Mumbai-based film director Chaitanya Tamhane is currently in the first week of a mandatory quarantine in India after having retuned from Venice on Monday. That might be a small price to pay for being able to walk the red carpet at the Biennale as his 2020 feature film, The Disciple, premiered at the prestigious Italian film festival.
In a year that’s been low-key for movies due to the coronavirus pandemic and related curbs, The Disciple is the only Indian selection at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in Canada.
In order to travel to Venice for the Biennale, Tamhane required “special exception” from the external affairs ministry. It was the first Indian film since Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding in 2001 to be selected in the competition category at Venice.
With pandemic-related restrictions on non-essential travel to Canada in place, Tamhane will have to make do with only a ‘virtual visit’ to Toronto. He said in an interview, “It would have been great to present the film in person, but given this year and given the safety protocols that Toronto has in place, I totally want to respect that for my own safety and for the safety of others.”
A contemplative exploration of the evolution of a Hindustani classical vocalist in Mumbai, The Disciple, which is in Marathi, is already being feted globally.
The director said, “We’re so grateful and relieved that the film premiered at Venice and is now in Toronto. We’re just happy that even in this year, we could get a film out, and also, for us this is a great start. We couldn’t have asked for a better launch.”
Tamhane took four years to complete the film, spending about half the time on research. “When I started out, I was fascinated with the anecdotes and the stories of eccentric geniuses and this idea of some secret knowledge and lost wisdom,” he said.
The film’s cast comprises first-time actors, mostly trained classical exponents. It includes the exceptional performance of Aditya Modak, who plays the central role of Sharad Nerulkar, a young man torn between the ascetic sensibility required for his art and the pressures of reality and modernity.
Casting non-professionals was a “very, very thorough” process for Tamhane. “You need to make sure they have screen presence and they have an intuition for acting because they ultimately they will be delivering scripted lines,” he said.
The narrative of the meditative film is like a slow-burning flame spanning three time periods, as it tracks Nerulkar’s development over time. A striking feature of the movie is its incredible music, including the vocal art at its core, making it a work where sight and sound complement each other well.
This is Tamhane’s first feature film since Court in 2014, and he was mentored by Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron, winner of multiple Oscars for films such as Gravity and Roma. Cuaron is also the film’s executive producer, which for Tamhane was “almost too good to be true”.