How Ekta Kapoor's Balaji Telefilms Led Chaitanya Tamhane To World Cinema

The director, whose sophomore film is on its way to a Venice premiere, speaks about growing up in Mumbai, hanging out with Alfonso Cuarón in Mexico, and everything that happened in between.
Chaitanya Tamhane (centre) and Mentor Alfonso Cuarón (right) in Mexico on the set of Cuarón’s new feature, Roma
Chaitanya Tamhane (centre) and Mentor Alfonso Cuarón (right) in Mexico on the set of Cuarón’s new feature, Roma

For a writer-director who made Court, one of the most celebrated independent films in recent memory, the event that changed Chaitanya Tamhane’s life was a side gig at Ekta Kapoor’s Balaji Telefilms when he was in college. While he worked as an assistant writer for the show, Kyaa Hoga Nimmo Ka, there were some seniors who took the then 18-year-old under their wings.

“There were some really good, genuine, smart people there,” Tamhane, now 33, recalls over a Zoom interview. “Some of them introduced me to the worlds of Lars von Trier and Wong Kar-wai, Vijay Tendulkar and Mahesh Elkunchwar. As surprising as it sounds, my journey into world cinema kickstarted at Balaji. The money I made from there was spent buying DVDs of other world cinema titles.”

Getting onboard Chungking Express via Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii may sound surprising, but it’s not unprecedented. Anand Gandhi (Ship of Theseus), yet another strong voice in the indie scene, was a writer on the long-running soap opera Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi.

“I was very happy there. I must be, what, about 17-18 and was making money which felt a lot at the time. I still have the DVD collection that I made from my income, it was an invaluable resource.”

By now, Tamhane should be used to well-earned serendipitous twists in his life.

Two years after his debut film, Court (2014), opened to overwhelming acclaim, the Mumbai-raised filmmaker found himself on a movie set that many could only fantasise about. Between 2016 and 2017, Tamhane was hanging around on the sets of Oscar-winning Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, a visually enthralling personal essay of a movie, inspired by Cuarón’s own childhood. The film eventually went on to get 10 Oscar nominations and 3 wins, including Best Director for Cuarón, his second after Gravity.

Cut to 2020. Tamhane has written, shot and edited his sophomore film, aptly titled The Disciple. It’s selected for the Venice International Film Festival in the main competition category, an honour that has eluded Indian movies since Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, 19 years ago. To top that, Cuarón is an Executive Producer on the movie that’ll also screen at the Toronto International Film Festival in a couple of weeks.

Tamhane’s association with Cuarón was made possible thanks to the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative that seeks to connect with experts from across disciplines ― architecture, dance, literature, music, films ― to emerging talents from the same fields. At some point, you get to keep a Rolex watch too, but that’s besides the point. Zakir Hussain and Mira Nair have been some of the past mentors.

Tamhane is currently in Mumbai but will be soon flying to Venice for the film’s premiere.

While Tamhane has spoken about how the time he spent with the director helped him to ‘think big’ and not limit his vision, worrying if he’ll ever find resources to enable it, I ask him, more specifically, what’s the change that he incorporated in his filmmaking style. Two things, he said, changed:

“One, I learnt how to use VFX in a way that becomes completely invisible to the narrative and not use it in the more obvious, Harry Potter kind of way. I learnt that more than just gimmick, it works towards enhancing the storytelling,” he said.

While Cuarón is known for his astute use of VFX in films that couldn’t possibly be made without it (Gravity, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), what many don’t recall is that Roma, a seemingly simple film about growing up in a Mexican family, also used a lot of VFX, including into its fabled opening scene and another key scene that takes place on a beach. And yet, when you watch Roma, the VFX is so insidious, it plays, like Tamhane says, an invisible part, never leaping out to mark its presence. Here’s one video that breaks down the specifics of how it was incorporated.

The other lesson that he learnt was from the way Cuarón uses Dolby Atmos. Tamhane was present at the sound mixing of Roma and spending time with the engineers trained him in using the tool more efficiently, something that plays a key part in The Disciple. ”I absolutely was a fly on the wall as it was a big, busy set. I didn’t want to come in his way. I preserved some of the lessons on my Notes app. But honestly, these lessons take years to fully assimilate into your working style. It’s not just what you learn from the set but conversations that take place outside of it. Being on an Alfonso Cuarón set is the best film school one can wish for.”

Outside the sets, Tamhane charmed Cuarón with his set of magic tricks, including one that was specially customised for him. “We did that on his birthday on the sets of Roma. He was endlessly fascinated with mind-reading and some of the magic tricks that I pulled off.”

In a statement shared with HuffPost India, Cuarón said, “I believe Chaitanya is one of the important new voices of contemporary cinema. His journey is a triumph of talent.”

Such was the director’s faith in Tamhane that he was the only person with whom the filmmaker shared the screenplay of Roma (nobody else from cast or crew had access to it until later), making him his sounding board for the project. Later, he said that he found the Court director’s observations quite perceptive.

Mentor Alfonso Cuarón (left) was “very open” as he answered Protégé Chaitanya Tamhane’s questions during the filming of Roma
Mentor Alfonso Cuarón (left) was “very open” as he answered Protégé Chaitanya Tamhane’s questions during the filming of Roma

Tamhane said that as a child, raised in a city as vibrant, dynamic and contradictory as Mumbai, he was always attracted to stories. His mother worked in the railways and his father is an environmental consultant. It was when he entered college ― Mithibai in Juhu, where he studied English literature ― that he actually learnt to think about it seriously enough. The person who introduced him to world cinema was Nishikant Kamat, the director of films such as Mumbai Meri Jaan and Drishyam. Kamat passed away recently.

“Till then, I used to watch only Hindi films, not even Hollywood ones because I didn’t understand accents. Nishikant asked me to watch City of God. It changed my life. Once exposed to world cinema, I just knew I wanted to make films.”

The confluence of culture that is a hallmark of Mumbai deeply influenced Tamhane as a student of literature and someone who wanted to forge a path in the dream factory of Mumbai. But he was also aware of his middle-class, insular upbringing.

“Writing The Disciple exposed my own misconceptions. I had little knowledge about the many subcultures that exist and thrive within the city. There are aspects around your reality that you choose to actively suppress and look away from. I wanted to address those. Small things: why is the working class so grossly underpaid? Have I bothered to think in what circumstances my house help lives? What her house is like? These are uncomfortable truths we’d rather not engage with.”

He’s hesitant to talk too much about The Disciple but calls it a ‘spiritual successor’ to Grey Elephants in Denmark, an interactive play he directed which was set in the world of magic and mentalism where the actors broke the fourth wall and performed live mind-reading experiments with the audience.

Chaitanya Tamhane on a research trip for "The Disciple'.
Chaitanya Tamhane on a research trip for "The Disciple'.

While Court was a result of witnessing the persecution of activists and intellectuals that accelerated with the arrival of the BJP government in India, The Disciple is a product of Tamhane’s engagement with Hindustani classical music, an area he had zero knowledge about until he dived into it for the purpose of the film. “One was led to believe it was a dying subculture but over the course of the film, I realised it’s a very thriving and dynamic art form.”

Tamhane equates telling stories to an ‘ailment’, something he does because he doesn’t know anything else.

“Many times, I question it myself,” he says. “Why do I have to suffer so much? Why do I have to go through this pain, torture, trauma and the endurance it takes to get through it? And then I realise I can’t help it. The storytelling part within me will always be alive irrespective of the medium. I could be writing a play, designing a video game, anything. The need to express myself and make sense of the world as I see it is too strong.”

Among the hardest parts about putting together The Disciple was not having a set template to work out from. “When you aren’t working on a set genre, when you’re really trying to go deep inside yourself and find some truth, it’s really the writing that needs to be cracked. It’s a marriage of your internal world and the external world that includes research etc. It took me two years to write this. It drove me mad. There were times when I was convinced that I’m not a writer and that I should do something else. But somehow, I kept at it.”

As a writer, Tamhane says he lacks discipline and is an ‘expert procrastinator’ who disappears into board games and magic boxes and his PS4. “I want to be the person who enjoys the writing process but I’m disappointed to tell you that I’m not. I really wish I could write a script in 6 months but it doesn’t work that way. Neither do I think I can direct a film written by someone else. Not yet, at least.”

To the million dollar question of where one can stream Court, Tamhane says that it isn’t accessible anywhere but he’s hopeful that it’ll come on one of the platforms around December this year.

The present politics of the country, Tamhane admits, has instilled a sense of fear and censorship in filmmakers. While there’s hardly a silver lining to hold onto, the director says that some of the best art has emerged from countries with authoritarian regimes.

“It’s something that can fuel your expression of resistance and dissent. Yes, it’s absolutely true that one has to think a hundred times before tackling a political narrative or any form of dissent in today’s times. You know you’d not just be immediately trolled but there are chances that your loved ones and your associates would bear the brunt of it too. There’s extreme intolerance. But these kind of restrictions force you to be even more creative.”

While he’s aware of the hyper polarisation, the question he likes to ask, before weaving the politics into his narrative is rather simple.

“To me, the question really is: who’s the audience? Because otherwise, you are preaching to the choir. It’s the same, insular bubble of people who are anyway on your side. So how do you reach out to people who are not on the same page as you? It’s not even reaching out in an educationist sense, that let me teach you how to be, but more with the intent of having a dialogue. The word ‘discourse’ shouldn’t even be used because discourse has been cancelled. Apart from the rabble-rousers, how do you engage with people from the other side? What are facts anymore?”

In an apparent gridlock as such, does he then think that cinema could act as a tool to bridge that perilous divide?

Nope.

“I don’t think cinema can intentionally cause social change. Does it impact our cultural intelligence? Yes. Does it impact our social narrative? Yes. Can it change it? I doubt. Unintentionally, yes, but very rarely by design.”