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Alfonso Cuarón: “Film-making is the most beautiful brutality there is”

Oscar-winning director Alfonso Cuarn and Indian film-maker Chaitanya Tamhane found they had a lot in common during an year-long mentorship programme

Alfonso Cuarón shooting ‘Roma’ in Mexico. Photo: Chien-Chi Chang, Magnum Pictures
Alfonso Cuarón shooting ‘Roma’ in Mexico. Photo: Chien-Chi Chang, Magnum Pictures

Chaitanya is an amazing film-maker. He’s a better film-maker than me in many ways. If you look at his first film (Court, 2014) and my first film (Sólo Con Tu Pareja, 1991), there is no question about it." That’s Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, whose Gravity (2013) won seven Oscars, including Best Director, on Chaitanya Tamhane, director of the bilingual Indian film Court. High praise indeed.

Cuarón and Tamhane recently participated in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, a guru-shishya programme in the arts—film, music, visual arts, architecture, literature, theatre and dance—in which mentor and protégé spend time together over a year, all expenses paid. Cuarón, whose works include the cult road movie Y Tu Mamá También (2001), the post-apocalyptic Children Of Men (2006) and Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban (2004), was mentor to Tamhane. The latter, whose debut feature, Court, had sharply critiqued India’s catatonic legal system and caste prejudice, was India’s Oscar entry in 2016, and had won prizes at the Venice and Mumbai film festivals.

Previous Rolex film mentors include Martin Scorsese, Mira Nair and Oscar-winning editor and sound expert Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, the Godfather series).

The Rolex protégé is given 25,000 Swiss francs (about Rs17 lakh) during the mentoring year, with another 25,000 Swiss francs at year-end, to help create a new work. The protégés’ new works, if ready, are launched at a Rolex Arts Weekend. This year it was held in Berlin.

It’s been a whirlwind year for Tamhane. He travelled initially to a lunch meeting with Cuarón in London, after which he was selected. He spent a month in Mexico, on the sets of Cuarón’s new film, Roma. Then it was two weeks in Los Angeles for the Roma’s colour grading, the Sundance Film Festival (where Tamhane won the “Sundance Institute Open Borders Fellowship, presented by Netflix", for his new, as yet untitled, feature film), the Rolex Arts Weekend in Berlin, and after a month in Mumbai, he will have a stint in London, where they will do sound work on Roma. Then he plunges into his new film, a coming-of-age feature set in the world of Hindustani classical music.

Cuarón’s Roma chronicles a year in the life of a middle-class family in Mexico City in the 1970s. With it, Cuarón returns to shooting in Mexico and in Spanish after 16 years. It is a “hand-made" film, with Cuarón, remarkably, being its director, co-producer, writer, cinematographer and editor.

Cuarón (left) with Chaitanya Tamhane. Photo: Chien-Chi Chang, Magnum Pictures

“I was very impressed by Court. For a first-time film-maker, to have such stillness and absolute control of the craft.... I envy him.... I took a while to get to that point," Cuarón said of Tamhane at the Rolex Arts Weekend. “The language of Court was akin to Roma, which I was going to do. His film would be a good mirror. We have a very similar understanding of film language, so he was very easy to relate to. He’s a magician, he hypnotized me." Tamhane, embarrassed by the effusive praise, chipped in dryly, “Well, it expires this weekend."

“In Court, during the whole courtroom scene, the camera is far, far away," Cuarón continued. “Yet, you are connected to the characters and there’s also a sense of tension. He was embracing real time. Time is something you fight against in mainstream cinema: You should never have a sense of time, or the audience will get bored. With film-makers I admire, time is independent of cinema, which is what Chaitanya did with his film. He really limited himself not only because of resources, but his limitations of language made it interesting," he added.

What was the most precious learning for Tamhane? “In Mumbai, we have challenges with limited resources, infrastructure, funding and distribution models. The big revelation for me was that despite all his successes, the challenges were still the same for Cuarón. Film-making never gets easier," he reflected. “But my approach would normally be to work within my limitations. Cuarón has no limitations. He asks ridiculous questions, questions a child would ask, in all innocence, and people around him find the solutions.

Time is something you fight against in mainstream cinema: You should never have a sense of time, or the audience will get bored. With film-makers I admire, time is independent of cinema, which is what Chaitanya did with his film.- Alfonso Cuaron

“It encouraged me to be bold and push the limits of my ability. I witnessed extremes of wanting to achieve perfection," Tamhane said. “In fact, Cuarón is on top of all the technical departments, including the cinematography, effects, the grading—it blew my mind completely. It was great that I could be present while Cuarón was shooting Roma, while he gave me feedback on my new script" (both Cuarón and Tamhane preferred to be discreet about their forthcoming films).

Cuarón comes across as unpretentious, with a refreshing appreciation of younger talent. “Chaitanya and I are from two different generations," he said. “Some young film-makers think cinema was invented by (Quentin) Tarantino. Other young film-makers say no, no, it was Scorsese! So, it’s getting closer and closer. You have to keep yourself relevant. You need not only the old masters (Robert) Bresson, (Yasujirô) Ozu and (Carl Theodor) Dreyer, who were amazing, but the young masters also teach you new lessons in cinema."

Cuarón likes to keep his scripts a surprise. “Nobody had the Roma screenplay, not even the actors," he said. “But I had the screenplay translated from Spanish into English, and gave it to Chaitanya. He became a quiet mirror. He was never judgemental, he always asked questions. Then you question yourself. He became a kind of strange compass for me, I saw his reaction to things was very interesting, and I’m very grateful for it." And without warning, Cuarón slips into an exquisitely poetic English turn of phrase to describe his film-making experience, remarkable for a Mexican film-maker: “In the garden of forked paths, Chaitanya was good to have around. He was my sounding board."

Of course, there were challenges, and Tamhane acknowledges that film-making can be painful, even brutal. “But Cuarón said, ‘Film-making is the most beautiful brutality there is. Stop stressing about the struggle and just do it.’ So I realized that the real limitations are self-imposed limitations."

This article is based on Meenakshi Shedde’s personal interviews with Alfonso Cuarón and Chaitanya Tamhane in Berlin, and quotes from a question and answer session moderated by Nick James, editor of Sight And Sound, in Berlin.

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