India Returns to Venice Film Fest Competition After Nearly Two Decades with Screening of ‘The Disciple’

A film about an Indian classical musician’s struggle to balance his career dreams and life in contemporary Mumbai this week returns India to the main competition at the Venice Film Festival for the first time in nearly two decades.

Writer-director Chaitanya Tamhane’s “The Disciple” is among the 18 films selected for competition at the festival, which opened Sept. 2. The last Indian film in the competition was “Monsoon Wedding” by Mira Nair, which in 2001 won the festival’s top prize, the Golden Lion.Tamhane spent four years researching, filming and editing “The Disciple,” which follows a would-be classical music vocalist who struggles to balance his craft’s centuries-old traditions with contemporary Mumbai.

His film is slated to premiere Sept. 4 and despite travel restrictions and precautions due to the coronavirus pandemic, Tamhane plans to be there.

“It’s been my dream, in a way to, you know, (to) be in competition at the festival,” he said. “You know, there would be no bigger high than presenting the film in person at Venice.”

“I started off almost like a journalist, you know, attending concerts, interviewing musicians and hanging out in these spaces that they inhabit. So it took me two years to do the research, travel around the country and write the script,” Tamhane, 33, said in an interview last month.

“Indian classical musicians — there is a general perception that they are very serious and, you know, and they are very sort of solemn and somber. And once you start hanging out with them, once you start kind of talking to them, you realize that they’re just as normal, as ordinary as all of us,” he said. “And they’re also in their respective field facing the same kind of issues, the same kind of problems that, you know, a journalist would be facing or an athlete would be facing.”

“It was a process for me to arrive at that realization,” he said.As with his 2014 debut feature, “Court,” which takes a swipe at the Indian legal system through the trial of an aging folk singer, “The Disciple” reflects his concerns about society.

“‘Court’ was a lot more observational, a lot more objective. ‘The Disciple’, I would say, is a lot more subjective,” he said. “A lot of my observations about society and people, you know, do kind of seep into the script. And I feel not just me, everybody should be socially conscious and not be insular and live in a bubble, and react and engage with what’s happening around us.”

“Court” won Best Film in the Orizzonti section that runs parallel to the main Venice Film Festival competition. It also won Tamhane the Lion of the Future award given to best first films.Tamhane said he can relate to people swimming against the tide.

“I kind of think that I am on the fringe, you know, of the mainstream film industry in India, which is so dominant,” he said.At 19, he took a jab at his homeland’s film industry with his documentary “Four Step Plan,” which addressed plagiarism in Indian films.

“So when something is so popular, so dominant as an entire machinery, how do you survive? How do you find your own voice? How do you do something that’s not going to have, say, as big an audience and never going to make as much money or gain as much popularity? So then how do you keep going? How do you find your audience,” he said.

Those themes also run through “The Disciple.” Tamhane said he doesn’t take for granted that he’ll be able to continue to make movies.

“I may not get to make the kind of things that I want to make is a constant fear in my mind,” he said. “Even when I was shooting this film every single day, I would remind myself that, you know, I’ve been blessed, I’m privileged that I’m getting to do this. And this might not be the case in a few years.” 

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