For Indian film director Chaitanya Tamhane, learning about film-making was, at first, a matter of doing it himself. Having never been to film school, and not having worked even as an assistant on anyone else’s films, he made Six Strands, a short film about the Darjeeling tea industry that won him international recognition at film festivals. Yet his creative future looked difficult; he was still living with his parents and “completely broke”. But he then came up with the idea to attend the lower courts of Mumbai’s justice system, where he found “theatre of a different kind” and realized he had the basis for his first feature film, Court, a tense courtroom drama that won him the Best Feature Film prize at India’s 2015 National Film Awards. Now, through his relationship with his Rolex mentor Alfonso Cuarón, the director of such mega-hits as Gravity and Children of Men, Tamhane has broadened his imaginary horizons by visiting the Mexico City set of Cuarón’s new film Roma. Tamhane talks to film writer Nick James.
Was there a particular event or moment that made you decide you wanted to be a film-maker?
Even though I was always interested in theatre and films, I remember watching the Brazilian film City of God and a light bulb going off in my head. It was the first foreign-language film I had seen and I realized that a whole world of cinema existed outside of Hollywood and India. I was instantly hooked to world cinema and that really strengthened my will to be a film-maker.
What was your immediate impression of being on set with Alfonso Cuarón?
Roma is very important to Alfonso. It’s set in the 1970s and documents a year in the life of a middle-class Mexican family. By the time I landed in Mexico City they had been shooting for about two weeks. I arrived on set early in the morning. They were shooting outside a movie theatre. The first thing that struck me was the scale. It was a huge group for an arthouse film, with lots of extras. It just felt like, OK, so this is going to be a big movie. Everyone seemed really committed to what they were doing.
What was his approach to that first scene?
I got to see Alfonso working with actors and a lot of extras. It’s a period film so the place was done up. The whole street in downtown Mexico City was locked off and it had lots of period cars that had to be coordinated. They were using just one camera and mainly natural light. I did see a B-camera on set but I never saw it roll. They were relying on the sun quite a lot for that shot.
How did you go about learning from Alfonso Cuarón? The director on a film set is always so busy. It must have been difficult to know when to talk to him.
We had many conversations and he was always nice to me, but because he was directing, producing, editing and shooting the film himself, he was extremely busy and I didn’t want to be in his face all the time – even though he was very welcoming. I was given all-access status and could be wherever I wanted to be. I could go up to him at any point. He never minded. I just didn’t feel like it unless I had something really important to talk to him about. So I was mainly observing him at work but, of course, between the shots, whenever he would have time, we would have conversations, and a couple of times we went for dinner.
Did he like to challenge you?
Oh all the time. Alfonso loves doing that. Whenever we talked about cinema he would ask me, for instance, what my taste is in Asian cinema, what I thought about this film or that film. It was a very friendly rapport. He never treated me like a protégé; he always treated me like an equal. He would discuss the shots with me and just tell me what was going on in his head; whatever problem, whatever challenges he was facing at that time. Although, of course, he never asked me what I would do in his place.
What aspect of your visit surprised you the most?
In some ways it was the similarities of the challenges that someone at his level would face, with that scale and that budget, to what I would face back home in Mumbai. You realize that the process isn’t all that different after all, in terms of the challenges and the people management. And Mexico is not very different in that way from India. It was surprising to note that, even when you’re at that level, some of the things are going to be the same. It never gets any easier.