Transforming a screenplay into a world that audiences can immerse themselves in, relies on a very integral collaboration. The conversion of the written word into an entity that allows viewers to engage with relies heavily on a collaboration between the director of the cinematography and the production designer and their ability to create an experience. This is where the art of cinema has space to grow. Ranging from realism to the surreal, the visual experience of a film still needs to be created. The Disciple, a Marathi drama film directed by Chaitanya Tamhane, uses real locations instead of sets. This, however, does not negate the need for a set design, it just means that the spaces we see on the screen have a texture that reflects a more real space.
The movie follows the protagonist Sharad Nerulkar, played by Aditya Modak, as the titular disciple. It explores Nerulkar's attempt to follow the traditions and discipline of his guru and his father in an attempt to become an Indian classical music vocalist. To better understand the translation of real and film space, STIR spoke to the movie's Director of Photography, Polish cinematographer Michal Sobocinski.
Devanshi Shah (DS): Could you tell us a little about how you got involved with the project and the initial phase of making The Disciple?
Michal Sobocinski (MS): I was actually exploring India when I was approached to work on the film. I am not local, but had the opportunity to be in India for about five or six months before because I was shooting another short-term project. So, I was able to find my own crew and pick my own camera department. The Disciple was a real learning experience for me, as I was able to embed myself in the culture as well. And I really enjoyed the time I could spend with the film’s director, Chaitanya Tamhane, and the whole production team. I worked very closely with the designers, production designers because we had to create this visual language of the film, which held an element of realism. My job was to create a world that would look natural but had to be created from scratch. That's what I would call my work, in this film. Of course, telling the story was the most important thing, because the script was very good and I like the whole idea of the fading of a dream, it is a very universal idea.
DS: One of the central themes of the movie is Indian classical music, could you tell us how you weaved that aspect in the film?
MS: I didn't know much about Indian classical music so it was interesting to work on it. It was a dream job for me because I am a musician myself. I am a Director of Photography, but I went to music school and I play the guitar. It is the meeting of my two passions. The whole idea was to showcase this music and to show what the character is going through without being subjective. I would say the film keeps a distance, it's more of an objective point of view. So, the camera is mostly static. We used wider frames so viewers have the time to analyse each frame. We had to be smart when choosing our frames and compositions because there were no cheats. The cast had to be real musicians because there was very little opportunity to edit these shots out.
DS: I would like you to expand a little bit on the static frames…
MS: The film is not static, while the frames might be. There are a lot of emotions expressed in the film but you don't get driven by this. Viewers are not pushed into looking at this as an action film or a psychological drama. I think it's a story, as I said, of the failing of a dream and it is a very universal subject and I think everyone can relate to this. When the character is driven by the feeling of something bigger, something that he believes in so strongly that he begins to create his own unique vision of his guru, of his father, I think the movement of the camera plays an important role in articulating that. There is one scene wherein the recording room, we can still hear the protagonist while the camera is in motion. The movement stops at the very same time as he presses the stop button in the recording room. I was driven by the Russian films I watched, like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, because you could see these extremely wide frames, where you wouldn't feel the movement because it would just give you this emotion. You would feel something. That was my inspiration too, not to point out too many things within the scene, but to make this world that you are a member of the audience during the performances in the movie, not just the movie itself.
DS: Yes, the cinematography does make the viewer feel like they are watching an Indian classical performance. That takes me to my next question. Indian classical music in itself is so esoteric because each region has its variation. How did you kind of negotiate that visually?
MS: It's a good question, maybe because I love music so much and I am a musician myself. I also got a lot of materials from Chaitanya. When I was back home, or if I stayed in India, he would give me hard drives with tons of materials, documentary films translated or with subtitles. I would get the idea of the music, but I wouldn't hear it. So, I went to a real concert. That was the first time I heard the music, it was amazing. There was an idea to shoot the music in the background of the film and of the story. But actually, it gave me the idea of working with a circular scheme. The music does not have a notation system and has a degree of improvisation. But it's built so deeply in the roots, that it has been passed on by gurus for hundreds of years, that it has a unique form. To me, it felt like a circular shape. This translates into the camera movement as well.
DS: The film space and the real space, how do you as the cinematographer or DoP, work with this duality? Especially with found and pre-existing spaces, how do you frame and compose your shots? What is that process?
MS: You know, it's a very interesting question because composition might be the last thing you think of because you have to sum up the contrast. And it's not only the lighting that contrasts the brightness and the darkness and the grayscale but the contrast of colours. And this is when you can place your strong points, your weaker points and start composing. Chaitanya stated very strongly that ‘he wants it to feel, not naturalistic, but real’. I had my own colour palette ideas, but then I found out that people who live in different environments have very different colours on their walls. Most of the locations we shot at are real. I am so deeply humbled because I wasn't a part of this world before this film. I think this is the strength of telling a story visually and of being a cinematographer.
The Disciple made its debut in 2020, and is written, directed and edited by Chaitanya Tamhane. It has been presented at numerous film festivals including the Venice International Film Festival where it won the Golden Osella for Best Screenplay (Chaitanya Tamhane) and FIPRESCI International Critics Prize. The film stars Aditya Modak, Arun Dravid, Sumitra Bhave, Deepika Bhide Bhagwat, and Kiran Yadnyopavit. Alfonso Cuarón served as an executive producer on the film. The movie was acquired by Netflix in 2021.