Spike Lee was the mentor of Kyle Bell in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative 2020 - 2022. Photo by Arnaud Montagard / Rolex
Chaitanya TamhaneEmerging Masters

Chaitanya Tamhane: “I want to find my own language”

Short Profile

Name: Chaitanya Tamhane
DOB: 1 March 1987
Place of birth: Mumbai, Maharashtra, India
Occupation: Film director, screenwriter

Chaitanya Tamhane was the protégé of Alfonso Cuarón in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative 2016-2017.

Chaitanya, as a director and a screenwriter, what is the most beautiful thing about film for you?

The most beautiful part of cinema for me is the ability to depict the human condition on screen; the ability to evoke empathy for the worst of people and the most flawed people. It's a form of catharsis in a safe setting, it's like dreaming with your eyes open. I think that is probably unique to cinema: the cumulative combination of how all different art forms come together to evoke empathy and to depict the human condition. Right now, this is the most interesting aspect of it.

And what about the most beautiful part of filmmaking?

Well, there are more pains and more annoyances with filmmaking. But if I had to say what's the most beautiful part, I would say it’s the fact that so many people come together as one unit, right? The uncertainty and feeling alive and being outside of yourself, you've lost track of your ego and your time and the self — all at the service of creating something from nothing. And you’re not doing it alone. You're doing it with a family that you'll form. The joy when something works, when something happens on set which you didn't plan for, or which turned out way better than you expected... Those fleeting moments of wonder and miracles are for me the most beautiful part.

“In India, you’re kind of born into film — cricket and movies are religion. So in that sense, I was not a stranger to films.”

Have you always loved storytelling this deeply?

I’ve always been surrounded by stories of all kinds; my mother would get me books on tape, I would read novels and children's magazines and things like that. But I must tell you that I don't come from like a very cultured family. I come from a very, very modest, you know, humble background in that sense, and we didn't ever have the money to go to the cinema as a family. It was an expensive affair for us! My dad had a contact in one of our local theaters, so we would get free invites to watch plays. So in a way, I actually grew up closer to theater. I wanted to be an actor!

Luckily for us, things worked out differently. When did you discover your love of film specifically?

The thing is that in India, you're kind of born into film, because it's, you know, a cliche, you must have heard many times that in India, cricket and movies are religion. So in that sense, I was not a stranger to films! Because I was born and raised in Mumbai, which is very Bollywood crazy and film crazy… India as a country produces more films than any other country in the world! So ever since I was young, I did have a fascination towards films that was non-Bollywood, or non-mainstream, you know? I wouldn't understand them but there was something fascinating about them.

What kind of films are you talking about?

A theater director I worked with, he told me something that changed my life. He said, “Watch this film called City of God.” Okay, I have no idea what it is, but I rented it from the library. And it was a life-changing moment, really, it was a revelation that there are not only films being made outside of Hollywood and Bollywood, but that you can also make films like this, that there are films being made in many other parts of the world. That is basically what made me want to be a filmmaker, because for two years, I had no other identity apart from the guy who watches films. (Laughs)

And then you pretty much jumped right in — you were already writing for television by age 17.

Yeah, there was a theater director who made one-act plays, and he was writing for television. I kind of caught his eye and he said, “You’re funny. And you seem to have some ideas. Why don't you come write for me.” And it was obviously very daunting. I think it was like $300 per month or something like that. And that for me was a big deal! Eventually I quit television because I had some terrible experiences there, and I was really angry. So in college I made a documentary about plagiarism in Indian cinema, and that was my divorce, my farewell to Bollywood. I was fortunate enough to meet a few mentors in my life who introduced me to a different world of cinema and intellectual discourse. I ended up making a short film, going to a few international film festivals… It was very encouraging.

You then went on to make your celebrated film, Court. It must have been an amazing experience to see it not only selected at the Venice Film Festival, but also become India’s entry for the Academy Awards.

I was the happiest when it was just selected at Venice! Because before that, it was rejected by every major festival, every sales agent in the world. And then we finally managed to get one sales agent and one selection at Venice, and then it became something else. I didn't even want to win the awards that it won, you know, or the reviews I got, I just wanted the film to have a place. All along, I was very clear that Court is not made for an international audience, I couldn't make the film for any particular audience because it does not simplify matters of caste, or class, or the local politics, or the cultural subtext. There was no compromises or dumbing down of anything.

The trailer for Chaitanya Tamhane's 2015 film, Court.

That seems to be the foundation for all of your films. You’ve chosen a very different route to the commercial narrative that most popular Indian films follow.

(Laughs) Yeah, I remember, you know, from my teens being very restless and despondent about the kind of films that were made in the country! I was not happy with what I was seeing around me. So for me, it was that frustration of not finding the kind of film that I would want to watch. Another factor is that in India, you're taught to be very, very reverent, you're taught to not question authority or figures who are senior. I was also very angry with all the reverence… People tend to be also very parochial, like they have their own legends, they have their own histories, and they don't want to look beyond that. So that was also something that played on my mind. I don't want to get so bogged down by this baggage of 100 years of a certain kind of cinema, you know? I want to find my own language, my own voice.

I would say that the films which are most successful creatively are the ones that come from that burning passion, that singular voice.

Yeah, you're absolutely right. I also have another simpler way of looking at it, which is like; I don't really have a choice. This is who I am. You know, sometimes people are like, “You choose your own suffering.” And I'm like, “Yeah, but sometimes suffering chooses you.” The best that I can do is just to be myself and follow my intuition and where it takes me.

Is that how your filmmaking process works? Do you find a starting point and then simply let your intuition guide you through the story?

I think the starting point has changed for me over the years. I think with Court, The Disciple and the short film, it was the setting, the world that got me interested. It was very sort of driven by fascination and curiosity, and a very unconditional kind of curiosity, where it's like, “Let's just immerse ourselves into this world that we have no idea about.” And hopefully a plot, a certain theme or certain characters will evolve and emerge from there. And now after The Disciple, which takes place in the Indian classical music scene,  I want to work even more from sort of an inside-out manner, where it's the themes, and it's my concerns, and my worldview that comes first. But then again, there's no one rule, right? It's always going to be different for every story, for every film.

Who would you say are the people who have played a vital role in helping you bring these stories to life?

There are two main ones, the first being my producer Vivek Gomber. I wouldn't be a filmmaker if it was not for him. I had directed him in the theater, and we remained friends. At one time shortly afterwards, nothing was working out for me in terms of jobs, and I got into a very dark space, I wanted to give up… Not just on filmmaking, but on life. It was bad. I was so young and angry. Vivek ended up giving me the money that I needed at the time to survive. No contracts, no conditions. “Just take a year and write this thing.” And that was that. Since that day, he's been like a second father to me. He has provided unconditional support. The other one is Alfonso Cuarón.

Trailer for Chaitanya Tamhane's new film The Disciple.

Who also acted as the executive producer on your last film The Disciple.

After Court, I got the invited to apply for the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, and it said Alfonso Cuarón as the mentor… I was like, “There's no way in hell I'm going to be selected. He might as well be making films on another planet!” Like, we're talking about a master who's at a very different level. And you know, I would give my life to learn from him. We met in London, and we got along like a house on fire. He’d seen Court, I think that's kind of what did it. So I was selected! I could not believe my ears, I was so happy.

And then to be part of a film like Roma

Can you imagine the privilege? The sheer honor and joy of doing something like that? The Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative is only a year long, but there are no rules, like it depends on the relationship between you — and our relationship has now evolved over the last five or six years. And he's still standing by me, he went out of his way to support The Disciple. My first day on the sets of Roma, he introduced me as his friend, not as you know, some protege who has come to shadow him on set. I was the only one who had read the script of Roma, I was the only one who was allowed to be on the monitor with Alfonso. It was such a wonderful thing.

What were the best lessons you took from those experiences?

I would say that I'm still processing everything that I learned from him, it's going to take me a while to fully understand what I learned from him. But to tell you in very tangible terms, I thought that I was sort of detail-oriented. I thought that I was a control freak. And then I saw him at work! (Laughs) I was like, “Oh my God, this guy!" You know, it just expanded my vocabulary as a filmmaker, I mean, the way he uses the effects, the way he uses anything that's not technical… He's a sorcerer. He is a magician. And it's all for the sake of the emotion. It's all for the sake of communicating to the subconscious.

It’s to enhance the performance.

Exactly. And I very tangibly borrowed that from that approach from him, because every shot of The Disciple has effects in it, but you would not know it. It's to enhance the rhythm, it's to evoke a mood, but it's completely invisible. The way The Disciple looks, Alfonso has a huge role to play in it because he chose that DP for me. I was actually not sure about that DP, but Alfonso asked me to trust him. I took this whole journey. I went through this whole process with him — and now it's decision time. Do I trust him or not? This is the moment where my faith is tested, and maybe I'm going to learn from it no matter how good the filmmaker, I cannot rely on someone else's judgement. Or it's going to teach me a new way of looking at things. And guess what? He was absolutely right.