By Darek Kuźma
With director Chaitanya Tamhane’s Venice, Toronto and Lisbon-awarded film The Disciple, Polish cinematographer Michał Sobociński PSC is proving to be one of the most versatile young cinematographers out there.
But how does a 33-year-old Polish cinematographer, who has just made a film about a celebrated Polish sexologist’s struggle with Communist-era prudery, get chosen to shoot an independent Indian film about the many intricacies of the art of Indian classical music?
Well, it was with the support of Oscar-winning director Alfonso Cuarón and Oscar-winning DP Emmanuel Lubezki AMC ASC. They had both liked the depiction of the delicate balance between personal and social revolutions in The Art Of Loving: Story Of Michalina Wislocka (2017, dir. Maria Sadowska, DP Michał Sobociński) to such an extent that they recommended Sobociński to Tamhane, whom they had known from The Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. Tamhane and Sobociński met when the cinematographer was shooting a commercial in Mumbai – and rather than have a collision, they clicked.
The Disciple’s protagonist, Sharad, is adamant about dedicating his life to become an Indian classical music vocalist, a noble endeavour that requires years, possibly decades of training and absolute discipline under the guidance of his guru.
When it came to shooting this story, Sobociński believes his perspective as an outsider was definitely an advantage in creating powerful, evocative images. But perhaps his greatest asset was that he’s also an avid musician.
“Artists like The Beatles and John McLaughlin incorporated Indian classical music into their songs, but few non-Indian musicians know about its existence. Indian classical music is quite singular, based on improvisation, following years of studying the centuries-old oral traditions. There is no musical notation, no transcribed sheets. You have to feel it with your whole body and mind,” he says.
For Sobociński, this meant not only envisaging the best way to depict the idiosyncratic music, but also understanding it at its core.
“In prep, Chaitanya sent me tons of reference material, I mean hard drives of documentaries and archival videos, but the music still felt alien to me. I asked him to take me to a live event so I could experience it on my own. It was a breakthrough, I came back with many ideas about how to depict the music on screen,” says Sobociński. “Because Chaitanya is a perfectionist, we had enough time to find the rhythm to Sharad’s story, the right balance between music, images, and dialogues.”
The Disciple is all about the rhythm, both musical and internal, as Sharad experiences a range of emotions connected to his chosen vocation, from anxiety to elation. Thus, one of the hardest things to pinpoint was establishing a pattern for the camera work.
“We did not want the film to be composed of only static shots, yet concepts like having the camera moving with the music seemed too music video-ish,” says Sobociński. “Ultimately, we chose to sync the camera with Sharad’s emotional state, the way he thinks and perceives the world. I took inspiration from the likes of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979, DP Alexander Knyazhinsky) where the camera movement is inobtrusive and creates a sensation that something is going on that we are yet to understand.”
Sobociński says the most obvious movement happens when the character rides his motorbike, listening to lectures on his beloved music whilst the camera follows him in gentle slow-motion. However, the film is filled with different types of motion, even though it may seem otherwise. “When Sharad focuses on performing music or digitising analogue tapes with lectures, the movement gets quite complicated, we even used motion control in one scene, but it’s barely visible. It changes the way you perceive him and his journey through the world of Indian classical music.”
In The Disciple perception is essential. More than anything Tamhane’s film is a character study of a passionate young man who is not able to achieve the excellence he was taught to strive for, and thus becomes ridden with doubts as years go by.
“It’s a story about the evanescence of the dreams that made you who you are. It can happen to anyone, though artists are more susceptible if they don’t learn to fight thoughts that they’re not good enough,” says Sobociński. “So, it was crucial to separate visually different stages of Sharad’s life. In flashbacks from his childhood, when he soaks up his father’s passion for music, the light is softer, colours are richer, the locations are romantic. In his present everything is sharper, flatter, and India is overcrowded in a way that makes him feel out of place.”
Making full spatial use of the film’s 2.39:1 aspect ratio, Sobociński chose the ARRI Alexa Mini equipped with Cooke Anamorphic Special Flair lenses for the first part of the story, when Sharad is idealistic. The DP switched to spherical Master Primes later on to have deeper depth-of-field and emphasise the man’s transformation. The high- speed motorbike scenes were shot on Alexa SXT to maintain ARRI RAW format.
“We had a two-week break for Aditya, who plays Sharad, to gain weight, so the conversion went smoothly. Everything on this project was like that. Although we did have some serious challenges to consider, like creating an eight-story construction to allow external lighting into Sharad’s guru’s flat, because Chaitanya wanted to shoot everything on location. But, overall, this was a unique collaboration,” explains Sobociński.
“Of course, I had to make some compromises for the sake of Chaitanya’s vision, but the amount of artistic freedom I had, I can’t compare it to anything in my career. The biggest reward has been that Indian viewers and musicians have responded so well to the film. Some even said that our scenes look like their memories. It looks realistic, but there was a lot of lighting needed to create this deeply spiritual world visually.”
The Disciple was Tamhane’s passion project, supported by producer Vivek Gomber’s private money and his utter trust in his director and crew.
“We had almost six months of prep and every department head participated in scouting,” recalls Sobociński. “One time we drove 430 miles (700 kilometres) to see a location that turned out to be not good enough for what Chaitanya had envisioned. We had 56 shooting days, from October 2018 to January 2019, and we would have had more if Chaitanya believed it was necessary. Because some musical performances are done in one shot by non-professional actors, there were days we shot up to 50 takes of this scene only. DI was done in Germany and lasted three weeks. There were no time restrictions. It was a beautiful artistic endeavour.”
Needless to say, Sobociński is extremely satisfied with the experience. “I wasn’t the first person you would think of in terms of shooting a film on Indian classical music, but I went out of my way to make it visually interesting. It’s a story about things most of us feel at some point in our lives. It would be wonderful if I could make more films like this this – universally resonant and incredibly specific to a certain culture.”
This article appeared originally in Cinematography World #001