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Aditya Modak, The Disciple Netflix
Aditya Modak, The Disciplecourtesy of Netflix

Alfonso Cuarón & Chaitanya Tamhane on their celebration of Hindustani music

The Disciple’s writer-director Chaitanya Tamhane and executive producer Alfonso Cuarón speak about their collaboration, the beauty of Hindustani music, and the danger of algorithms affecting cinema

Indian classical music is an inherently cinematic art. In the opening scene of The Disciple, an elderly, white-haired singer, Guruji (Arun Dravid), performs a raag to an enraptured audience, gesticulating wildly with his hands as his body becomes possessed by a floating, transcendent melody.

However, Chaitanya Tamhane’s mesmerising, introspective drama – a Netflix release executive-produced by Alfonso Cuarón – spends its two hours following Sharad Nerulkar (Aditya Modak), the 24-year-old figure to Guruji’s left. Lacking any social life, Sharad is a Mumbai-based, aspiring vocalist who dedicates every waking moment to his craft and wants nothing more than to be the next Guruji. Movies are typically feel-good stories about plucky underdogs overcoming the odds. Well, The Disciple asks a more pertinent question: at what point does chasing an impossible dream become detrimental?

It isn’t that Sharad is incompetent or like your tone-deaf housemate butchering pop tunes in the shower. In fact, Sharad’s vocal renditions of Hindustani music are hypnotic and moving, doubly so when we’ve already witnessed him painstakingly rehearse at home. The world of Indian classical music is just so competitive and arguably exploitative towards newcomers that you’re practically screaming at Sharad to give up – well, maybe after the next performance. After all, Sharad already suspects that he lacks the one-in-a-million talent to succeed, and his abilities are often actively criticised by Guruji – sometimes publicly, onstage, in front of an audience.

To further highlight Sharad’s Sisyphean ambitions, Tamhane’s script teases the existence of Maai, a never-seen woman who supposedly reached perfection with her voice. In a cruel punchline, no recordings exist – except for a series of lectures from 1972 that Sharad pumps into his ears when riding on a moped at night. “A restless mind simply cannot sing Khayal music with depth and authenticity,” Maai insists in one of the tapes. “To worship every note, every microtone, your mind has to be pure and unblemished.” Of course, no one’s mind can be pure and unblemished – The Disciple dares to show its protagonist masturbating to porn when no one’s around.

Tamhane, 34, is not a first-time filmmaker. The Indian artist also wrote and directed Court, a Mumbai-set political drama that, in 2014, won prizes at Venice and had many admirers – including Alfonso Cuarón. Through Rolex’s Mentor & Protégé Arts Initiative, Tamhane was paired in 2016 with Cuarón, the 59-year-old Mexican auteur behind Children of Men, Y tu mamá también, and Gravity. On Cuarón’s Oscar-winning Roma, Tamhane was present on set, and, uncoincidentally, both The Disciple and Roma speak in dialogue with each other. Like Roma, The Disciple is a personal, meditative story that eschews cliched plot mechanics and embraces stillness – often, Tamhane’s camera will patiently hover in one spot while the invisible textures of Hindustani music fill the frame.

Here, through the magic of Zoom and affordable broadband, we speak to The Disciple’s writer and director Chaitanya Tamhane (in Mumbai) and its executive producer Alfonso Cuarón (in London) about their two-way collaboration, the danger of algorithms, and why Indian classical music is so cinematic.

Chaitanya, how did Sharad’s passion for Hindustani music shape the cinematography, the pacing, and even the colours of The Disciple? For instance, if he loved Metallica and wanted to be a heavy metal drummer, it’s a completely different film?

Chaitanya Tamhane: Absolutely. It’s a cyclical process where the music is informing the film language, and the story is also informing our curation of the sound. When that hypnotic tanpura starts playing, the Indian drone, it’s hard to not get sucked in by it. It’s always tricky to do justice to one medium in another medium. It’s a process of being present in the music while making the film, and yet knowing that we are here telling a story, and not creating a showcase for this music.

Alfonso, The Disciple depicts the dangers of idolising an older artist in your field. I presume that you and Chaitanya have a healthier relationship?

Alfonso Cuarón: Yeah. Our relationship is more of collaborators, of two filmmakers that deeply admire each other. Well, I hope he admires me – I admire him deeply (laughs). It’s a creative conversation. If anything, what I can bring is a certain experience about technical aspects of the creative endeavour, or, more importantly, maybe, the commercial journey.

Alfonso, you’ve done 30 years of interviews. Are you worried that aspiring filmmakers might take your advice too seriously?

Alfonso Cuarón: Oh, they do (laughs).

There could be people 30 years from now studying your podcast appearances in the same way that Sharad studies Maai’s audio lectures.

Alfonso Cuarón: The context that Chaitanya is showcasing is very specific. Maybe that applies to big masters. I have to say, myself, I’ve found myself going through any documents of filmmakers that I admire, or if there happens to be any glimpses of their work on the set, or if it’s another person like an actor who was close to their process. I know that Chaitanya does the same. We share a love for cinema masters. Whenever one finds something, we share it with the other person.

Following on from that – Chaitanya, how did being present every day on the set of Roma influence The Disciple?

Chaitanya Tamhane: I was lucky enough to be not only on the set of Roma but even during the grading and the sound mixing process. I’m still processing the fact that I got to witness such a beautiful but also ambitious, epic film. Where I come from, it’s a very different world where you’re working with very limited resources; you’re constantly aware of your limitations. It’s a real struggle to make an independent film.

Here, I was on a set transported to a whole different place in Mexico where I’m watching a visionary master at work who is making a deeply personal film without any compromises. Of course, there are always challenges and limitations to fight – correct me if I’m wrong, Alfonso – at every level. But it’s a deeply uncompromised, personal expression of a master.

So I was wide-eyed, man (laughs). I was like Alice in Wonderland. The scale of the project, Alfonso’s eye for detail, his control over the medium and the production – it was a huge lesson at every, every step.

Alfonso, you describe your relationship as a two-way collaboration. What have you taken from Chaitanya into the many secret projects I imagine you’re working on right now?

Alfonso Cuarón: I’m older, and because of that, I have already been jaded by, I have to say, my own process. For me, the greatest thing I can learn from Chaitanya is a fresh approach to things, his capacity for wonderment and discovery.

I really believe that it’s fundamental, if you want to make films, to follow the old masters – the old masters always have so much to give, and they keep on giving. But there’s a point in your life, and in your career, I guess, that if you keep following, and only following, the old masters, you start becoming redundant. Cinema is advancing very quickly. New tendencies are coming all the time. Not only in cinema, but humanity. You need to connect with the masters of the next generation, to see what energy they’re pushing forward, and to challenge your misconceptions of what you believe are the possibilities of cinema.

Chaitanya, why did you show Sharad masturbating to pornography? Is it how, as an artist, he clears his mind? Alfonso, you also depicted masturbation as a casual activity in Y tu mamá también.

Chaitanya Tamhane: (laughs) I don’t know why I have that masturbation scene. Maybe because I masturbate, and a lot of people I know masturbate, and I think it’s perfectly human for musicians to masturbate. That’s why!

Then maybe the question should be: why don’t more directors depict masturbation in their films?

Chaitanya Tamhane: You need to ask them!

Alfonso Cuarón: It’s interesting, the fact that you have to ask about that, when it’s one of those things that… you know, it’s a fact. I don’t think that what Chaitanya is doing in The Disciple is a scene from American Pie. I feel that Chaitanya is making a point about this character, and also his disconnect and his loneliness.

Alfonso, you once said that Guillermo del Toro views his films as his babies, but that you see them more like ex-wives. How would you describe your relationship with The Disciple? A nephew?

Alfonso Cuarón: It’s a very different situation! I was talking about the films that I make. That doesn’t apply to The Disciple, which is a film from a filmmaker I admire. I can watch it again and again. It’s a film I have revisited, and will keep on revisiting throughout my life.

”I’m attached to this idea of a past, even though I’m not that old. I feel that the present is being corroded in a rapid way, and definitely more so with the internet” – Chaitanya Tamhane

I noticed that both of you make films where the past and present co-exist – The Disciple jumps back and forth in time; Roma and Y tu mamá también feel like we’re in the present looking back.

Chaitanya Tamhane: I think I’m attached to this idea of a past, even though I’m not that old. I feel that the present is being corroded in a rapid way, and definitely more so with the internet. The generation I come from was born in the late 80s. I was growing up at the cusp of the pre-internet and post-internet era. When I see my city changing so rapidly, I see the way that human interactions have been shaped by technology. But I think that history is important, even if you’re looking forward, to learn from our mistakes, to learn from patterns and repeated cycles, to understand something about the present.

Does that make sense, Alfonso?

Alfonso Cuarón: Absolutely. The past is important in order to make sense of our present, and then to have better intuitions about the future. You cannot divorce yourself from the past. The danger is to romanticise that past too much, or to completely get attached to it. Because ultimately what matters is not even the future, but what you’re doing every day. At the end, the future is nothing but every single decision you make every day – and that’s informed by the past.

Alfonso, did you have a mentor earlier in your career? I know you send your scripts to people like Guillermo and Paweł Pawlikowski, but that’s not really the same?

Alfonso Cuarón: No, that’s more, again, the work of collaborators, not unlike with Chaitanya. But growing up, I had several mentors – people that helped me along the way. I started very young. I was very lucky that several people willingly, or maybe they didn’t even know, taught me so much. I was very lucky to have, with my first film, the support of Sydney Pollack, a filmmaker I admire. He happened to like my film.

Why is Hindustani music so cinematic? Is it to do with the improvisational nature of the raag?

Chaitanya Tamhane: Any kind of music I think is cinematic because they’re both temporal mediums. But Indian classical music has such a hypnotic, meditative quality of looking inwards, and of the performer being a composer in that moment. Like you said, there’s this idea of improvisation within a very strict framework.

It was not only challenging but also very stimulating to interpret this music visually and in the context of a story. Even while studying this music, I learned so much about cinema. There was a lot of interdisciplinary education that happened. But we were always aware that what we were doing here is filmmaking. It’s cinema. This music happens to be the world in which the story is set.

When I finished watching The Disciple on Netflix, the algorithm suggested I watch Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories, which I wasn’t expecting. But then I was wondering if it’s because both films are about failed musicians, which isn’t that common in storytelling.

Alfonso Cuarón: The first comment I would say is that there’s a danger of algorithms in artistic perception, taste, and artistic search. Algorithms can be uber intelligent. But in reality, the only thing they can do is gather data, and, based upon that data, present options. I think we’re gifted with something that an algorithm will never have, which is imagination. When you’re searching for films, I think what’s way more important than the algorithm is to have a clarity of what you’re appreciating. If you want to see something similar, it’s what you appreciated about that film, and what really moved you.

”The algorithm is programmed by people that have a very limited understanding of what cinema is” – Alfonso Cuarón

The algorithm is programmed by people that have a very limited understanding of what cinema is. Cinema is something greater than just the anecdote or the story of a failed musician. Cinema is way deeper than that. Chaitanya’s film is way greater than just a story about Indian classical music, or even an artist. It’s a story about our preconceptions of life, and what life leads us to.

That was my comment about algorithms. Algorithms should be a tool for certain things. I don’t think they should apply for an artistic endeavour. What was your question, after the algorithms?

Just that movies are typically about plucky underdogs who overcome the odds, but the reality is that most aspiring artists do not win Oscars like you, Alfonso, and whatever they do remains a hobby.

Alfonso Cuarón: That’s why The Disciple is so special. It’s rare for films to be about the disappointment in life, and how disappointment can lead to a truer life. At the end, this character found the actual meaning of his life, and this other stuff is just something that’s part of his journey – it’s not who he is. As humans, we’re afraid of disappointment and failure, even though it’s something that walks with us every single breathing hour. And you’re right, it’s very rare that filmmakers approach anything from that standpoint.

What do you think, Chaitanya?

Chaitanya Tamhane: I completely agree. I was sure from the beginning that I don’t want to tell yet another story of extreme success or extreme tragedy. Because life for most people lies somewhere in between. We don’t always end up superstars or rock stars, and neither do we always end up on the streets and completely broke. In that sense, it’s hard to even define Sharad’s journey as failure.

Like Alfonso said, if you see the film, it gives you the opportunity to project your own values in life, your own priorities in life, onto the film. What are the values that matter to you? Is it early success? Or is it the love of your family? Or is it finding meaning and purpose? In that sense, The Disciple is quite open-ended in whether he ended up successful or a failure.

But I definitely didn’t want to subscribe to this over-celebration of the exceptional, which I see happening in society, where everything that’s deeply individualistic or exceptional is celebrated – because that’s not the story of 99 per cent of humanity. But this constant barrage of watching extremely successful and exceptional people makes us feel anxious, and makes us feel left out, and makes us feel, in a way, worthless. But that ordinariness, that mediocrity, is the norm, rather than the exception.

The Disciple is streaming on Netflix now