While media attention was focused on the insider-outsider debate, Chaitanya Tamhane made history
Chaitanya Tamhane brings his craft and discipline to The Disciple, the story of a conflicted musician in Mumbai. His mentor Alfonso Cuaron calls it stunning.
Last year, at the Cannes Film Festival, I bumped into Oscar-winning director Alfonso Cuaron in a hotel lobby (these are the sorts of happy accidents that occur at a film festival). Cuaron was on his way out, waiting for the airport pick-up. In the few minutes he had, we chatted about a young Indian filmmaker whom he had mentored in 2018 as part of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative—Chaitanya Tamhane.
The conversation turned to Chaitanya’s new film, The Disciple. Alfonso had recently seen a first cut and said he was stunned by what his erstwhile disciple had created. As he praised the film and Chaitanya, I felt a rush of pride. Here was one of the finest directors in the world, waxing eloquent about one of our young bright talents.
Over the past few weeks, while media attention has focused on the insider-vs-outsider debate, and the shrill accusations surrounding the tragic death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput, Chaitanya has made history.
The Disciple has been selected in competition at the upcoming Venice Film Festival. It’s the first Indian film to compete since Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding in 2001. The Disciple will have its North American premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, also in September.
The film, set in the world of Indian classical music, is so good, Cuaron has now come on board as executive producer. He said in a press release: I believe Chaitanya is one of the most important new voices of contemporary cinema. Chaitanya’s journey is a triumph of talent. He was born in a middle-class Maharashtrian home in central Mumbai. His family has no connections in the industry and incredibly, he has no formal education in film.
He is a self-taught director who started out in theatre and television (at 17, he did a gig writing for daily soaps at Balaji Telefilms). Chaitanya’s astute eye, his skill at staging scenes that capture harsh truths without melodrama, his ability to find emotion in stillness, were all apparent in his debut film—the masterful Court, which put him on the map.
Court also premiered at the Venice Film Festival, in 2014, and won the best film prize in the Horizons category. It travelled to several festivals, was India’s entry to the Oscars and won a National Award for Best Feature Film.
In 2018, Chaitanya was selected for the Rolex initiative. He worked extensively with Cuaron on Roma (for which Cuaron won an Oscar for directing and another for cinematography; Roma also won Best Foreign Language Film). Chaitanya said watching Cuaron work was “like watching magic”.
The Disciple is the story of a vocalist who diligently follows the traditions of his guru and his father, until life in contemporary Mumbai gets in the way of his devotion to his music. Until he embarked on The Disciple, Chaitanya had no special interest in or knowledge of this world. But he immersed himself in it to create a film that is now putting Indian cinema at centrestage.
Chaitanya is as fierce a disciple of cinema as his protagonist is of music. In an interview Cuaron did alongside him toward the end of the mentorship programme, Cuaron said his daughter had asked him whether Chaitanya would be a successful filmmaker. Cuaron said that he replied: ‘He is’. Indeed.
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