Chaitanya Tamhane’s second feature-length film, The Disciple, trains its camera on characters to explore their entire person. Tamhane intentionally stages his characters, and by considering their proximity to each other, you understand their relationship to the scene and each other. Without much in the way of inciting incidents, the story moves forward by watching Aditya Modak as Sharad, the eponymous disciple of a particular Indian classical music tradition. We see Sharad try and fail at his craft through his youth into middle age.

The Disciple is the antithesis of the film school logic “write what you know.” The film is the marriage of Chaitanya Tamhane’s personal nightmare of failing at movie-making despite having international auteur status and exploring something totally outside his purview. Tamhane knew nothing Indian classical music before his research began; he says writing what he knows would bore him. 

We spoke with Chaitanya Tamhane during the 58th New York Film Festival and he discusses the merits of writing about what you don’t know, why it was important to cast musician Aditya Modak as Sharad instead of training and actor to sing, and how tradition can liberate or place heavy weights on our own dreams. 

The Film Stage: Why did you want to make a movie about Indian classical music, if you didn’t have much experience with it?

Chaitanya Tamhane: I get bored very easily and I grew up in a fairly insular middle class setting. I’m constantly looking out for new worlds that I can engage in. Worlds that are still situated in my cultural context and in the society that I live in, but that I don’t know anything about. Indian classical music is a world full of stories and anecdotes, and crazy geniuses and secret knowledge. I can’t exactly pinpoint when that bug bit me, but once it did, I was just totally obsessed with it. I had this idea of a dream slowly fading away. And The Disciple, in some ways, is a spiritual adaptation of a play I had written called Grey Elephants in Denmark when I was 21. But this setting just made total sense. It was something new for me to set the central premise of the play in the world of Indian classical music.

In American filmmaking there’s an idea you should make movies about what you know; that doesn’t sound like what you do. Why doesn’t that appeal to you?

The answer is a little more complicated, because what’s happening is the movie is a marriage of an external stimulus with something that’s very personal to me. If you look at the core themes of The Disciple, I think it’s something I know very well. It’s something I relate to, and it’s very personal. But yes, the world that it is set in, is something with which I am unfamiliar. It’s a very interesting process of doing a lot of research, almost like an investigative journalist, and educating yourself in a certain profession, or field or certain world, but then eventually coming around to still expressing what you truly, deeply feel, and your personal worldview reflects in your work. It makes you realize how universal certain themes are, and how universal people’s struggles and insecurities and battles with everyday life are, no matter what the feel or cultural context.

Did you cast Aditya Modak as your lead, Sharad, because he knows the music and can perform it? Or did he have to learn it?

When we started casting for this film, we realized quite quickly that an actor won’t be able to fake this music. It’s too complex, and the language that I employ, which is of long, continuous takes, and wide shots, it’s going to be very difficult for an actor who doesn’t perform this music to fake it on screen with authenticity. We decided to audition a lot of Indian classical musicians, even if they had never acted before. Aditya Modak is a professional musician who’s acting for the first time. I genuinely thought that would be an easier task to accomplish is to get a singer to act than get an actor to learn this music because it really takes like a lifetime to master this music.

Sharad is often not the focus of a scene, but he comes into focus.

In the narrative arc of the film, which is that of Sharad being the center of the universe in his own head, in terms of his ambitions, in terms of what he hopes for himself, and what he wants to accomplish in life. To become one of many, because then life happens. You understand your positioning in the real world where you’re not exceptional, where you’re not outstanding, and you have to fight it out, to prove yourself to be exceptional. I think there’s this constant tension in the film, and which is why you see that, from Sharad being fairly at the center of his own universe, you start seeing him becoming more and more lost in the crowd, in the second chapter of the film.

Is Sharad’s story a critique of him and middle class people like him for pursuing their dreams?

No, it’s not. If anything, in my head it’s a very compassionate outlook towards somebody who’s trying to achieve their dream. But also at the same time, if anything, it’s a critique for me of this general discourse in society of success and individualism and the stigma around failures. Success and failure are also very personal and internal and not necessarily always worldly. But no, it’s not a critique of people like Sharah, because I relate to his journey quite a lot. It’s an exploration of a personal nightmare for me. 

It seems like Sharad’s pursuit, his discipline, and his lifestyle is the reward. Even though he doesn’t get to be a successful musician in the eyes of the world, ultimately, it seems the value his guru instills in him is this spiritual life is the reward. 

Theoretically, it makes sense to believe in the process rather than the reward. But that’s also where the conflict of the film emerges: whether this theory can be a lived experience. Can we really go on respecting and honoring the process and considering it to be sacred if there is no reward? In that sense, can you truly, selflessly, and unconditionally follow a process? I think that’s the conflict of the film. I think the answers for each viewer are going to be different. That’s the beauty of art and films that we take back our own meaning and our own answers and also project our own worldview and philosophy on a piece of work.

Will you talk about the master/disciple relationship in classical music?

It’s an ancient tradition in Indian society. The idea has been one of complete submission, and complete unquestioning faith in your guru. Back in the good old days, what would happen is that a student, a disciple, would live with the master and serve the master 24/7, because the philosophy was your imbibing, not just the guru’s music, but also a way of life. You’re not just learning the music when they’re teaching you, but also when they are practicing their own music. It was not very easy to be accepted as a disciple by a guru because access was much more limited, knowledge was protected like secrets, and the guru had to consider somebody worthy enough to then impart with their secrets and impart this knowledge. The other aspect is also that Indian classical music cannot be written down, it cannot be learned from books, or even recordings. It’s an oral tradition and you have to learn it from a guru in person. I found these aspects of the master/disciple tradition to be very fascinating. Not that I agree with it all, not that I necessarily endorse this tradition in the way it’s been carried out. It was very interesting to explore that relationship and its evolution. Not only in terms of the narrative arc of the film, but also how it’s changed with time, even for Indian classical music practitioners.

Why is it within the master-disciple relationship, the disciple isn’t allowed to question the guru? That’s the opposite of the Western Socratic tradition.

I guess that’s got to do with this idea of Indian philosophy and the main major influence of religion on Indian classical music. Where the idea is that you cannot truly learn from a guru until you have unquestioning faith in the guru, because there are certain lessons that you will assimilate much later in life. But you need to have that unquestioning belief and faith for it to enter your mind in the first place. Not that I necessarily agree with it. I agree with you, when you say we need to question and no mentor or guru can be perfect. But I think that’s the Indian philosophy that’s at work here. At least traditional Indian philosophy.

Is Sharad smoking, getting fat, looking at porn signs he’s not a true ascetic? 

I never saw Sharad as an ascetic. The whole central conflict of the film is about theory versus practice. What the body wants, what your true inner impulses are versus what you are supposed to follow and what your impulses are supposed to be. Whether that’s really attainable for anybody is the question that the film is asking. If you see, even Maai, who’s supposed to be the purest, most divine ascetic in the film is questioned later on by the critic how she had many flaws. I don’t even know if the critic was saying the truth or not. But I think that mystery is also beautiful in a way.

Who are we to judge somebody who wants to watch porn? Why is that not a human need? It is.  I think this romantic idea of devotion and passion versus what is really happening inside Sharad is also a bit tongue-in-cheek. It’s also playful for me and funny in a way.

Chaitanya Tamhane and executive producer Alfonso Cuarón

What do you think about virtual film festivals and people experiencing your movie for the first time at home?

I have mixed feelings because the film was designed to be seen on a big screen. We work very hard for that experience, and also the sound of the film. I generally am a bit old fashioned in that I really romanticize and have great respect for the experience of people coming together and the lights going down and a screen lighting up. I believe in the oneiric nature of cinema and the kind of chance and committed experience it can create in a movie theater. I have made the film in that way because Indian classical music is very hypnotizing, very trancelike. It’s a totally different experience on a big screen. A more dreamlike experience, I would like to believe, but at the same time, one has to be present in terms of what’s happening in the world, what the situation is; not only just in terms of the pandemic right now, but also just how people are engaging with different art forms, how accessible your work has become, because of the various technologies and mediums that are now available. It’s just going to give artists a much wider audience and it also removes a lot of old fashioned obstacles of distribution and exhibition. It’s become quite democratic in that sense, even though it’s now becoming more and more a solitary exercise in terms of watching films or series by yourself. I have mixed feelings about it. But yeah, I’m not terribly upset. It’s just a thing one has to come to terms with in 2020.

My sense is that Sharad’s father’s love of classical music is inspired by the music itself, but is also inspired by a sense of devotion and control it gives him. He’s able to pass that on to his son but it’s also a way to control his son.

It’s so universal, the question that you’re asking, because this could be the question you could ask a father who initiated their kid into jazz or ballet, or magic, and that’s the thing about parents. Our elders in general who try to project their own unfulfilled aspirations and dreams and their own failures, and it’s almost like they want to resolve that, or find an answer to that, through their progeny. I see the common thread between Sharad and his father, I think they’re both escapists of the highest order. There’s a hesitancy to engage with the real world, and they want to be lost in this romantic world of art and culture and stories, which is a drug, in a way, it’s an intoxication for them, which they don’t want to snap out of. It can be quite irresponsible, or ignorant of somebody to project their unfulfilled dreams onto their kids. But again, these things work in very subtle ways, where people are not always aware of what they’re doing. 

Why do you think Sharad and people in general carry our parents’ dreams far into our own lives, until we wake up to what we want to do? Or that we’re not able to live their dreams?

My guess would be that our conditioning and what we are taught, as right or wrong, or as precious, or the values that are instilled in us, that process happens at such an early age when you don’t really have the faculty to question certain things. It becomes quite a deep-rooted aspiration, ambition, fear, insecurity, and also a trick of the ego. I don’t know if everybody who may be following such a path, if many of them are even aware of the fact that that’s what’s happening in either direct or indirect ways. But for me, it was a very interesting area to explore in the film.

The Disciple is now playing virtually nationwide at the 58th New York Film Festival along with a Queens drive-in screening on Thursday, October 1.

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