Readers Write In #309: Chaitanya Tamhane and Maps of Meaning

Posted on December 6, 2020


(by Kartik Iyer)

The Disciple is dense. It is an intricate screenplay. The story of its central protagonist, Sharad Nerulkar, is connected to multiple ideas. These range from musings on the nature of creation, relationship between two generations, idealism and its drawbacks to commercialisation of art and the limits of human effort. Chaitanya Tamhana, writer and director of the movie, condenses such complex questions and ideas into a two hour screenplay. This gives rise to a problem.

Kabir wrote about a deer getting lost in five forests. This doha can be applied to the experience of watching Tamhane’s movies. Although he has made only two, certain occupations are visible. For instance, his use of wide angle shots. He presents characters and actions in wide angle shots most of the time in his movies. He stages these scenes meticulously. The compositions are aesthetically pleasing. He uses movement of characters in the frame to shift attention with simple changes in the lens’ focus point. The frames are usually static; exception is the unobtrusive use of push-ins or pull-outs in The Disciple (tracking shots in Court). Tamhane’s visual style is unadorned and condensed; like his narrative style. The problem with condensation is that not everyone gets it.

In The Disciple, Tamhane narrates a Hindustani classical singer’s story. It begins with his practice of the craft, occasionally shifting to his childhood. It charts the ups and downs of learning a craft, practicing the craft and trying to sustain a livelihood from it; perhaps even fulfill material and spiritual ambitions. Beyond condensation, Tamhane has a knack for being less imposing than most directors. He creates scenes, shots and edits that are not branded with meaning. They obviously carry purpose, but it is not apparent to the viewer. A meaning will present itself. A viewer can carry it along throughout the movie or leave it where s/he found it. Nothing is screwed onto the frame. It floats across the screen. You can catch it and take it away. Or leave it behind and wait for the next one.

Tamhane lets viewers create their own movies. He offers dots inside the rectangular frame: narrative dots, philosophical dots, aesthetic dots, social or political dots, etc. In fact, you can even name these dots according to your predispositions. Once you identify dots, you can do whatever you want with them. Create a fixed meaning and disapprovingly pronounce The Disciple a celebration of ‘Brahmanical’ traditions in music. Or, celebrate it as a philosophical, dreamy rumination on the relationship between art and artists. In my view, the genius of Chaitanya Tamhane lies in this freedom he gives you to create your own movie. Tamhane provides a context. You create meaning.

V.S. Ramachandran, the neuroscientist who wrote the book Phantoms in the brain calls the process of understanding our responses to stimulus via sense organs, and related organs in the brain, maps of meaning. He writes about how different brain centres coordinate to form a map of meaning. The same process applies to watching a movie. We do it while watching all the movies. But with Chaitanya Tamhane’s movies, we have to do it actively. Connecting the dots, or creating a map of meaning. We can apply this process to any movie, but the results may not be gratifying. But in Tamhane’s work, you get heavy returns on your investment.

The combination of condensation and un-imposition, when crafted effectively, has an enchanting benefit: you can keep watching the same movie repeatedly to find new meanings. The Disciple and Court provide the pleasure of endless viewing. Such films are not tethered to time, place or a fixed context. They find meaning in all moments of life. It is an irony that such unimposing movies will stick with you for the rest of your life. They will be emotionally and intellectually alive inside your brain until you are alive. Assuming you get it. If you don’t, you will be the lost deer from Kabir’s doha.

Some audience members require clear directions. They want to be told everything. In arthouse circles, this quality is frowned upon. They believe that the only meaningful pursuit in the realm of cinema is the relishing of abstraction. To grasp it and wield it in conversations over wine or beedi. It is sheer nonsense to suppose that only such a notion is true and everything else is false. The point being: The Disciple, Court and Chaitanya Tamhane will be put on a pedestal by the arthouse. But an aam aadmi will be lost in Tamhane’s court. S/he will not find any meaning there because s/he will be directionless. This is Tamhane’s brilliance and his foe. Brilliance because he immerses audiences into his world effortlessly with fulfilling results. Foe because the multiplicity of meaning he offers can be discarded as purposelessness and aimlessness. Condensation and un-imposition is a double-edged sword.

Naturally, a question arises: how does one define a purposeful and purposeless movie? Answers can, obviously, be found in Tamhane’s movies. But, to take a short detour: Joker was a divisive movie. I am of the opinion that it was a purposeless movie; speaking of artistic (expression) purpose. How can I be sure though? This gets to the core of a movie’s viewing experience. One way to answer this question is to try and ascertain two factors: effect, and its cause. What qualifies as an effect? Is it a purely emotional effect or must it be an intellectual effect too? Both. In most cases, it is difficult to bifurcate the two. We are constantly responding to a movie. If the movie is effective, we lose control of our senses and immerse ourselves into the screen. Only when it fades to black, we return to ‘reality’. The quest to understand movies begins then. We seek explanations. Cause and effect. A purposeful movie is one where you can identify a cause and its effect, and are satisfied with the result. This satisfaction can be intellectual (“it makes sense”) or emotional (“I really felt for her”).

Chaitanya Tamhane’s movies ask such fundamental questions in every shot. His movies get to the bottom of cinematic viewing: what does it mean? What is the character feeling? What am I feeling? Why? This basic logic is applicable to all movies. But the difference is that Tamhane’s movies are far less obtrusive and far more condensed than most popular movies. Arthouse calls this ‘relishing of abstraction’. Aam aadmi calls this boredom. No experience is truer than the other. Both are equally acceptable. Tamhane perhaps understands this better than other directors. That is why he lets you choose. What kind of a person are you? Will you find meaning here? Do you want to find meaning here? It is fine if you don’t. Great if you do.