think this has happened, with a film made in Marathi, on a subject so niche?
“I have complete faith in content being king,” Tamhane says. “The world is becoming smaller; audiences are warming up to all kinds of content that’s well made. So if I have a story to tell, I tell it. And if my story is set in a village in Gujarat, I’m not telling that story in English.”
Some of the attention The Disciple is getting is also a result of the Rolex programme that paired Tamhane with Cuarón; and the fact that Cuarón then came on board as an executive producer of the film.
“I am grateful and humbled by the support I’m getting from someone I think of as a superstar filmmaker,” Tamhane says. “When I was under his mentorship, I realised that he knew the kind of background I was coming from; he has gone through these challenges to break out. He understands the challenges of trying to make films here because the scenario in Mexico is not very different when it comes to funding or the market or the challenges of distribution. He can be sensitive to those things. And he has been very supportive for that reason.”
Now that he seems to have the world’s attention for a while, Tamhane says he wants to do justice to all the support he has been getting, from audiences, from Cuarón, and from Gomber, who has had “the most unconditional faith in me”.
“I want to take baby steps towards the future,” Tamhane adds. “It took me this long to make my second film and I am not hurrying towards the third. I need to have something to say and something I believe in. I want to get as wide an audience as possible and not get lost in the chaos that’s unfolding around us right now.”
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