Chaitanya Tamhane concedes his films are easily labelled as 'serious' or 'intense'. It’s a fair assessment. In 2014, he made Court, an acid critique of the Indian judicial system. The film was predominantly in Marathi, had a fringed musician as its protagonist, and, to most eyes, looked and felt like a serious indie.
All of which holds true for The Disciple, Chaitanya's second feature, about a young classical singer in Mumbai. But the films are also tied together in another way. They are both darkly, wickedly funny – not an immediate descriptor you would use for his films.
"I look at both works as tragicomedies," says Chaitanya, talking about the minute satirical details he bakes into his scripts. In The Disciple, this manifests in an elaborate send-up of a reality show. Elsewhere, the digs are more peripheral, like the image of a man nodding off in an office.
"You show me a scene and I will show you the humour in it. My films so far are not funny in an overt way but there is something irreverent, disjointed or against the expectations happening. And yet it's all rooted in how we are as a society," he adds.
Humour does alleviate the supposed austerity of his movies, but they do mean business. The Disciple, after all, is a pained study in artistic alienation.
The film is about Sharad (debutant Aditya Modak), a second-generation classical musician who suffers a crisis of faith. Sharad's journey - as he struggles to connect with the higher plains of his art - should resonate with any young Indian caught between idealism and change.
"We all start out as dreamers. Nobody grows up saying I want to do the most boring and safest thing in the world. Either they are projections of our parents or pressures from society or our circumstances or a function of our privileges that compel us to change," Chaitanya says.
"I loved the concept when I read it," says Vivek Gomber, who has produced all of Chaitanya's work so far (he also played the lawyer in Court). Chaitanya had written a play, Grey Elephants in Denmark, for which he cast Vivek in 2009.
The two became friends and Vivek moved out of Mumbai for a while. It was only after his father’s demise that Vivek found himself in a position to fund a feature project. This became Court, which premiered at Venice and also became the official Indian entry to the 88th Academy Awards.
"After Court, I told Chaitanya I would never produce again. I said it won't happen again… Who would do it? Where will I get the money? Then I read The Disciple and knew we had to make it," Vivek recalls. Along with Lijo Jose Pellissery,Raam Reddy, and Thiagarajan Kumararaja, Chaitanya is a leading exponent of regional Indian cinema on a world stage.
Before The Disciple, he and Vivek also produced Ere Gowda’s 2018 Kannada-language film Balekempa. With streaming platforms further levelling the field, Vivek says it’s time we ditched the stigma around subtitles.