You might assume that a National Award-winning talent like Chaitanya Tamhane will find the process of writing a story easy. But Tamhane, who brought pride to India when he won the Best Screenplay award for his Marathi feature ‘The Disciple’ at this year’s Venice Film Festival, lets us in on a secret.
“Scriptwriting is a very difficult process for me to even start describing it. Till the day I start writing, I am consumed by feelings like: ‘I cannot do this’, ‘I don’t have any talent’ and once I start it dissipates. I took two years to write this script, but the actual writing process was maybe a month and a half. The rest of the time I was just banging my head against the wall,” said Tamhane in an interview over the phone right after his win.
With this candid confession about being a distressed writer, for whom anxiety attacks are an occupational hazard, Tamhane won our hearts.
“It’s usually about the curse of the first page and once you get through the first page, it works out. It’s eventually an act of courage to get over your self-doubt and fear of failure,” added Tamhane, who won the National Award for his 2014 movie ‘Court’.
‘The Disciple’ was the first movie from India to be selected in the main competition of a European film festival after Mira Nair’s ‘Monsoon Wedding’ win in 2001. The Marathi film explores the world of Indian classical music and an artist’s tumultuous journey to the top.
While ‘Court’, that dwelt upon the languishing Indian judicial system, was relatively smaller in scope, ‘The Disciple’ was made on a budget four times the scale of that film. ‘The Disciple’ also won the Critics Prize by FIPRESCI at the 77th Venice Film Festival and the Amplify Voices Award at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Excerpts from our interview with Tamhane as he talks about his award-winning film, the uncertain future of independent filmmakers and more.
Congratulations on your big win for ‘The Disciple’ at the Venice Film Festival 2020. Do you feel a sense of accomplishment with all that awards glory and was this your holy grail?
Thank you! But to be honest, the holy grail is to make a good film and the holy grail is to keep doing good work. But of course, when you get this kind of validation and recognition on such a massive global platform you feel special and it helps the film to get a lot more attention. If you see the past winners in the same category, it features some of the world’s master filmmakers and that feels overwhelming.
Has your life changed after winning awards at prestigious film festivals in Venice and Toronto?
It is too early to say that, but it definitely feels like an important milestone in my career. I am getting a lot of calls, offers and attention internationally more than from India. I hope my wins are life-changing though.
With your Marathi-language feature ‘The Disciple’ being in the spotlight, do you think Marathi cinema is going through a resurgence?
I don’t know because I look at myself as an Indian filmmaker. I don’t want to put and limit myself in a language box. Also I must say that Marathi filmmakers have always been making good films and they were always talked about. Many Marathi films not only gathered critical acclaim, but also made money at the box office. And I am not talking about commercial Marathi cinema alone, I am talking about all those independent features. Marathi films have always been on the radar.
'The Disciple’ explores the journey of an Indian classical musician? Should I be a purist to understand and appreciate the film? Did you water it down for the global audiences?
No, because you need to understand that I started to make this film on that note and I did not know anything about Indian classical music. I was not an expert nor did I know a lot before I started working on the script. But this is my question to you: Would you say that about a movie about a jazz musician or a ballerina or would you watch a movie about a basketball player if you don’t know anything about basketball? You would, right? It was also my concern during writing the script and I wondered if I should it to my audiences who don’t anything about Indian classical music. But, eventually I decided to grant the viewers intelligence and intuition. I also acknowledged the fact that this is a story which is universal in its nature and could have been said in any setting. It could have been a story of a cricketer or a poet and ‘The Disciple’ just happens to be about classical music and discovering that world was a part a part of my process and journey. So, there was no reason to water it down.
You asked me if I would ask the same about a film about a jazz musician or a ballerina. But I think I would. Before watching ‘Black Swan’, I wondered if the world of ballet — so far removed from our Indian reality — would connect with me? So, what about ‘The Disciple’ will connect to the viewers?
The themes are very universal. It deals with anybody who is trying on their own to tread on their own path and do something unconventional and are on the path of self-actualisation or self-expression will relate to the themes of the film. The film deals with the struggles of clinging on to a certain system or tradition which is in conflict with the fast changing world. The film deals with the idea of internal failure and internal success as opposed to worldly failure and worldly success. It is also dealing with idea of the story we grow up on such as the ambition and dreams of our parents which are projected on us. These themes will connect with all.
Was the lockdown due to the global COVID-19 pandemic a dampener since you couldn’t be at the Venice Film Festival to collect your prize?
Wasn’t it for everybody? We had finished the film before the pandemic, but there was a lot of uncertainty for everybody in the world at large. Festivals around the globe started getting cancelled, cinemas shut down and we were worried about what was going to happen. But the whole thing about our film’s selection at the Venice and Toronto film festivals was such a blessing just as we had given up all hopes of 2020 being any good. Such wonderful surprises came our way and we feel very blessed and grateful for it all.
The lockdown has helped us discover new talents. In a bizarre way, did independent filmmakers and artists get a boost during this grim period? Earlier, we were too busy tracking down stars in blockbuster materials.
The lockdown has made everyone slow down and take a pause from the chaos and hustle-bustle around them and that I think has made viewers a lot more open to different kinds of content, be it series or films. And that’s another reason why I feel that ‘The Disciple’ is the perfect film to watch during this pandemic because it has got that kind of pace and philosophical explorations which people are in the mindset to enjoy, absorb and dwell upon right now.
Indian cinema gets a rap for its questionable screenplays and Bollywood cinema is largely star-driven. So was it cathartic to get an award for Best Screenplay and do you now feel like the torchbearer of good scripts on a global stage?
I don’t know about being a torchbearer, but the only thing I can tell you is that it has been by far the most difficult, the most challenging, the most time consuming script I have ever written… But things are changing now. Now a new generation of filmmakers have realised that you can’t get away with a bad script. So things are getting better.