After putting the Indian legal system under the microscope in his acclaimed first film Court, Chaitanya Tamhane has set his eyes on Hindustani classical music in The Disciple.

The Mumbai-set Court (2015) was the story of a Dalit activist trapped in a legal quagmire. Tamhane’s second feature follows a classical vocalist reconciling the artistic tradition to which he belongs and the pressures of life in contemporary Mumbai.

Court was premiered at the Venice International Film Festival in 2014, where it won the Luigi De Laurentiis (Lion of the Future) award. The Disciple is also headed to Venice for a premiere in September. Tamhane’s Marathi-language film is part of the prestigious international competition – the first Indian title in this category since Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding in 2001.

The cast of The Disciple includes classical musicians, from lead actor Aditya Modak to Arun Dravid and Deepika Bhide Bhagwat. The most prominent name in the credits is Alfonso Cuaron, the Oscar-winning director of Gravity and Roma. Curaon has executive produced The Disciple.

Tamhane met Cuaron during the 2016-2017 edition of the Rolex Mentor and Protege Arts Initiative. Tamhane hung around the sets of Roma, while Cuaron guided him through The Disciple.

“It will take many years to process how Cuaron has changed me,” 33-year-old Tamhane told “Not just watching him work, but conversations with him and his crew, from the colourist to the mixing engineer to the production designer inspired me. Cuaron read the script, saw the edit, right up to the finished film.” Excepts from an interview.

What about Indian classical music interested you?
There was no one starting point. I was drawn to the stories and anecdotes about musicians of the past, their secret knowledge and ancient wisdom. The more I studied, listened, and attended concerts, the more I was enticed, and I realised Indian classical music is not as simple as the perception goes – how its practitioners act and behave, for instance.

There are lots of complexities and nuances in their world. There’s a theoretical side and then a practical side of things.

The Disciple (2020). Courtesy Zoo Entertainment.

What was the journey of research to the finished script like?
The research began in late 2015, around September, without any agenda. Around March 2016, I decided I would write a film out of this subject, and the script was finished by September-October 2017. The next two years went in filming and post-production.

The first page is the most difficult to crack. It took me 22 months just to write page one, and then I finished the script in just two months. I do not rewrite much. My first draft is pretty much my final draft.

For research, I travelled to cities with a vibrant Hindustani music culture: Delhi, ITC Sangeet Research Academy in Kolkata, Benaras, Pune, Ahmedabad. I realised that just interviewing musicians and having a formal chat won’t give me anything because they will only reveal their best side. I needed to form genuine friendships and build a rapport so they opened up and let me understand their inner world, and that took time.

In the beginning, I did not know anything about this world. Slowly I realised there are multiple paths to learning – understanding the music first, then the musicians, then the entire classical music circuit, then distilling all that into the subjective story of one character. What you will see in the film is an amalgamation of insights I gained over two years.

It’s also a personal story for me, in the sense that what’s happening in Indian classical music today is not different from what’s happening in other art forms like cinema. Although cinema is a much younger medium, suddenly in the 21st century, its patronage, its audience, how it’s being consumed, its relevance in pop culture, are issues relevant to Indian classical music as well. For example, many things in Indian classical music are no longer relevant or true, like the guru-shishya parampara. [student-teacher tradition].

That way, The Disciple is a good marriage of the outside, that is, the world of Hindustani music, which I had no idea of before, and the inside, which means the personal concerns I obsess over.

What do you mean about the guru-shishya parampara not being there?
What I got to know was that now it’s become more of a commercial transaction. Earlier, the disciple stayed in the house of the guru, served him, learned from him, listened to the guru practising. Now one can have multiple gurus or hop from guru to guru. Now people learn from Skype. What is going on in the minds of these modern students has changed.

Alfonso Cuaron and Chaitanya Tamhane at the 2016-2017 Rolex Mentor and Protege Arts Initiative.

Could you describe the lead character’s journey?
He’s a young vocalist, raised and introduced to music by his father. He has grown up on stories of the past, these secrets, modern-day myths and masters, purist concepts of music, and how one should live their life in accordance with them.

But it’s also an emotional film. It is universal despite being set in the world of Indian classical music. It could be about a poet, painter, athlete as well. It also spans three decades, so it has kind of an epic nature.

Tabla player and historian Aneesh Pradhan has worked on the music, as well as Naren Chandavarkar.
Aneesh Pradhan was one of the first people I met. We talked a lot. I understood how he sees current Indian classical music. He was so supportive and enthusiastic. He had seen Court and really liked it. So I asked him to design the music of the film.

Now film is its own medium. So classical music, which has its own ways, had to be customised and tailor-made for particular sequences and narrative contexts. I did not want the music to feel rushed in the sequences where the musicians would be performing. But music aside, I picked his brains a lot about everything. He was an integral part of casting and research.

Naren worked on the sound design and the premix. The question was, how do we record this. We did not record musicians separately. We got them together in a room so as to record them together. We put up a three-camera set-up to shoot the musicians closely so that their reactions while playing the music could be captured.

Then this would become the reference during the actual shooting for these musicians, when they are acting eight months later. Because I did not want them to overact. The musicians reacted to the moment during the original recording of the music and I wanted to capture that.

Could you describe Aneesh Pradhan’s music design in some detail?
Even if the musicians are performing traditional bandishes, they have to be curated, customised, and modified for the film. There are about five to six sequences of music in the movie, and I wanted them to shape the film’s soundscape as well as inform the viewer about what exactly is happening. The individual units of music had to work as a whole. The idea was to show the journey of a raag to great economy.

Sometimes, in the film, you are starting the music midway, but you have to communicate the essence of an entire concert in three minutes. So you are playing with time. That’s where Aneesh Pradhan came in.

But he also made it a huge consideration that even though he designed the music, we should work with musicians in accordance with their strengths and talents. For instance, he brought up that the guru and the student should be from the same gharana. Otherwise the student may not respect the guru, and that would show on the screen.

A live performance by Aneesh Pradhan.

You have a new cinematographer, Michal Sobocinski from Poland.
The Disciple is a lot different from Court. It’s a lot more romantic, textured, subjective. It had its own demands. I was looking for a DOP [director of photography], so I kept bothering Alfonso Cuaron about it. He couldn’t find one, so he reached out to Emmanuel Lubezki. He recommended Michal.

Michal is a third-generation cinematographer. Michal’s father Piotr Sobocinski worked with Krzysztof Kieslowski on parts of Dekalog and Three Colours: Red. Michal’s grandfather worked with Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Zanussi and Roman Polanski. Michal had shot some commercials in India before. For The Disciple, he moved to India and spent a lot of time here.

Vivek Gomber, your actor-producer on ‘Court’, has also produced ‘The Disciple’. What’s this collaboration like?
I first worked with Vivek in 2008, when I was 20-21. I had a play, Grey Elephants in Denmark. Many actors rejected it, unlike Vivek, who was supposed to fly to the US, cancelled his trip and did it. Life has not been the same since.

Vivek enabled me to write Court. His money sustained me during the process. Then he decided to produce it. The decision to cast him came out of auditions. This time, he has gone out of his way to make the film happen, without compromise.

When I collected the award in Venice for Court, I dedicated it to the best producer in the world. Vivek is a father, mentor, friend, producer for me. What he does is for the love of the process. I’m lucky things worked out with Venice and Cuaron coming on board. His money didn’t go to waste.

Independent filmmakers never have it easy. How will indie filmmaking work in a world with Covid-19?
Limitations and obstacles are our best friends and worst enemies. The pandemic has thrown a spanner in everyone’s wheels. We have no idea what the future looks like, when we can safely resume filming. In India, there’s no institutional funding for arthouse films, and even in the world, in a situation like this, arts and culture budgets are the first things to be slashed.

One can only hope independent filmmakers get support for what they want to make. The issues are structural. Even if they make new films, will they get the distribution they deserve, reach the intended audience, where will the money come from, who will produce? For an independent filmmakers, it’s a battle from scratch to get a new film made after finishing a film. I don’t know where the money will come from for my next film.

Court (2014).