It may have missed the Oscars, but ‘The Disciple’ is grabbing eyeballs for its universal theme that explores artistic ambition, legacy and acceptance
When Gravity released in 2013, the space-thriller made more than $700 million worldwide, and won seven Academy Awards, including one for Alfonso Cuarón as best director.
The Mexican filmmaker could have literally made anything he wanted at that point — big-budget Hollywood studios and stars were lining up to work with him. Instead, he went back to his neighbourhood in Mexico city where he’d grown up, and made a personal period piece called Roma that released to universal acclaim and ended up winning him another best director Oscar in 2018.
Also Read | Get ‘First Day First Show’, our weekly newsletter from the world of cinema, in your inbox. You can subscribe for free here
As the whole world waited with bated breath to see what he would do next (Harry Potter fans still celebrate him fondly for making Prisoner of Azkaban, the finest movie in the series), he announced that he would executive produce a little known Marathi project, helmed by Court director Chaitanya Tamhane. And from thereon, The Disciple began its award-studded journey.
Set in contemporary Mumbai, The Disciple is a deeply meditative film that follows the life of musician Sharad Nerulkar, essayed by Aditya Modak. Nerulkar has dedicated his life to becoming an Indian classical music vocalist, determined to live up to the expectations of his guru and his father. But as the years roll by, a disillusioned Nerulkar questions his life’s purpose and ponders: will he ever achieve the success he is in pursuit of?
“The film deals with an artistic ambition that is very specific, but the theme is highly universal,” says Cuarón. “It is about fathers and sons, about legacy, about the old world versus the new, how things change and how we adapt to it, how much we can accept ourselves, or how we have to follow the expectations of our parents. It is something that has really touched the core of audiences around the world.”
The winner of the Best Screenplay award at the 77th Venice International Film Festival, it also has producer Vivek Gomber (who starred in 2018’s critically-acclaimed film, Sir) on board, and is set to première in India this month.
Cuarón and Tamhane first met through the Rolex Mentor & Protégé Arts Initiative for 2016-17, and the former was so impressed with the young Indian talent that he offered to back his next film. Four years on, the two are good friends and their mutual respect comes across in every interview they do together.
On a Zoom call with The Hindu Weekend, Tamhane is still noticeably awed at his collaboration with the Mexican icon (he says so in as many words), while Cuarón is his usual Zen self, doling out nuggets of filmmaking wisdom, and full of praise for his Indian counterpart.
The duo talks to us about why the film has struck a chord with global audiences, how such international collaborations can drive Indian cinema forward, and how the pandemic has influenced their filmmaking.
(The interview has been edited and condensed.)
The film is set in the backdrop of Indian classical music, and yet international audiences and critics have been able to resonate with it…
Tamhane: I don’t think you can calculate or anticipate an audience’s reaction to anything. You create something with a certain intent and conviction because you believe in a story and its need to be told. Even before Court or The Disciple released, I had no idea how an international audience would react. We are talking about over 195-200 countries… it’s an abstract entity in that sense. I believe that the film and its themes — which talk about human aspiration, the personal quest for excellence and belonging to a certain tribe — are universal enough. Maybe if done with sincerity, some of it communicates and translates to viewers worldwide, transcending the barriers of geography and cultures.
In India, I feel a lot more confident that the film will resonate with people because it is an Indian story. The cultural specificities are what make it unique and original, and there are so many nuances, so many different undertones that an audience here will appreciate.
Cuarón: He’s been extremely humble about the perception of the film globally. The response to The Disciple has been amazing from the get go, right from when it premièred in Venice. And the word-of-mouth and reviews have been fantastic. Then came all these invitations, and it played at the New York Film Festival. This is Chaitanya’s second film. You know, I had to wait a decade or two for one of my films to be invited by the NYFF. Not only that, suddenly he starts getting these calls from Hollywood agents, actors and stars just embracing the film. There were already a bunch of people campaigning for the film to be in the Oscars, and disappointed that at the end, it was not the Indian selection even after so much support.
One of the biggest motifs in your (Cuarón‘s) films is the relationship between the subjects and their surroundings. In The Disciple, the city of Mumbai is almost a character. Is that due to your influence, Mr Cuarón?
Cuarón: I agree with you, and I love that about the film, that Mumbai is really a character in it. But it is a Mumbai that is completely grounded; there is no romanticisation or judgement about the city. Ultimately, what I perceived from Chaitanya is an immense love for his city. I wish I could say I had any influence over him, but his mind is so stubborn! I don’t think anyone can influence him [laughs].
Tamhane: I have absolutely been influenced by him while being on the sets of Roma, and seeing the post-production work. Yes, I had certain inclinations, but Alfonso really gave me the courage to be even more fearless to push myself. For instance, like in many of his [Cuarón] earlier works, we used only one or two lenses throughout the entire film.
Could your film set a precedent for other local talent to collaborate with foreign filmmakers?
Tamhane: To be very honest, I sometimes have to pinch myself that this is actually happening, even the fact that Alfonso is right now with us, supporting The Disciple. I think of this as a combination of wild luck, a matter of extreme privilege, and a lot of stars aligning.
I am nobody to comment on this, but yes, I do hope it does become a precedent of some sort. A filmmaker of his stature, supporting an Indian film like this… I don’t take it for granted at all. It’s really something fantastical and a dream come true.
Cuarón: Yes Chaitanya, because I watched the stars, not your film. I watched how they were aligned, and they really wanted your film [grins].
The central protagonist’s frustration and insecurity is an emotion that has been dominant in many of us during the pandemic; do you think the film resonates that sense?
Tamhane: What all of us are doing in this pandemic is adapting to the situations in front of us, and that’s kind of what the character is doing. It’s not a period of a year or two, it’s his entire life. I hope that this pandemic has given people time to sit back, switch off a little bit, and make them more receptive to a film that is meditative in its nature.
From the year we’ve had — and the one that we are experiencing now — how do you think you’ve changed?
Tamhane: We were very lucky that The Disciple had finished and it also had its première during the lockdown. But, the pandemic definitely has had an effect on me, and not in a positive way. I felt like, ‘okay, why should you do anything?’ That was a phase, but I snapped out of it and I’m now working on a new project. But I’ve been very envious of people who are productive and doing lots of things in the lockdown… like Alfonso, from what I’ve gathered.
Cuarón: You ride with it, and at the end, the extraordinary thing is that artists are always consciously and unconsciously influenced by their times. In my lifetime, there has never been a period so peculiar as this; it’s impossible for that not to affect us in ways we don’t comprehend now. But maybe those thoughts are going to start projecting in five years from now… when even if you do films without masks, and the whole thing is a little bit forgotten, there’s something that remains about this.
I was lucky as I had the luxury to keep working at home, and what I discovered is the joy of writing all over again. Before the pandemic, writing was just a means to make my film, and I was impatient with it. Now, with all the time available, it was just writing for pleasure, and that was actually sweet.
The Disciple premières on April 30 on Netflix