He who divorced Bollywood: Chaitanya Tamhane

ByDinesh Raheja
Jun 06, 2021 08:00 AM IST

How has this 33-year-old National-award winning filmmaker become the toast of the festival circuit? And, what’s his big problem with Bollywood?

Whilst confabbing about films recent and decent with actor Sharman Joshi, I recommended The Disciple (2020) to him. He exulted, “Yes, I have seen the film and found it not only meditative but also therapeutic. Chaitanya Tamhane [the director] is a very courageous man. His mastery over the craft is evident in his ability to hold the viewer with many small cinematic moments which when pieced together make for compelling viewing.”

Chaitanya says he has a tendency towards quiet films that are not very overt in nature
Chaitanya says he has a tendency towards quiet films that are not very overt in nature

 As an afterthought, Sharman added: “When you speak with him, will you ask him where he found the protagonist’s home? It intrigues me because it helped make the setting so immersive.”

 Indeed, this Marathi language film, executive produced by Alfonso Cuarón of Gravity (2013) fame, has resonated with many viewers across languages. And it has been making serious waves ever since it bagged the International Critics Prize and the Best Screenplay award at the prestigious Venice Film Festival. The deceptively simple story of a guru and shishya (teacher and disciple) bound by their common love for Hindustani classical music, the film eloquently captures the disciple’s dilemma as he wavers between staying true to his guru and his art and compromising his quest for purity in his desire for recognition. 

Chaitanya says watching cinematic works of art was a transformational experience.
Chaitanya says watching cinematic works of art was a transformational experience.

That’s entertainment

When I finally get through to Tamhane (he checks his WhatsApp messages only after 5 pm), the first question I pose is one that had niggled at me since I watched the movie. What was the significance of the protagonist repeatedly driving his motorcycle at a slow pace on empty, neon-splashed Mumbai roads?

He reveals, “I would go for long drives before the pandemic and introspect... the scene was inspired by that and it was also a bit of cinematic liberty. It’s a subjective interpretation of my character’s mind.” He adds a tantalising coda: “I will leave you to decode it.”

So I ask the director to decode his life. How did the three-year-old child who watched Maine Pyar Kiya (1989) 74 times on VHS metamorphose into an avant- garde filmmaker far removed from fantasy-laced cinema?

 Tamhane begins by walking me through the early years of his life.

“I turned 33 recently. I was born in a Worli chawl in a typical Maharashtrian house. My parents, Sandhya and Deepak Tamhane, my younger brother, Vikrant, and I were a happy family despite financially difficult times. My uncle, Shekhar Tamhane, was a respected playwright. My mom would encourage us to see plays and take us to Dinanath Mangeshkar Natyagriha and Shivaji Natya Mandir.”

 But due to the dwindling family income, watching plays became a luxury. So, Tamhane says, “TV became my go-to place for entertainment.”  

He confesses that as a youngster, he wouldn’t watch Hollywood films as he couldn’t understand the accent
He confesses that as a youngster, he wouldn’t watch Hollywood films as he couldn’t understand the accent

Bye-bye bollywood

The seeds of Tamhane’s transition to a cineaste fascinated by experimental world cinema first germinated in Mithibai College, where he was an English literature student. He preens, “I never attended class – I was busy with theatre.” And the drama enthusiast acted in theatre competitions.

To earn money, he joined Balaji Telefims as a writer for the TV show Kya Hoga Nimmo Ka, and spent chunks of that cash buying DVDs or renting them at 100 each. At the recommendation of his mentor, Nishikant Kamat, he watched City of God (2002), and thus began his initiation in world cinema.

“It just changed something in me,” he shares. “The film’s treatment, editing, casting... everything was awesome. It opened a whole new world in my head; I didn’t even know there were films being made in Brazil. Subsequently, I discovered brilliant films made in Russia, France, Denmark. As a youngster, I wouldn’t watch Hollywood films, as I couldn’t understand the accent. But now, I watched the works of Haneke, Wong Kar-wai and, later, caught up with cinema masters like Kurosawa as well as our own classics in theatre and film. I watched the digitalised version of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali a few years back and was smitten. Watching cinematic works of art was a transformational experience. I decided I loved cinema in a different way and maybe I want to make films.”

 Tamhane’s own cinematic creations have veered towards the thought-provoking right from the start. His first film, a documentary he made as a college student, was about plagiarism in Indian cinema. With a tinge of regret, he says, “It was my heartbreak moment, my divorce from Bollywood because so much of the music I grew up listening to or so many of the films I watched were lifted or inspired from other films.” The documentary won him both friends and enemies.

(Clockwise from top) Stills from Six Strands, Court (inset) and The Disciple
(Clockwise from top) Stills from Six Strands, Court (inset) and The Disciple

 His first dramatic film, Six Strands (2011), was set in Darjeeling where the world’s most expensive tea is produced. It dwelled on a lonely tea plantation owner who produces tea under mysterious circumstances. Tamhane recalls, “I borrowed money from my father. The film travelled to several festivals internationally. It gave me confidence.” Soon he achieved his breakthrough with the National Award-winning Court (2014).

Art of learning

Tamhane throws me a curve ball when he reveals he has no background in Hindustani classical music, yet chose to embark on The Disciple which centres on that theme.

Adventurous? Tamhane chooses to see it as a process of discovery, and, in hindsight, feels it sensitised him to the rich legacy of music, its nuances, history and contradictions while offering him an insight into the minds of musicians.

 It took Tamhane two years to write the script. He travelled across India “almost like a journalist”, befriended musicians, stalked them on social media, watched documentaries and read books on the subject.

 Tamhane has an ear for music but confesses he can’t sing. He has eclectic taste in music: Indian and western classical music, SD Burman compositions from the 1950s, ghazals and alternative music.

The director’s love for music is evident in the way he paces the film like a layered melody. The Disciple subtly comments on various facets of the music world – artistes who choose to be crowd pleasers, the apathy towards the work of musical masters who are not ‘popular’, the struggle of the artiste to maintain family equilibrium, all without assuming an air of moral superiority.

Aditya Modak and Pooja Talreja on Chaitanya
Aditya Modak and Pooja Talreja on Chaitanya

Quiet is golden

In an introspective moment, Tamhane reveals, “I have a tendency towards quiet films that are not very overt in nature. Maybe that’s a reflection of my own personality and how I look at the world.”

I convey Sharman’s compliment and he is pleased.  “There’s a lot of detailing that goes into the production design, casting and scouting for locations. We strive to add detail to the images you see on screen.”

 When I share an observation that his films are limned with humour, he exclaims, “You are the first to notice it, I am happy. Most critics don’t seem to acknowledge it. I look at my films as tragi-comedies. I find a lot of humour in them.”

 His next feature is anticipated now. The chances of him making a candy floss film are dim, but he doesn’t abolish the thought. He maintains, “The idea has to come from within me.”

 As for the cast, there is only one actor Tamhane was very keen to work with. “Irrfan Khan. It was heart-breaking when he passed away last year.”

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From HT Brunch, June 6, 2021

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